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Poulsbo's Horse Harbor Foundation offers sanctuary for horses (and humans)
Years ago, Michael began taking horse lessons from the Horse Harbor Foundation in Poulsbo. A nonverbal autistic suffering from hemophilia, finding outlets to learn and explore had been difficult for him.
“No one would touch him,” said Horse Harbor founder Allen Warren.
No one, that is, but Warren and his equine team.
Soon, in the presence of the horses, Michael began to speak. And that was just the start of it. Now, Michael makes his own living caring for animals, and the volunteers and horses at Horse Harbor are continuing a nearly 15-year legacy of changing and shaping for the better the lives of equines and their riders.
Some might call them “rag-tag,” others “miraculous,” but if there’s one thing the horses at Horse Harbor Foundation on Big Valley Road certainly are, it’s happy. The two dozen animals, three of which live on a supporting farm in Keyport, are about to see their riding arena completed. New, high-quality fencing is planned around their pasture, and finished siding will round out the covered area where 40 students learn to ride.
Touring the 11-acre grounds on a Wednesday afternoon, Warren stops to greet each horse, calling them by name and gently rubbing their long noses while talking on their uniqueness: their birthdays, how long they’ve been at Horse Harbor, the sparks in the personalities of each.
Darlyn’s ribs were showing when she came to the foundation just weeks ago. She’s since gained 80 pounds. Chance, a coffee-colored animal with a funny stringhalt jilt in his back left step, is living just fine, despite the fact previous owners and doctors thought him incapable because he didn’t look quite normal.
Swaybacked Lucy is in strong form, sturdy compared to the ghostly waif she appeared as on arrival last year. Sweet, blind Choco grazes untroubled in the field, and the tawny-colored Charlie is finally getting his training, preparing to become a part of the program that makes his new home possible.
The nonprofit equine sanctuary is home to horses that have seen starvation, abandonment, abuse and neglect — and a subsequent bounty of blessings. Taken in by Warren, his wife Maryann Peachey-Warren and dedicated volunteers, the horses are given a home and a purpose, a way to support themselves and a community with the knowledge and know-how to give them the love and care they deserve.
Now, with a $56,000 Birkenfeld Trust grant bestowed this month, the farm will be getting some exterior upgrades reflective of the internal revitilization felt by the horses and students alike of Horse Harbor.
Watching magic happen
“You don’t plan to go into the rescue business,” said Warren, 64. “You just have trouble with the word ‘no.’ ”
And it was ‘no’ Warren couldn’t say in 1994 when first approached to take two horses in need from the Kitsap Humane Society. Since, he’s cared for more than 40 animals, given them homes oftentimes better than they’d ever before seen.
But Horse Harbor also hosts a population that calls itself “stable rats” — kids and teens who take not just riding lessons, but stick around to learn the fundamentals of horse care and keep.
It’s a better name, they say, than “mall rats.”
Fifteen years and several generations of stable rats since the start, Warren says running Horse Harbor isn’t as much about dollars and cents as it is about horses and people.
Peachey-Warren is currently working toward becoming a certified therapeutic rider. She already offers lessons to the mentally and physically disabled. Warren, who like his wife doesn’t take a salary from Horse Harbor but instead works part-time for Kitsap Transit, said her certification will make Harmony Farms the first certified center on the west side of Puget Sound.
“These rescue horses make wonderful training horses,” he said. “Give them love, they give it back.”
Horse Harbor has buried 23 of its equine family members since beginning, but each has lived out its life comfortably and with plenty to do in training riders from 6 years old to adulthood.
“We let them do the jobs they were trained for. They don’t get bored,” Warren said, adding for him, too, the foundation has brought incalculable meaning. “The last 15 years have been the best years of my life.”
Katy Richardson, 16, one of Horse Harbor’s senior riders, began taking summer camps with the organization, then switched to full lessons, and has stuck with the activity even after moving to Bremerton.
The 20-minute commute to the farm is one she’s more than willing to make.
“You develop bonds with each one,” she said of the horses. “Just the thought of not being there when the horse needs something is just unthinkable. It just draws you in.”
Richardson is now working with Charlie on his training, another step in her education process toward one day becoming a horse owner herself. Most places offering lessons don’t function like this one, she said.
At many places, “the horse is groomed and saddled, you ride and then you leave.” But at Horse Harbor, grooming, health checks and various other tasks become the responsibility of the student, something Richardson said ups self-esteem and proves independence for learners.
“It shows them ‘I can do something on my own,’ ” she said.
From cleaning cuts to giving shots, students learn horse ownership isn’t a fantasy, but a great responsibility.
Natalie Graning, 9, rode Sugar Wednesday afternoon while mom Jeanne Graning looked on. Natalie, too, started in summer camps and soon moved to lessons — something Jeanne said the youngster is excited for each and every week.
“I think it’s fabulous. They teach everything about a horse, not just how to ride,” she said. “They really give a lot of confidence. There’s a lot of encouragement here.”
Warren said riders are taught a classic style of riding that doesn’t employ stirrups or whips. It’s called “gentling,” and it brings the horse and rider together as willing partners, instead of using the animal as a beast of burden.
It’s a style that takes longer to learn, but that is appreciated by the horses, many of which are well older than 20 years old, some even in their 30s and 40s — far older than the average life expectancy.
A growing need
After the recent “explosion of recreational horses,” Warren said the need has grown on a daily basis when it comes to animals seeking harbor. The number of unwanteds is so on the incline his call volume alone has gone from one to two per month to three or four each week.
The problem can sometimes be criminal — animals abused, not given food or healthy boarding, even turned loose to starve, but with rising hay prices and the common misunderstanding that the animals function as pets rather than livestock can lead to innocuous neglect as well, he said. Many don’t realize the commitment, knowledge, skill and resources it takes to own a horse, and a simple lack of training can have a major negative impact on an animal. Even the most well-intentioned owners can have a difficult time, especially when their kids leave home for college or checkbooks fall thin.
Warren estimated 200 horses in need within just a 10-mile radius of his Poulsbo sanctuary.
“I’d like to see 10 more (horse sanctuaries) right here in Kitsap County, because there’s a need for them,” he said.
He takes horses only after they’ve gone through the county’s humane society, focusing on animals with no other chance of adoption. In turn, he doesn’t adopt them out but rehabilitates them and gives those able the opportunity to earn their keep through lessons.
With the adoption market at peak saturation, organizations like his, Second Chance Ranch in Jefferson and the Equine Rescue Association in Marysville have had their barns full. To alleviate the rapidity of the situation, Warren is also working to establish an area equine food bank so that animals can at least be fed at their current sites. He’s also passing the foundation’s successful model on to others, including rescuers in California, Missouri and Nebraska.
He says it’s luck that Horse Harbor stumbled upon the formula it uses, depending not on donations and adoption fees but lessons to provide 80 percent of the needed funding.
“Sanctuaries need permanent sources of funding,” he said. “We came up with a model here that is probably going to be the sanctuary of the future.”
But back in Kitsap County, there’s one thing Warren is more than certain on: “We’re not going to euthanize a horse in this county,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”
For more information on Harmony Farms and Horse Harbor Foundation, visit horseharbor.org.