Equine Retirement Programs (pt. II)

"I just assumed, as many did, that when horses didn't race anymore they went to live on a farm somewhere," said Monique Koehler, who against all odds became the "mother" of the equine rescue movement. Koehler was a pharmaceutical representative from New Jersey whose business often took her to Long Island in the late 1970s. On one such trip, she read an article in Newsday about a British trainer named Daphne Collings who had started a "horse haven foundation." It detailed many horror stories of horses left to die, and Koehler, who had no connection to horses, was moved to send a donation and a note of support.

Two months later she was sharing a dinner table at a favorite restaurant with Collings, who begged her to become president of the foundation. "I said 'no,' " Koehler remembered. "I didn't know anything about it, and all she had was a slip of paper with some names and numbers that looked like it had been in her pocketbook for 30 years.

"Then our waiter, whom I knew, put 50 bucks down on the table and told me what a great idea this was. And I told him not to be ridiculous. Then he said, 'You're absolutely right; here's another 50.' So I said, 'all right,' and took the piece of paper."

Koehler found herself hosting dinner meetings near Belmont Park with any horse people to whom she could get an introduction. She didn't know any of them. "I asked Penny Chenery if she had gotten involved by reading the same article I did," Koehler laughed. "I'll never forget her answer. 'No, Monique, I just really love horses,' " replied the owner of Riva Ridge and Secretariat.

Many individuals from the racing industry signed on with Koehler, who feels she benefited by being outside the horse business. "I wasn't pointing fingers or laying blame--I don't believe in that kind of approach," said Koehler. "If I was going to be a good partner with racing, I'd rather speak well of it and work hard to create prosperity. I found the overwhelming majority of racing people care and want to do the right thing. I made a lot of mistakes, but people were forgiving and understanding and willing to fix the problems."

The organization landed on the name Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) in 1982, and it became the first organization that took horses in on a large scale and in a public way, inviting partnerships with tracks and the breeding industry. Shortly after came the idea of adoption; that horses would be happier and better utilized in second careers. The next issue was land.

New York State Senator Howard Nolan, an early supporter and director of TRF, suggested the prison system had a lot of land upstate at its Wallkill facility. Despite some grousing about prisoners touching horses, Koehler saw it as the perfect partnership, and the TRF developed a vocational training program in 1984 that has blossomed into a nationwide system to the benefit of all. "The prisoners found in themselves something they never had before--the capacity for love," Koehler noted. "Respect for another living being. And the animals didn't care about what these people did before.

"People scoff that we're putting money into prisons. We don't. We save so much money having horses at these facilities, and those horses continue to work saving lives. Our guys get paid a fraction of what other prisoners make. And when it's freezing, they volunteer to go out on weekends to help the horses. I don't know what we'd do without them."

The concept worked so well that in quick order the TRF expanded to other correctional facilities; in Lexington at the Blackburn prison; Maryland at the Charles Hickey School for Delinquent Youth; Florida at the Marion Correctional Facility; and will soon be opening facilities in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Jersey, and possibly Texas.

Today, TRF executive director Diana Pikulski sets up shop at sales and industry meetings to educate people. The TRF offers to go to any racetrack that will have them. By year's end, 500-800 Thoroughbreds will be involved in TRF programs. Recently a race fan in New Jersey who had been a small donator left TRF nearly $900,000. "We've had miracles all the time," said Koehler, who today is the group's chairman. "When we've needed them, we've always been sent angels in the nick of time."

One of those angels was John Stuart, a Lexington bloodstock agent who agreed to hold auctions and help the TRF get started at the Blackburn facility. After handling the sale of the last crop of yearlings from the late Paul Mellon, Stuart approached two of the estate's trustees, who ended up giving the TRF a gift of $7 million in 2000. That pushed the TRF from a one prison/one juvenile delinquent center operation to one that today includes satellite farms where people rehab and retrain horses. Because the Mellon Foundation was involved in refurbishing James Madison's home, Montpelier, in Virginia, it suggested adding a retirement farm there, which opened last fall. Stuart recently ended a four-year stint as the group's president.

"You have a horse that sold three times at Keeneland," said Stuart. "You trained him, hit his shins with firing, injected him a thousand times, and he always did what we asked. So when we ask him to step onto that double-decker bus to go to the slaughterhouse, he's gonna do it. And he shouldn't have to.

"The ones that are completely broken down, give the poor horse a shot and bury it. The ones that can be saved, we have a responsibility in this industry to do it. There are plenty of homes out there. We have to do a better job of having workers or volunteers on the bac kstretch of tracks so we can get those horses out of there before they get on the truck. We're not organized enough to fight the killers at enough tracks. There is always room for a horse that has a chance."


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