‘We have to save as many horses as we can’

A tot gets a pony ride. Photo by Dennis Chunga

John Hettinger used to say he never met a horse he didn’t like. And that it was “much more than he could say about people.”

That affection touched all facets of his racehorse breeding business, which managed to factor horse welfare into the bottom line, and galvanized him to become a leading anti-slaughter advocate.

So determined was Hettinger to keep his racehorses safe from slaughter that he wouldn’t sell one of his Thoroughbreds without including a clause in the bill of sale guaranteeing that when their usefulness on the track was over, they could come home to him. He guaranteed that any owner looking to get rid of a racehorse he had sold them could return the animal, no questions asked.

Yet, the policy that kept his own horses safe did not go far enough for Hettinger.

In 2006, Hettinger took his commitment to horse welfare even further. He set aside 600 acres of his land in Pawling, N.Y. to be used in perpetuity as a “safe haven” for horses who could no longer race, and named the enterprise Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue.

In its first two years of operation, the nonprofit saved over 100 horses from slaughterhouses, and set in motion the creation of something great—a sprawling expanse of grassy pastures where doomed horses are pampered, retrained, and eventually re-homed. Please see an earlier [intlink id=”2684″ type=”post”]story[/intlink] about an Akindale rescue.

For those who work there and keep the whole thing going there is a deep and abiding commitment to Hettinger’s original vision. Although the rescue lost its leader to cancer in 2008, his resolve to help as many Thoroughbreds as possible is built into the fabric of the organization.

Taking a multipronged approach to saving horses, Akindale promotes the nonprofit, rescues horses from kill pens, and cares for the day-to-day needs of the equines. In the best cases, horses who are suitable for new careers are re-trained and re-homed under the watchful eye of rescue manager Erin Pfister.

“We have to work hard to help realize his dream,” says rescue manager she says. “But there’s not a lot of time to think about it day to day, because we’re just so busy. “We have to save as many horses as we can.”

Chief with KC DiCostanzo at Family Fun Day with Photo by Dennis Chunga

In October, Pfister spent as much time organizing major events, and speaking at a Rotary function as she did mucking stalls and feeding horses.

On Oct. 17, close to 200 families converged on the farm for a third annual Family Fun Day. Children from local schools enjoyed hayrides, pony rides, a magician, and approximately $3,000 in donations were accepted.

For a young nonprofit, the day was a huge success, Pfister says.

“We saw many, many new faces and heard so much positive feedback,” she says. “Everyday we get better people on our side, and we meet people who want to help. That’s a big part of what we’re focused on.”

The very next week, the second annual hunter/pace was held at the farm, and several Akindale horses found new homes because of it.

Prospective buyers were allowed to ride the horses they were interested in, and those very horses are now going to new homes, she says.

Red, a Quarter Horse mix who worked on a racetrack before coming to Akindale, was delivered to a farm two miles up the road. His days will now be filled enjoying ambling trail rides.

Sherm, who was sold as a weanling by Hettinger, and returned per the bill-of-sale guarantee, also got a new home. After living at Akindale for four years and undergoing retraining, he is bound for the show ring. “We’ve taken him to horse shows and the more commotion there is the more he loves it!” Pfister says.

Laud Lazarus was race trained but never raced. His in-your-pocket personality and willingness won him a new home as well.

Also expected to find adoptive homes soon are Unique Dream, who was rescued from New Holland, Penn. in 2008, and Bank Me, an ex-racehorse who is built like a Quarter Horse and enjoys hunter/pace.

Akindale's Hunter/Pace

Both Unique Dream and Bank Me took third place at a recent hunter/pace, examples of off-track Thoroughbreds at their best, Pfister says.

“One of the best things we can do to promote these horses is to take them into these situations where people can see what they can do,” Pfister says. “They always rise to the occasion and they represent us very well. They love it; they love a challenge.”

And although caring for 140 horses everyday is also a challenge it is done with the same kind of spirit that inspired Hettinger to found the rescue four years ago.

“I always tell people who show up to work that we’re really working for the horses, not ourselves.”

6 responses to “‘We have to save as many horses as we can’”

  1. Renaye Hendricks

    Love my t/b’s please let me know of any place in upstate NY that does this???

  2. Arliss

    Wow, what a great story. Thank you SO much for sharing the word about Akindale. This incredible operation is a global-level model for what a horse rescue can be and what it can do. How wonderful it would be if all horse breeders (for that matter, all those involved with bringing any kind of animals into the world) had Hettinger’s degree of commitment and responsibility. What a wonderful man he was to have started this, and bless those dedicated people who are working hard to keep it thriving! I’ve been lucky to spend many happy hours with a beautiful, talented horse who is an Akindale rescue from the kill pen. To look at this sweet, gorgeous creature, it’s almost unimaginable to think about what nearly happened to him. Thank you, Akindale, for helping Siggy (Pleasant Signal), and so many others!

  3. KC DiCostanzo

    Thanks for bringing light to Akindale, Sue! The horses, Erin and I all thank you for raising awareness. We’re also going to be doing a big Holiday campaign for people who “have it all” – why not sponsor a horse in honor of someone you love? We’ll also have holiday cards and sponsorship cards to put under the tree with a photo of the horse you’ve chosen to sponsor. 🙂

  4. TBDancer

    Another winner, Susan. We do need to save as many horses as we can, and this blog and those of us who are owners of OTTB and who appreciate and love what wonderful athletes and hard-trying horses they are will help spread the message. Keep up the good work!

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