NORTH SALEM, N.Y.-When 16-year-old Sophia Valle couldn’t afford to board or own a horse, she turned to Our Farm, an equine rescue in North Salem.
“When my parents told me I couldn’t ride anymore, it hurt,” she said.
Sophia had been riding since the age of 10. When the lease where she boarded a horse ended, her co-trainer put her in touch with Sharon Kress, the owner of Our Farm Equine Rescue in North Salem.
Our Farm Equine Rescue is a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to saving, rehabilitating and re-homing horses that have been neglected, abused and abandoned. Currently there are seven horses being rehabilitated on the property.
A student at EF Academy in Thornwood, Sophia makes the hour-long trip to the farm every Saturday and Sunday. Though she does not receive pay for her time cleaning stalls and feeding horses, she said the experience is “very rewarding.”
“It’s hard work, but it’s really good hard work. I go home every day and feel like I did something good,” she said.
In addition to the pride she feels about doing a hard day’s work, Sophia, who shared that she suffers from bouts of depression, said her bond with the horses helps motivate her on days when getting out of bed is tough.
“I’ve always found my therapy through riding,” she said. “Horses—they’re therapy for us.”
This symbiotic relationship is what Kress hopes to continue building through the rescue’s teen-centered program Students Taking Action for Rescues (STAR). Many equine rescues offer therapeutic programs for a niche group, Kress said. For instance, some offer programs specifically to veterans or others recovering from trauma.
Kress, a single mom to Lily, 10, wanted to create a special program for kids that would not only educate them about horse abuse, but give them a place where they would feel empowered and learn to nurture.
“I wanted to help kids whether they were falling through the cracks at school or victims of something bad, like a bad divorce; they have a special need–or whatever it is–that they get paired with a horse whose had something similar happen through no fault of their own. They’re kind of both victims of a bad circumstance. That kid who might be petrified of a horse, to feed a horse a carrot, and then when it happens, it’s amazing.”
Similar to Gigi, a 7-year-old rescue who, when she first arrived, was afraid to take a carrot from any of the volunteers.
“This horse had never been given a treat,” Kress said.
After four months, Gigi bit the carrot.
This type of measurable progress is what makes the program so rewarding, Sophia said. She has been paired with Gigi in the STAR program, a spin-off of the rescue’s Young Leaders program.
“It has been amazing to see these young adults just thrive in this atmosphere, to be able to provide them access to horses—not just to ride but to care for and understand. To see them become competent horsemen,” Kress said.
In addition to the horses’ need for the support and care of people, Kress and Sophia said people need horses just as much.
“So our slogan for the STAR program is ‘Help Students Help Horses,’ ” Kress said. “But it’s also the reverse. The horses are helping the kids.”
Some of the horses arrive at the rescue in bad shape, however, having a fear of people and quirks such as not liking wind; some are emaciated. Kress has seen it all.
Kress has been riding horses since she was young, too. In 2003, she rescued a horse named Phantom and learned about the equine abuse that exists in the U.S. Fast-forward to 2015: Kress quits her job as a marketing consultant to found Our Farm.
Since the rescue was founded, Purina has filmed a four-part documentary about its efforts and the endeavor has generated a lot of interest from the community, Kress said.
“I even got my friends at school excited about the horses,” Sophia said. “They live vicariously through my pictures and my Snapchat story.”
Donna and Dewitt Dudley, a couple from Redding, Conn., have been visiting the North Salem farm every Sunday for almost the last two months and said they plan to keep up the new ritual.
“We come to visit them and we bring apples and carrots and it’s really neat because, often, they come to recognize us,” Donna Dewitt said. “Or, my husband says they get a whiff of the [apples].”
She said the reason for their visits is twofold.
“My husband has family that has had horses and by coming here, it’s sort of a déjà vu, or reminds him of time growing up,” she explained.
The interactions are enough to keep them coming back, said Dudley, a preschool teacher at the Children’s Academy in Ridgefield. The first few visits, however, were to explore the farm as the academy’s chosen fundraising recipient for the year.
“We have a fundraiser to let the community know our interest in helping the children learn about the environment or helping animals to thrive,” Donna said.
People helping horses helping people.
Currently, the STAR program is in its 11th day of fundraising. So far, participation in the organization’s GoFundMe campaign is low. Kress suspects the community’s lack of familiarity with her and the program may be the cause. But, she stresses, it is not about her.
“Don’t help me—help Our Farm,” she said. “This is all for these horses.”
Bob Tompkins is the fifth-generation owner of the property and Kress’s landlord. A longtime member of the community, he said he is impressed by the number of volunteers who show up at the farm, rain or shine.
“Obviously people are into horses,” he said. “If you’re trying to make an effort like this, then I think the community should make an effort to support those that are trying to do the job. You’ve got a good woman working hard and she needs help.”
“By sponsoring a team, we are able to rescue more horses and also transition more horses,” Kress said. “If Sophia works with Gigi on weekends and then another rider is sponsored during the week—just think how much faster that horse is going to become adoptable.”
To donate to the STAR program, visit gofundme.com/students-taking-action-for-rescues1