Sunday, March 01, 2009


A Letter of Request

This past week has seen the return of winter and all of its struggles. The storm came in as predicted with all of its wind and snow and thunder and cold. Oh, the happiness of the muddy season! Oh, I can hardly wait to lose a boot in the mud!

Timely as it was, a letter of request was sent to Extreme Makeover asking them to consider Refuge Farms for a project. But not for the house - read on. You'll see we asked for a new house, yes, but not the human house....

Good Morning –

It is Friday, February 27, 2009 and everything I had already written and proofed and reread to submit to Extreme Makeover has been thrown away. I am writing this anew in a single sitting with a sore back, tired legs, and a heart bursting with hope!

Yesterday a snowstorm complete with freezing rain, 30 mph winds, horizontal snow, and sub-zero temperatures moved in to Spring Valley, WI. Refuge Farms is a horse and human rescue and such a storm brings challenges with it that tax our facilities and abilities to cope and anticipate the worst. The horses that live here are dominantly the horses that have been rescued but are too old or too sickly or too damaged to adopt to another family. They are what we call the “diers”. Some are here only to live out a little time and some are here for quite a spell, but all of them are here for protection and the best care we can provide.

A storm like yesterdays brings challenges such as how to house 18 horses in a single pole barn in only a 50’x 40’ space. How to protect the weak from the freezing rain and then the numbing winds? How to insure the elderly get their hot meals on time even while other horses are in need of the shelter of their eating stalls? How to insure that all receive water throughout the night to prevent colic and death?

We managed last night but with extreme difficulty. Some horses were housed in the garage with the truck sitting outside in the storm. Other horses were blanketed and left to fend for themselves against the backside of round bales. Other horses were tied in aisles for the night with water brought to them by buckets at 2am, 4am, and again at 6am. And other horses, frightened in strange stalls, kicked at the gates of the stalls and tore the gates from their hinge pins.

Hence this letter to Extreme Makeover. Refuge Farms is not asking for a new human house. Refuge Farms is asking for a new house for the horses!

In 1999, a dear friend and mentor of mine, Andy Durco, Jr., handed me the lead rope to a crippled Clydesdale colt and said, “Here Sandy, you take this horse and make a difference in somebody’s life with it.” That simple challenge created Refuge Farms.

Before Andy’s crossing, we created a Declaration of Purpose and our Mission Statement. The mission statement, ultimately, was used as the scripture reading at the funeral of my dear Andy. It is Ezekiel 34:16 – “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak. I will watch over. I will feed them in justice.”

The very first experience of Refuge Farms cemented our future: Diane, a young lady and mother of an 8 year old boy, was terminal with cancer. After her death, her parents forwarded me clippings from her journal where she wrote of her visits to Refuge Farms and that same Clydesdale colt, who we named Francis Andrew. She wrote how “Frannie didn’t try to tell me it will be okay. It won’t.” She said how she had “washed his mane with my tears.” And finally, she cried for her son and worried about “who would be his Frannie is his young life?”

Our missions seem rather simple to me – rescue the horses that nobody else wants and then make them available to the public so the humans may learn from the horses. What is there to learn? Simple lessons that we were all taught in Sunday School - forgiveness, tolerance, playfulness, grief, respect, joy, acceptance, and loyalty.

In our 10 years, literally thousands of people have met the horses of Refuge Farms, affectionately called ‘The Herd’. Children in wheelchairs come to visit Miss April who herself has crippled feet. Autistic young adults come to meet Jerry, the Roan Horse who stands quietly while the excitement is too much to bear and the children beat on the neck of the 2,600 pound patient beast.

Families come to spend time with DukeDuke as they try to learn to cope with the paralysis of their 18 year old son. The Father is in denial and claims that “what they sent home is not my son. I want my son back.” The Mother simply stands and cries. However, for a few moments, the family focuses on blind DukeDuke as he places his big head in the lap of the son who now lives in a wheelchair. For a moment, they are a family again.

