One rainy Saturday afternoon, Charlie Kellner, manager of the Kingsmeade Farm in Lutz, Fla., found herself with a barn full of young girls with nowhere dry to ride. With nothing else for the kids to do, Kellner asked them to help out with the group of five retired, geriatric horses that resided at the hunter/jumper training and boarding farm. Between the brushing and the braiding and the grooming and the primping, the kids “adopted” the horses and Project Equine Golden Years program was born.
“But they did not get the personal attention that horses need,” Kellner says.
So now, 10 young Kingsmeade riders between 7 and 14 years old make sure that they do.
Under the program, Kingsmeade continues to feed, house and provide professional veterinary and farrier services for the horses. But the young riders groom, hand gaze them, turn them in and out and generally bond with the aging horses.
The farm has more young riders than it does retired horses, so the girls have to share the animals. Even so, each girl gets to work with a horse, Kellner said.
“One of the smallest kids has ‘adopted’ the biggest retired hunter/jumper, and it’s so cute to see the horse putting his head down so that she can put a halter on him,” Kellner says. “You see them walking down the hall with him loving on her – it’s wonderful.”
That the kids and the horses enjoy each other is not surprise to Dr. Jennifer Williams, Ph.D., equine behaviorist, author and founder and president of the Blue Bonnet Equine Humane Society in Austin, Texas. That’s because she’s seen it happen before.
Williams recalls an old ranch horse that was slowly fading when he came to her as a rescue as last resort. Later, the horse was adopted by a couple with children who didn’t ride the horse but groomed him, walked him and generally lavished him with attention.
“He perked up, gained weight, and blossomed,” Williams recalls. “He needed and wanted a job, and taking care of those kids gave him one. It was awesome to see.”
According to Williams, older horses are often overlooked by prospective adopters because they can’t be ridden hard, frequently have arthritis and can be expensive to feed.
“But these older horses have often ‘been there and done that,’ and know the world,” Williams says. “They have so much to teach about riding, horse care and responsibility and that’s why I think they’re good for the kids.”
There is another benefit, too, Williams says.
“I think they (older horses) can also teach kids respect for aging, and that everyone can have a place, you just have to fit the right place for them,” she says.
And that’s exactly what’s happening at Kingsmeade Farm.
In addition to interest from the farm’s kids, Kellner has begun fielding phone calls from local senior citizens who want to help with the older horses, too.
“They say ‘I had a horse when I was a little girl; can I come and help with horses?’” Kellner says. “So the kids not only get the chance to interact with the older horses, but which elder humans, too; it’s a win-win situation.”
For now, Kingsmeade Farm is getting lots of kudos for matching kids and older horses, but Kellner hopes for more.
“We’re really excited about it,” she says. ” I do hope other barns will do it, too.”