Old Horses At Home
Part of our series on farmers and others in agriculture who give ’til it helps: Dee Doolittle cares for “retired” horses at Mitchell Farm.
By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole
As she moves through a field on a ridge that overlooks Mitchell Farm Equine Retirement near Salem, Conn., Dee Doolittle is telling stories. The director of the facility knows each of the 29 permanent residents at the facility. A few of them roam along the ridge, near sunset.
“That’s Tommy,” Dee says, pointing to an aging show horse who was shipped from Ireland to the U.S. as a youngster and “never matched personalities with his trainer.” Josie, the veteran mare who has been at Mitchell Farm the longest, “helps teach new arrivals how to be a horse again.”
She walks down the ridge toward the stables, and a black horse with a striking shock of gray fur between the eyes and down the face pokes his head from one of the stalls. This is R2, the latest arrival. Dee walks up cautiously, and pets him right on his gray patch. “He is having some trouble adjusting,” she says.
R2 already had a reputation for being an “anxious horse” when he was a Gran Prix jumper, says Dee, beginning to feed him. And when he got to Mitchell Farm, he had full-on anxiety attacks. “Just like a person,” Dee says. “Any little change would set him off. The horse in the next stall would shuffle or make a noise, and R2 … he would spin in his stall, sweat, tremble … he would scream.”
VIDEO: Meet R2, in person
The mind imagines animals like R2 being abused. There has to be some cause for this behavior. But, much like humans, some horses just have stressful jobs. Their life’s work wears them down. It’s not that they need rescue. It’s that they need to retire.
The Old Folks’ Home
And that’s just what happens at Mitchell Farm. Dee emphasizes that her place is not a rescue at all; those are around, especially in a sporting and riding haven like Salem. It’s a horse-crazy place. “There’s a rescue up the road,” she says, “and a guy who manufactures show jumps. And an equine veterinarian. And boarding stables.” Dee goes on, explaining that the town fathers built Salem this way; the rolling hills outside of the town center have no development pressure. “Here, you can find just about everything you can imagine that would have to do with horses.”
Except an equestrian old folks home, until 8 years ago, when Dee was presented with the opportunity to lease the land and stables for Mitchell Farm. It’s a 50-acre tract, part of a larger 800-acre parcel owned by descendants of Hiram Bingham III, the Connecticut Senator and adventurer most famous for digging up the Incan city of Machu Picchu with Peruvian indigenous farmers in 1911. His family has preserved this land well.
AUDIO: Click the play button to hear Dee explain how a MF1433 helped restore Mitchell Farm.
“The development rights were sold to the Connecticut Farmland Trust, so everything is now being stewarded by the Nature Conservancy,” says Dee. Under another lessee, the land and stables had fallen into disrepair, but the fields around the stables—once used for polo—were nice and level, and now Dee and her husband Hank have brought back the timothygrass pastures where retirees spend their days.
Indeed, Mitchell Farm is unique, even in horse country. Dee was volunteering at a horse rescue just before founding Mitchell Farm, and she understands the mission of a rescue: Take horses out of a bad situation and rehabilitate, retrain, “re-home.” “They were going back into the work force,” says Dee. “Not every horse can do that. There’s this big black hole for old horses and horses with injuries and infirmities. There was just nowhere for them to go.”