Refuge Farms is open to the public free of charge. These horses are gifts and charging anyone to share in them would be unthinkable. It is the second half of our missions to share those that we have rescued. And in doing so, we all are healed.

Many horses pass through our gates on their way to a new home. Our corral is the only holding area we have for our rescues and currently the only shelter in the corral is a pile of round bales for a wind break. Not nearly sufficient for those starving, half-frozen horses that come to us this time of year.

The number of horses we rescue and re-home is escalating and for obvious reasons. In 2008, we re-homed 182 horses in addition to the care for The Herd and sponsoring the fundraising events of THE FARM. As the economy continues to suffer, the number of horses left behind due to job loss, the spiraling cost of feed, home foreclosures, and lack of medical cares is staggering. Our calling is to rescue those horses and do our best to rescue as many as possible.

There is a garage-like old barn on the property that has been converted to a small horse barn. The east wall of that structure is moving – rather rapidly! – to the south and so this summer, we will destroy that barn so as not to risk an animal or human who may be in or near the structure when it decides to come down. Several contractors have looked at the building and all have concluded that the barn is not solid and worth saving. “Best to tear her down and build another shelter” is the consensus.

The main barn is a 40’ x 70’ pole barn which must house 18 horses, a shoeing bed, room for feed and tack, as well as humans. On a night like last night, horses are tied in the aisles and doubled-up to insure everyone has some protection. The weaker ones are cared for first with the stronger ones sometimes asked to care for themselves. This is not adequate nor does this system reflect our missions of respect and responsibility.

The roof leaks and the tin rattles in the wind. Sliding doors no longer slide shut. The posts holding the center trusses are “hanging” from the trusses – no longer anchored in the ground. The dents in the tin create hazards for any creature for torn skin.

The human house on the property was built in the late 1800’s and has plastic on the south side of the exterior, walls that leak, a wet cold basement, and a roof that flies in to the yard with every wind above 10 mph. There is no money to supply propane for the furnace so the home is heated with a pellet stove. On cold nights, I simply sleep on the couch rather than sleep in the bedroom where your breath is visible in the night air. But the human is not the issue here. The human has committed herself to the missions of healing – horses and humans alike. And in doing so, she has found the very purpose for her birth.

I, Sandy Gilbert, am that 55 year old human. This, I tell people, is why I was born. As the Executive Director of Refuge Farms, Inc., an IRS approved 501.c.3 non-profit organization, I am fully aware that a request for a new home for the horses is not “normal” but oh, the difference these horses make in the lives of the humans who come to know them! I have spent afternoons here at THE FARM with humans who have come to grieve and place flowers on the grave of a horse who has passed. Big Guy, a rescued Belgian, was a community favorite. His sudden crossing brought people from as far away as St. Paul, MN and Jim Falls, WI to come and kneel by his grave. The impact these horses have on the human soul is not to be understated.

Women who have been beaten as a child come and relate to the horse that was electrocuted. They talk with the horse, hug the horse, cry with the horse, and then realize that if the horse can forgive a human, why can’t they?

One fall day last year, a white van came in to the yard. An elderly man approached me carefully using his canes and asked if I could take his old horse. His children were forcing him off of his homestead to move in to a nursing home, he said, and no one wanted to take his old horse. They were talking of putting the horse down. Could we take him in?

A quick trip north and I found the old horse. Crippled and thin and unsteady on his feet, just like the old man. The Old Horse came to live out his days at Refuge Farms and the old man continued to visit us. Two lives were rescued in this instance.

This a picture of Miss April and Charlie at a camp for young adults with disabilities that Refuge Farms participates in, at no cost to the camp. Miss April has bad front feet due to starvation prior to birth. Charlie has legs that do not support him and is non-verbal. However, when Miss April spotted Charlie, she drug me to him and then proceeded to sniff his feet, sniff his wheelchair, bite at his rubber wheels, and then “own” Charlie as she rested her chin on his head. These two creatures connected and were inseparable for the entire span of the camp. Miss April had found a human that understood the frustration of having feet that didn’t work for you. And Charlie? He laughed and spent hours studying her face. Healing at its best!

