WINTERPORT, Maine — On Tuesday, Gov. John Baldacci will sign a proclamation declaring November Adopt a Shelter Pet Month. Although dogs and cats may be the shelter pets that come to mind, Jen and Jess Winchester of Spirit of Hope Farm in Winterport will be right there at the governor’s office in Augusta to bring attention to other animals in need of help — rescue horses.
The couple’s 16 acres are home to 10 horses, eight of which were abused or neglected at some point in their lives and are considered rescue animals. Since opening the farm in 2006, the Winchesters have been able to unite 20 rehabilitated horses with loving — and carefully screened — new homes.
The farm is not a nonprofit organization, but it is licensed by the state to be a shelter.
“We really look at this place as a blessing,” Jen Winchester said of the farm. “Not just for us, but for animals in need. When horses come, and you look in their eyes and you see just a glint, you say, ‘Ah, he’s got that spirit.’”
Their horses have sad stories, but the Winchesters aim to bring them happier chapters in the future. They hope the governor’s proclamation will bring more attention to the needs of rescue horses even as the room for such horses in licensed shelters shrinks.
Since 2006, Jen Winchester said, Maine has lost nearly a quarter of its capacity for rescuing horses due to the closure of such farms as Last Chance Ranch in Troy.
The decision to close the nearly 6-year-old nonprofit Last Chance Ranch earlier this fall was a hard one, according to Cathy Mesaric. She and her partner, Mary Myshrall, closed for financial and medical reasons, Mesaric said, and they’ve been able to send most of their rescue horses to other licensed facilities in Maine.
“It’s still hard,” Mesaric said. “You look over the fields — it stinks. You miss the kids coming and going.”
The kids she’s talking about came from all over — from area Scout groups, high schools, Unity College and the University of Maine — to help with the horses. Some came to Last Chance Ranch after getting in trouble with the law in order to do mandated community service work, Mesaric said.
“We worked quite a bit with kids at risk,” she said.
Mesaric said she hasn’t given up hope that the ranch might be able one day to resume its rescue work.
“It’s not to say the doors will never open fully again,” she said.
Jen Winchester said bad economic times mean hard times for horse owners, many of whom were shocked at the jump in prices for things such as hay and grain in the last few years. In the winter of 2007-08, Spirit of Hope Farm had to turn away more than 100 horses whose owners reached out for help. Last year, with space for only 10 horses, they turned away almost 50 more.
“We’re anticipating probably getting hammered again this year,” she said.
Jen, who by day is a special education teacher at Bucksport High School, has a tear in her eye when she talks about one of those horses that needed the help provided at the farm. Pete had belonged to a Maine man who had kept him tied in a concrete stall for two years, she said.
“He was treated very cruelly,” she said.
But after being plied with plenty of love, enough food, rehabilitation and training, the horse was ready to join a new home and was adopted, she said.
“He’s doing well. The girl just adores him,” Jen said. “I still miss him. He’s very special.”
Another horse with a happy ending is Big Mac, whom the Winchesters bought at an auction in New Jersey. If they hadn’t won the bidding, Big Mac would’ve made a final trip on a meat truck, they said. He came to Maine instead, traveling on a trailer to Winterport, where he initially stayed in the farm’s quarantine stall for a couple of weeks.
His story caught the attention of the Winchesters’ friends — many of whom donated money for his purchase — and so he has his own Facebook page to keep everyone updated about his activities.
Most recently, those activities included his adoption in the early summer by a southern Maine family.
“Bigs went from being a nameless No. 375 in a feedlot full of slaughterbound horses to a brief layover at our rescue to his own new family who will love him,” Jen wrote on the page. “Quite a nice ending … er … beginning, don’t you agree? Good luck, Big Mac. I’ll miss you, big boy!”
Adopting rescue horses isn’t for everybody, she said, describing a long process that involves carefully checking references, a home visit and a visit with the horse to make sure it’s a good match for them, too.
“I think, ‘What does this horse need versus what somebody is looking for?’ We’re pretty fussy,” Jen said. “You do what you can to protect them from having to suffer what they’ve already suffered.”
Her 11-year-old son, Alec Allain, who named one of the rescue horses, summed up the family’s philosophy succinctly:
“The horses are worth more than money,” he said.
For more information, go to http://spiritofhopefarm.tripod.com.