Aug. 22, 2005 By 10 a.m. Monday, 12 teenagers had made nine new friends (eight horses and a donkey), conquered a couple of fears and came out smiling, even if their clothes were a little the worse for wear.
The children also met a hairdresser who is a horseshoer (or a horseshoer who makes his living as a hair dresser), learned what horses eat, how to groom them, and even how to worm them.
But, most of all, they learned to treat horses "with love, lots of love."
That's what Darr Conradson, Humane Society of St. Thomas' summer education program director, says. And the four women who comprise VICCTRE agree.
VICCTRE stands for V.I. Community Cooperative Thoroughbred Retirement Efforts. Pronounced like "victory," the organization was founded by Becky Petri, Kate Johnson, Lynn Utech and Caroline Briggs a little over a year ago. The group's mission is to rescue, rehabilitate, and sometimes adopt neglected, abandoned, abused or otherwise unwanted horses.
The group has assisted or outright rescued 15 horses. And they have found places for other horses off island.
Working with the Marion County Correctional Institute in Lowell, Fla., they have sent seven horses so far to the states for rehabilitation.
A few months ago, VICCTRE's founders went to Fred Hintz, owner of St. Thomas Dairies, and asked him about leasing space for the horses. "He met us with open arms," Utech says, "so now we have a safe place for the horses, not for riding, but for education and awareness programs right now."
First to meet the youngsters on Monday morning was Commandante Beauty, a gray mare who shares bloodlines with eight of the last 12 Kentucky Derby winners. Since she was rescued a few months ago, she has gained 200 pounds.
"Wow," say the children. According to tour leader Kate Johnson, Commandante "was so skinny when she came to us, and now she is so much better." Johnson then looks at one of the youngsters who is holding back. "Go on," she says, "pet her; she won't hurt you, she is gentle." The horse, meanwhile, is nibbling and nudging Conradson's back, which he doesn't appear to mind. "She's just particularly playful this morning," Johnson says.
Then it's on to watch the horses feed. Johnson scoops out a handful of the little pellets, and Conradson reaches out and grabs a handful, chewing on a couple. He holds out some for his students but gets no takers. "Come on, it's good for you," he says. "Better than Cheerios, more fiber."
Johnson explains the horses have to be wormed about every other month, something they hate. She adds, "It's medicine, and they don't want to take it." However, Johnson reaches out and turns the head of about 1,200 pounds of horse flesh called Running Thunder, who accepts his medicine without a blink. The youngsters are impressed.
"I would be afraid to do that," says Kimiesha Dyer, a tenth-grader at Charlotte Amalie High School. "I'm afraid of horses; I saw someone get thrown once." By the time the tour was over, however, Dyer has petted more than one horse with no ill effects. "I think I want to be a vet," she says, "but, if I do, I'll specialize in cats. I love cats."
Approaching the group now is Nelson Rosario, the hairdresser who has become the horseshoer, and Lusty, a 28-year-old bay gelding who has been adopted by Utech. Rosario handles the horse gently, lifting a leg to show its hoof. "You couldn't normally do this with a bush horse," he says, "because that's where predators attack them. They will go for the leg. But Lusty trusts me; he has confidence in me now."
Rosario shows the youngsters the rudiments of shoeing a horse. "Can you imagine going barefoot over rocks and stones? A horse whose feet have been injured cannot cope," he says. "He [would be in] so much pain, that he will stand in a corner and starve to death."
"This is the coolest part," Rosario says, "helping them." He shows the youngsters where the nails go. He picks up a leg again to show them how to apply something called Bond-N-Flex, which is a glue compound used to repair cracks in the hoof wall. "You have to balance all four legs," he says.
Rosario explains that thoroughbreds are too big for their legs. "They are bred to race," he says, not like bush or regular horses. "And when they can't race anymore," Johnson adds, "that's when we get them."
All the time Rosario is talking, he is grooming Lusty, running his hand over his coat. "You have to handle the horses, let them know you care. If he were on a beach he would lie down and roll over in the sand to get this loose coat off."
Rosario didn't come naturally to horses. "It's a funny story," he says, "you'll love this. I was living in Dorothea with my girlfriend, and she brought this horse home, and I told her 'I don't ride horses; I'm from New York. I ride bikes.' She left and I wound up with the horse, and … well, here I am."
Rosario, who styles hair in Charlotte Amalie at the Hairspray Salon, says, "I didn't know anything about horseshoeing, so I taught myself. Actually, it was easy to pick up. Looking at the angle of a horse's hoof is like the way I look at a face, and figure out how to shape the hair."
It's soon time for the teenagers to meet the creme de la creme of the lot, the star of the show. Johnson introduces the youngsters to a little nondescript gray donkey who is keeping company with Western Honors, a dark bay about three times the donkey's size.
"This is Bridget," Johnson says. "She is the mascot, the nanny, the babysitter. She is a companion to the horses." Johnson explains that horses are not solitary critters. They like company, and they need company.
Next Johnson shows the children the riding ring, which is still a work in progress. "We have done everything, cleared the bush, put up the fences and put up the jumping hurdles. One day, we will be able to have more kids come to ride."
The children assemble at the bottom of the steps leading out, sporting grins and exchanging new knowledge. Conradson looks around, "We changed their lives this morning," he says. "That's what it's all about."
Conradson is on the Humane Society board, and has been an education volunteer for several years. This summer program is a first. "It's a six-week program," Conradson says. "We have gone to summer camps and had them come to the shelter. We've shown 300 little children about animals this summer."
He says this is the first time he has worked with older children, adding, "and it's great. I'm learning so much. We get the kids involved with the animals. They learn everything about how to care for animals. We've adopted more animals this summer from the groups visiting. When we hold our classes, almost everyone has a puppy in their lap.
"Most of the kids are willing to have their lives changed, they are eager to learn," Conradson says. "Many of them have never had any interaction with animals before."
VICCTRE is dependent on private sponsorship for its existence. To be a sponsor or to make a donation to the program, call 998-9063, 998-0331 or 998-1229. The organization has a newWeb site, which Utech says, may still be under construction.
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