SALEM — Spadi, a 22-year-old horse, munched hay Thursday morning while workers rolled out a big white tent that will house the eleventh annual Mitchell Farm Music Festival this Saturday.
“He’s our 99th horse to come through the front gate in the 15 years we’ve been here,” said Dee Doolittle, founder of Mitchell Farm Equine Retirement, a nonprofit that provides a good home for aging horses, and offers education on equine welfare.
Dubbed “the little horse with a big heart,” Spadi could almost be mistaken for a pony. He is an Icelandic horse brought to the United States when he was three, as one of two horses given to the “children of the United States” from the “children of Iceland.” He spent 19 years as a therapy horse at Green Chimneys, a nonprofit educational organization in Brewster, NY, that works with special needs children.
“He’s been here about three or four weeks and we got him quarantined and everything. He’s really sweet,” said Doolittle, patting Spadi’s mane. “He’s great. He’s found friends. He loves the little ponies, and the donkeys like him.”
The farm is home to 30 retired horses, ranging in age from their late teens to about 35, as well as three donkeys. Doolittle and her husband, Hank Horn, also have four dogs.
“The horses come from all disciplines, from all over the Northeast, the Southeast. We have one from Atlanta and a couple coming from Minnesota this fall, so they’re from all over the place,” said Doolittle.
Each horse costs about $8,000 per year to feed and house, an amount that exceeds what horse owners usually donate to cover the cost of care, said Doolittle.
“So we’ve had to fundraise for the rest,” she said.
A day in the life
Across the farm’s rolling acreage, horses could be seen in the fields, nibbling on grass and hay or quietly standing in the sun.
“Yes, that’s called just being a horse,” said Dee. “And a lot of horses that come here either never that opportunity because they were show horses or they have to relearn it. Most show horses at the higher levels are kept in a stall or a paddock and never turned out with anybody else for fear they’ll get injured.”
Days begin around 7 a.m. when Doolittle, and Melissa MacDonald, the farm’s barn manager, check to see if there were any concerns overnight.
“That gives us about a half hour before the volunteers show up to assess everybody’s attitude… is everybody okay? Did they have a problem in the night? What do we need to attend to today,” Doolittle said. “We get everybody fed and while they’re eating we set up the fields, make sure there’s plenty of water, put hay out for them and then we turn them out for the day. Then they spend the day outside, weather permitting.”
The farm has 37 volunteers who work between one and three mornings a week. “We couldn’t do this without them,” Doolittle said.
Once the horses are turned out, the volunteers clean stalls, change water buckets and set the stalls up for the evening with hay. At about 4 p.m., the horses return to the barn for the night and are checked one more time in the late evening.
During the day, horses need to be outdoors, but the farm makes accommodations for temperature extremes, said Doolittle.
“Even if it’s cold, they need to get out. They need to move around, especially the older horses — they need to keep those joints moving otherwise they get pretty stiff so we do our best to get them out everyday,” she said. “We have blankets for everyone and in the summertime we bring them in during the day and keep them under fans where it’s cooler and put them out overnight.”
Doolittle also cares for the horses at the end of their lives.
“That’s probably the most difficult part of my job and the most important part of my job,” she said.
“When a horse is dying, usually it’s pretty clear, they really let you know.”
Once a horse comes through the farm gates, it doesn’t leave for any reason. A veterinarian comes to the farm but horses are never taken off-site for medical procedures.
But once it’s time, the horses are buried on the farm, she said.
“They have a spot on the property after they die and they stay here in perpetuity,” she said.
At Mitchell Farm
Doolittle has been around horses for most of her life. She grew up riding as part of the Glastonbury Pony Club. “When my mother couldn’t find me, that’s where I was,” she laughed.
She studied equine animal health and became a vet tech for a local equine veterinarian.
At age 26, she owned her own horse.
Later, while volunteering at an equine rescue network, she noticed the dearth of options for older horses.
“I could see this big black hole where old horses were going or not going, that was the problem. There was nowhere for them to go, so they would languish on this list of needing homes and have nowhere to go,” she said.
An opportunity opened up when Doolittle and Horn, who had been living in the apartment on the farm for a number of years, were offered the chance to lease the barn on the property from the Bingham family, who put an agricultural easement on the farm in 2009 through the Connecticut Farmland Trust.
“I spent three months doing a business plan and talked to some people about it and went ahead and did it,” she said. “This is really the perfect application for this property. It’s an antique barn for antique horses. It’s got enough room to do what we need to do. The landlords are open to whatever we want to do here, so it’s been a really good match.”
The farm holds 30 horses, but Doolittle said she would take 100 horses if she could, adding that more equine retirement farms are desperately needed.
“Equine rescues rehabilitate, retrain and rehome horses but there is a percentage that can’t be rehabilitated and rehomed, so they end up taking up space in rescues when they should be moving on to a place like this,” she said. ‘We have a waiting list. We do what we can and that’s all we can do. It’s an alternative and it helps people realize that they need to keep looking for alternatives.”
Doolittle and Horn have also worked to educate horse owners about the responsibility of caring for a horse through its entire life.
If a horse isn’t rideable anymore, horse owners often decide to sell or give it away, which often leads to poor outcomes for the horse, said Horn.
“That horse gets on an obscure downward slippery slope and ends up in dire straits, so part of our mission is to educate the public and get people to think of cradle to grave responsibility for their animals,” he said.
Legacy and sustainability
Doolittle and Horn have worked to make sure the farm is sustainable, partly by restructuring their fees.
“After 10 years, the way we were financing ourselves wasn’t working and it was not going to be sustainable so we had to step back and really look hard at it and figure it out, We had to reinvent ourselves, ” she said.
With help from the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), Doolittle and Horn discovered that their initial one-time fee was not sustainable over the long term and they changed to a committed monthly fee model that is tax deductible for the horse owners.
The farm also became accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, part of a plan for the nonprofit’s sustainability and succession.
“It’s so important that we make sure this farm is sustainable, but fundraising is still definitely required to make ends meet,” said Doolittle.
Mitchell Farm Equine Retirement is located at 300 E Haddam Rd, Salem, CT 06420. Tickets are $65 at the gate. Parking opens at noon. The gate opens at 1:30 (bring a blanket or lawn chairs). Music starts at 2:30 and runs until just after dark. Attendees are welcome to bring food and drink. No dogs please. There will be food trucks on site, including Curb your appetite, Brick and Basil Pizza, and Flanders Fish Market.
For more information, go to www.mitchellfarm.org.