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During the June 2015 fundraising/educational/animal awareness event Pitbulls and Ponies, Mary Santagata, founder of All the King’s Horses Equine Rescue (ATKHER), handles Gigi, a registered Chincoteague wild pony. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound)
Since 2010, Mary Santagata and her supporters have helped rescue and re-home 62 horses, and counting, through her North Branford-based non-profit, All the Kings Horses Equine Rescue (ATKHER). In 2015 alone, the program found adoptive or foster homes for 15 animals in need.
It all started in a rented barn on Forest Road, after Mary was spurred on by the experience of adopting her beloved first horse, June, in 2008.
“It was just something I leaped into one day,” says Mary. “I grew up in Guilford and our grandparents had horses at their place right next to ours, so I always had a love of horses. I never rode; I took my first riding lesson at 28 years old. So my entire childhood with horses was on the ground, as a social connection.”
Mary realized the new lease on life she’d afforded June, an older-yet-feisty chestnut Morgan mare, was something she wanted to create for other equines in similar situations—or worse.
Like June, some of the animals finding their way to Mary have been surrendered by their owners. Others have been abandoned, abused, neglected, or sent off for auction, potentially bound for a horrible, frightening end at a slaughter house.
“It’s like that for all livestock, and unfortunately it’s a big thing for horses,” says Mary of the slaughterhouse trade. “These are animals who are raised to be in our company. They have a name; they’re so smart.”
With her full-time career as a social worker, Mary knew starting a non-profit would be a huge commitment. But she also felt she could translate her professional experience as an advocate for humans to into helping horses. Much like the way she found June (on the Internet through Petfinder), she went online to hunt out a space where she could get started. The North Branford barn she found and originally rented is now the “top barn” on rolling property that’s home to ATKHER’s rescue operation.
The complex has grown to include the top barn and a separate quarantine barn below for newly arrived animals, as well as paddocks and outdoor spaces. That’s where the rescues can get their exercise, be assessed for riding or other capabilities, or just take a good roll in the grass (or mud—which seems to be especially fun after a bath). They also simply get to experience sunshine and fresh air and socialize with other animals and plenty of volunteers. ATKHER’s North Branford home is also the place where many rescues will get to know a potential foster family or adoptive owner.
With a rotating schedule of volunteers to help, Mary’s goal is to keep bringing in rescues and finding homes for as many as possible.
“At capacity, in the top barn alone we can have seven, and we also can have some at foster homes and in the quarantine barn,” says Mary.
Mary still works full time and currently keeps the total on-site maximum at no more than 12 rescues to make certain everyone gets the best attention and care available. She relies on volunteer crews, mostly made up of locals, to help with morning turn-out and feed, afternoon stall cleaning, and evening turn-in, feed, and cleaning the outside paddocks. She says support in North Branford has been tremendous.
“I get a lot of help from a lot of people from the community, and volunteers who are involved with horses, or people who are older who love horses,” Mary says. “We have a ton of volunteers from North Branford High School. You’d think it would be the kids, but even more, it’s the teachers! We have a huge staff of educators who volunteer. We do have some people who come from pretty far to help, too—my Wednesday night volunteer comes from Milford.”
Those who can’t volunteer, foster, or adopt can still find a way to assist ATKHER. Find “All the Kings Horses Equine Rescue” on Facebook for opportunities to contribute to help “bail out” auction animals or to learn more about volunteering or making an online donation for supplies or medical assistance and more. It’s also where Mary will post news of upcoming fundraising events, such as the soon-to-be announced return of last year’s comedy night benefit, “Laughed So Hard I Went Horse,” and an anticipated reboot of last summer’s well-sponsored “Pitbulls and Ponies” animal rescue event at ATKHER.
In addition, right now, the 2016 ATKHER fundraising photo calendar is available for $10 at Agway in North Branford or can be purchased for $12 via PayPal by sending an email to email@example.com.
Many of the calendar’s beautiful portraits have been contributed by photographer Eliza Nardone. All of the calendar photos capture the spirit of each animal. From “Mr. January” (Ben, who arrived with his son, Bill) to gentle Gigi, a registered Chincoteague wild pony, or cute Gidget, a yearling hackney pony (now in foster care), and Jazz, a beautiful Morgan mare, the calendar’s a snapshot of the huge range of animals helped here—and those who’ve moved on. Among the success stories shown is Poncho, adopted in June 2015 and loving his new digs in Northford.
Once a horse, pony, or mini-horse (or occasional mule or donkey or two—geldings Hugo and Hank are 2016 calendar guys) leaves ATKHER for a forever home, Mary makes a point of keeping in touch with the owners, who sign an adoption contract. By staying in contact with adopters and obtaining updates, ATKHER works to ensure each animal’s safety, for life.
“We’re not a nuisance. We’re not going to your house in middle of night. A lot of the owners contact me on their own with updates,” says Mary,
And, until recently, none have tested her determination. In October 2015, the caretakers and adopter of a chestnut Quarter Horse mare named Sarah stopped providing contact and location availability to ATKHER. Mary is working with attorneys for both parties to ascertain the horse’s location (as of press time, Mary said the situation could finally be resolved as soon as this week).
Throughout the ordeal, Mary has kept track of the progress of her search for Sarah on ATKHER’s Facebook page, noting in a post earlier this month, “Our rescue is currently the legal owner of this horse. Our organization cared for her, provided for her, and loved her. We have a right to know her whereabouts.”
Mary often posts much happier updates on Facebook, including photos sent in by adoptive owners and foster families.
Recently, Mary posted a photo on Facebook from the adoptive parents of one of ATKHER’s first saves, Ginger, caught showing off her new Christmas stocking. The off-the-track Standardbred found a happy home in New York after being rescued by ATKHER in November 2010.
She’s also shared pictures of several rescues who have gone on to win ribbons and trophies in the show ring.
“We have a couple I went to see in some shows this past fair season,” says Mary. “I saw Freya in a couple of shows.” A 2013 owner surrender, Freya, described by Mary as a “beautiful, off-the-track Thoroughbred,” was adopted out to a Northford forever home.
In addition to following up on rescues, Mary is constantly networking with individuals and groups to keep up with animals on the auction block. Many of these contacts also assist her with pick up and transportation.
“We’ve had a lot [of horses] from Cranbury auction in New Jersey,” she says. “That one has a great group of supporters, so it’s easy for us to help without having to go there.”
One of the joys of Mary’s ATKHER efforts is to see these animals become healthy, happy, and loved.
“It doesn’t end when we save their life. We’re fighting for their happily-ever-after,” says Mary.
For more news of ATKHER, find the organization on Facebook or visit www.allthekingshorsesequinerescue.com.