For over a year Emily Skott, a 14-year-old volunteer from Wilton, has been devoting her time to working with horses at Rising Starr Horse Rescue, a nonprofit situated on Silver Spring Road along the New York state border.
In the process, she’s discovered that interacting with these unique animals has given her far more personal joy than she ever expected via a volunteer’s journey.
“Horses are just really good to talk to,” she said, having developed one very special connection with a Dutch Warmblood known as Geoffrey.
“He makes me feel confident in myself again,” she said, sharing how time spent with him has brought her levels of happiness and healing from the challenges of modern teenage life.
The mission — and inclusive environment — of Rising Starr make it a unique place where not only aging, injured, and abandoned animals are given sanctuary from otherwise-certain euthanasia, but also where people of all ages discover invaluable personal connections to these stately and engaging creatures.
“This place is as special for the people as the horses,” said Wilton resident Jen Morello, who began as a volunteer two years ago and ultimately adopted her own horse, Freya, at the facility.
“There’s opportunity for everybody here,” she said. “It’s just a very welcoming, encouraging, uplifting place.”
Morello joked that her following her parents’ divorce, they got her started riding horses when she was young instead of sending her to a therapist. Decades later, she understands and appreciates the unique — and ironically, sometimes therapeutic — connections people can make with horses.
“They talk to your soul differently than another pet,” she said. “They get us.”
Care and inclusion seem to drive executive director Kelly Stackpole, who officially founded the rescue in 2015 and has saved close to 150 horses in the process.
A native of upstate New York who grew up in Ridgefield, Stackpole circulates about the 42-acre facility closely following all the various activities in motion, sharing encouraging words with staff and volunteers as they feed, walk, and tend to the animals, and enjoying her own intermittent visits with each of the horses, all of which she knows by name.
“Last year we took in 15 failing horses,” she said, including wild mustangs, donkeys, miniatures, and more.
Some are directly spared from a trip to a slaughterhouse while saving others involves interceding where a less-reputable rescue, farm, or individual may have been neglecting or abusing the animals. They may arrive at Rising Starr grossly underfed, physically harmed, or psychologically damaged.
For Stackpole, one of the most heartbreaking scenarios involves inquiries from families that have owned a horse for six or seven years and now, as if with an automobile, want to trade it in for a newer, younger one, even though a horse can live for 40 years or more.
“Every couple of weeks I get that phone call,” Stackpole said, from all around Fairfield County. “Can you take it so I can go and buy my daughter another horse?”
At a time when many people are trying to undo and change the habits of a disposable society, Rising Starr strives to, in essence, repurpose the horses that come under its care. While they may no longer be fit for competitions, there are other things these horses can do, including being ridden for teaching and recreation for non-competitive riding.
Take Tycoon, for example, a 16-year-old, five-star Grand Prix horse originally sold for $250,000, who is now teaching people how to ride at Rising Starr.
“Now we’ve given him a second career,” Stackpole said.
She said that about 75% of their horses are taken in by private owners. Some horses simply become pets for horse lovers who may no longer actively ride.
“I think from a rescue standpoint they are highly regarded,” Sara Curtis of Wilton, a volunteer and lifelong horse enthusiast, said of Rising Starr.
“To me, the key to what they do is there’s not a ‘one size fits all,'” she said, but they’re able to successfully handle a range of situations depending on the animal and its history.
Some horses that exhibit the right sort of easy-going, complacent nature can find work as therapy animals. Other, older horses can play a valuable role as companions to another horse.
“One of our most exciting things is when people call and say they need a companion,” Stackpole said.
Asked what makes their facility different, Stackpole first notes that the horses are never really lost to their care and concern.
“We follow the horses for life,” she said, retaining ownership for the first two years of an adoption, while maintaining a contractual clause that allows them to take the horse back in perpetuity if it’s discovered to be abused or malnourished.
In a rare occurrence this season, the rescue took back two horses it discovered had been starved and poorly cared for.
“These animals don’t have a voice,” Stackpole said, but on the words of a reputable veterinarian or blacksmith, they can sometimes be protected.
She said the facility has also been working to train volunteers to help with monitoring adopted horses, including those that may have come from other facilities.
“We can’t save all the horses,” she said, in part owing to the significant expense of their care.”We have to work with other rescues and we have to educate.”
In the end, she said, if more people can be taught to care better for their horses and understand the possibilities of their value beyond competition, their work has been fruitful.
“I think that’s the most important thing we do,” she said. “We educate.”
For information, visit the Rising Starr website.