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.”
Owners who want their horses to live out their lives at Mitchell Farm actually sign papers to surrender the animal. “And by ‘surrender,’” Dee says, “I mean we then own the horse.” Though the former owner pays a one-time fee—roughly the cost of one year’s care—Dee says Mitchell Farm must survive on grants and donations, along with fundraising events on the farm and the hard work and input of about 30 volunteers.
It’s not always enough. As horses get older, they get more expensive to keep. And at one time, more than 70 animals were on the waiting list; the farm is over capacity now. “We have our fingers in the dike,” says Dee. “It’s a scary world out there for horses.”
MAP: Click here to see other horse retirement facilities across the country.
A Horse’s Career
Many of the retirees at Mitchell Farm had “normal” jobs, working on farms. Some were specialized, like the therapeutic riding horses at the farm where Dee was a barn manager years ago. “So really, they spent most of their lives helping other people, and that’s stressful,” says Dee. “Almost everybody that rode one of these horses had some emotional, psychological issue that riding helped them deal with.”
Then there are the retired show horses, like R2. They’re the rock stars of the equestrian world. Just like human celebrities, life in the spotlight is demanding for a show horse. They spend their lives traveling, mostly isolated from other horses to prevent any little nick or scrape. They perform the same stunts day in, day out—again, like a rock star, playing the greatest hits over and over and over. It exacts a toll, physically and emotionally. They become colicky. They develop ulcers. And, some panic.
“R2 is an extreme case,” Dee admits. His jumping days are behind him, but “when he was competing as a youngster, he was entirely black, very flashy, very tall,” she says. “I’m sure he really impressed a lot of people with his size and talent. He was a wonderful, wonderful horse.”
A rock star.
But for R2, his black coat now graying, the show days are over. “He has arthritic problems. He’s got tendon problems. And he’s 27 years old.”
There is another consequence of isolation, this one much more troubling to Dee than some of the physical infirmities. “Everything these horses learn, they learn from humans, not other horses,” says Dee. “They’ve never learned to just be a horse.”
That’s where a horse like Josie comes in. She came to Mitchell Farm when she was only 14; she was already lame then and couldn’t be ridden anymore. “She would have made an excellent broodmare, but her owner decided to just let her retire,” says Dee. “The things that would have made her a good broodmare make her a really good teacher.”
Josie brings a lot of horses through the early anxiety of retirement. “She is firm in her discipline, but not vicious,” Dee says. Josie pins back her ears and shakes her head at new arrivals. She nips at them, but not in a way that breaks their skin. “It’s what their mothers would have done when they were younger, to show them, to teach them proper horse behavior,” says Dee.
This help from Josie is welcome to Dee, who finds herself not only administering medical care, but psychological care as well. “There are so many things I’ve learned about the mentality of a horse,” she says. “I never thought I’d be a horse behaviorist.”
She is surprised, for instance, by how the small herd at Mitchell Farm treats Raye, a 31-year-old girl, very frail, no teeth, whose eyesight and hearing are failing her as well. “As prey animals, they would put the weakest on the outside … cast them out and let them be the food for the predators, and in turn, keep the herd safe,” Dee says. Luckily, another horse named Beauty has taken up with Raye. “She really depends on Beauty to keep her safe,” says Dee. “Still, she’s the one when I wake up in the morning, I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, I hope she’s okay.’”
And, the inevitable will intrude. Dee knows Raye’s time is coming. “It’s very hard,” she says. “But we work very hard to make their last years safe and comfortable.” She pauses. “I consider it an honor to be their advocate at the end.”
Showing Some Love
Horses like R2 have good years ahead of them, no matter what was in their past. In spite of R2’s early anxiety attacks, Dee says the two weeks at Mitchell Farm are already having the desired effect. As Dee reloads his feed bucket, the horse nuzzles her gently on the shoulder. She stops, a little shocked. “Okay, he never would have done that two weeks ago,” she says. “He never would have been allowed to do that as a show horse.”
Riders in their dress whites, or even farmers with tools in their pockets, wouldn’t want a horse nuzzling against them—whether that show of emotion could stain a riding uniform or injure the horse on a sharp object, says Dee. But that’s what she hopes retirement will do for horses like R2—show them that it’s okay to show affection. It’s okay to do whatever relaxes them. “Human touch doesn’t mean ‘work’ for them now,” she says. “It just means plain ol’ human touch.”
It seems to be working for R2. “A week ago,” she says, for instance, “he would never be standing here with his eyes half closed. He never would have just stood here and let me talk at him for this long.”
As if on cue, R2 backs away from Dee’s caressing hand. “It’s like, ‘Okay, you’ve been standing here talking to me for a long time. Now you can go away,’” she laughs. R2 recedes into the shadows of the stall, ready for alone time. Ready to relax.
“Yeah, I think we can do a lot for him,” Dee says. “I think he’ll do just fine.”