November 27, 2010--Thanksgiving never really ends for the recycled race horses who are fortunate enough to have become the projects of the Above and Beyond 4-H Club in Monmouth County.
The club is based at a Howell Township stable, fittingly named Serenity at Last, where the thoroughbreds find not only sanctuary at the end of their first career at the track, but also love and a new job.
The relationship started several years ago after the Above and Beyond contingent was looking for a service project. The teens began visiting a facility where horses were getting foster care under the umbrella of ReRun Inc. The mission of the non-profit thoroughbred adoption program is to help ex-racehorses find a second career and new homes, saving them from the auction and a possible trip to slaughter, something that happens more frequently during a down economy. Animals accepted into the program are evaluated, rested and rehabilitated as needed.
The young women gave the horses TLC and grooming, then increased their involvement to sponsoring one of the pensioners, Mr. Denim, at a local farm.
"Each person would have a day when they would clean the stall, groom him and ride. It was like having your own horse for the day. It was really cool, because I've never had a horse," said the club's president, Jaime Kelly, a 17-year-old senior at Colts Neck High School.
After Mr. Denim was adopted and the club's leader, Nikki McKinley, bought Serenity at Last, she adopted two ReRun horses, Queenie and Parker, who are doted on by the teens.
"The idea is to give them a second career, and the kids love them. They're really wonderful horses,'' said McKinley, a professional trainer with a degree in social work. Her goal is ``to do equine- assisted learning and incorporate my adopted horses into working with the mental health population."
Because they are used for racing, thoroughbreds too often get the rap that they're difficult.
"I think that's a disservice to them, because all of the ones I have are pretty mellow,'' said McKinley, although she noted how important it is to select the right horse for the project and adoption. But it takes time and training to develop the horses, and that's where Above and Beyond comes in.
"Serenity at Last has been fostering two of our horses who are awaiting adoption," said Christine Orman, ReRun's resource development director.
"This has turned out to be a great situation for all involved, but particularly for the two horses, because they are being handled all the time by all sorts of different people while being re-schooled."
Such an arrangement better ensures "a successful, life-long match between horse and (eventual) adopter; at least that is our working theory at the moment," she said.
"Either way, this is an example of ReRun and a community group working together to help retired racehorses. From ReRun's perspective, we love the idea of our horses being kept active and loved-on while awaiting adoption," Orman commented, while noting the organization doesn't have the resources or volunteers to pay that kind of attention to all the horses in the program.
"It also teaches the 4-H girls a great deal about the retired thoroughbred and what it needs to achieve a happy and healthy adjustment to a new life," she added.
To raise money, the club does grocery bagging at the ShopRite in Matawan each January, and donates some of the funds to ReRun while using the rest to sponsor the horses and buy supplies for them. They also have raised money for the project from a raffle at the Monmouth County Fair.
Kelly said Parker was grand champion at his first show and finished 10th at the state 4-H show.
"I was so happy for him," said Kelly. "He's come so far."
The ReRun horses require work, but she noted, "you can do so much for them. You're helping them so much; it's a really good feeling. I feel other 4-H clubs should get involved, or any other clubs in general."
ReRun Executive Director Lori Lane, who is careful when picking horses that go to places where there are children, seconds that thought.
She sees what Above and Beyond is doing as similar to clubs that train Seeing Eye dogs.
"They give them an education and they know at the end of the project the dogs, or the horses, are going to find another home. They get an education and the horses get an education."
It's also a great opportunity for kids who can't afford their own horses.
"Part of my 2011 plan is to reach out to 4-H groups and pitch it to other leaders," said Lane. "I think that foundation and the one-on-one helps the horses find permanent homes and all the kinks are worked out." Other groups, such as Pony Club, would also be eligible.
Those interested can contact Lane at (732) 521-1370 or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The fee for adopting ReRun horses ranges from $100 to $1,200 depending on the condition of the horse (though there are sometimes "sales,") Orman said, and for someone like McKinley, that represents a bargain.
"The fact that I could adopt them and didn't have to spend a lot of money on them makes it possible for me to do this," said McKinley.
"We are very blessed to have them, and I know the kids are very thankful for them to be here."
"These are really in-love-with-the-horses type kids," said Lane. ``They really feel it from the heart. We're grateful for them; it works both ways."