The Refuge Farms annual budget is $60,000 per year without any funds afforded for capital improvements such as fence, grounds, buildings, or driveways. Refuge Farms receives no state, county, or federal funds. We operate strictly on donations and volunteer hours. All the land and buildings used by THE FARM are the personal property of myself. The vehicle and stock trailer used by THE FARM are also my personal property. My personal savings and retirement funds are exhausted. All funds raised go directly to the cares of The Herd and the rescue of those left behind. We hold fundraisers and will sell you anything from a cheesecake to perennials! Sure, there is concern for the fiscal viability of our missions, but we proceed on faith. Our good works will not go unrewarded!

We bring our little blind Gracie to the local schools for lessons on blindness awareness. We bring our big Handsome anywhere to show how an enormous horse can learn to trust and even though he stands over 8’ tall, he is as gentle as a kitten. The children place their little hands in the hole where his left eye used to be and then are in awe of the healing and yes, just how handsome he truly is.

The team of 47+ regular volunteers that support Refuge Farms, affectionately called The ‘Other’ Herd, come from all walks of life. They are professors, office clericals, nurses, detention officers, social workers, mothers, and students. There is no “norm” here. Only the commonality of a heart needing to heal from something. And healing is what we do best.

One such volunteer was Vincent, a disabled adult living in Louisiana. Vincent had never touched a horse but he felt the power of our missions and subsequently built us a glorious website. His volunteer efforts of supporting that website opened many doors for THE FARM and brought many people to Refuge Farms. The sudden passing of Vincent last summer has left a mark on all of us. Although we never hugged Vincent and Vincent never hugged a horse, the healing of Refuge Farms found him and enriched all of the lives involved.

The ‘Other’ Herd is a remarkable group of individuals. Last Christmas I heard of a local family whose father had passed away rather suddenly, leaving the mother with 12 children on a dairy farm with no head of household. One email out to the volunteers and we had carloads – literally carloads! – of new clothing, food, toiletries, and household supplies! We brought frozen turkeys and hams and boxes of canned goods. And we brought a new bathrobe for the mother.

What we received back was the magic of that day. We each received a tight hug from the mother who, with tears streaming down her face, thanked us and held on to us as if we were her sisters. And maybe we are her sisters, now. Plans are made for the family to visit THE FARM this summer and spend time playing and meeting the horses. New friends and healing coming again as a result of the generosity of The ‘Other’ Herd.

Our mailing list of supporters is 2,000 Friends of THE FARM. Just yesterday I was in the Menomonie Wal-Mart gathering the broken bags of dog and cat food for distribution to the local food banks and humane societies. A lady came up to me to shake my hand. Why? She saw my jacket with the logo on it and just wanted to tell me she believed in what we are doing. Our monthly articles in the Dunn County News have brought many to THE FARM to see the horses and find the peace and solace that we offer here.

Refuge Farms is a sanctuary for the “diers”. Refuge Farms is a horse rescue for those abandoned and left behind. Refuge Farms is a destination for those humans wanting a “horse fix”. And Refuge Farms is a place of healing for humans in all stages of life.

Please consider the construction of a new house for the horses. A new house to protect the horses from the winter storms and the summer heat. A new house to reduce the amount of manual labor needed to provide the cares and shelter that is promised to each creature living here. A new house for the horses to allow more people of all abilities access in all kinds of weather. A new house for the horses to continue our missions of healing our human hearts. The healing that I see that occurs when a human finds a like soul who has endured and moved forward. The connection between human and horse is evident, when it occurs. The horse changes its posture and the human’s face is remade. It is visible. Palatable. We call it “the magic of Refuge Farms.”

Thank you for reading our story. Please visit our website – – and read the stories of the blog. Read for yourself the stories of the lives saved and the healings that occur. Read the bulletin boards and see the challenges we face daily. Please consider us for Extreme Makeover. Help us to heal even more! And to create even more magic!

Enjoy the journey of each and every day,
Sandy and The Herd

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