A Horse Named Toby
Not many people know that it was a malnourished buckskin gelding by the name of Toby that served as the impetus for starting Days End Farm Horse Rescue (DEFHR), based in Woodbine. Back in 1989, Kathy Schwartz-Howe and her then-husband Allan Schwartz happened upon Toby while caring for their own horse at the barn where it was boarded.
Toby’s health was quickly declining, and he was seemingly abandoned. When the Schwartzes ascertained that the state of Maryland did not have facilities to assist law enforcement in caring for horses in Toby’s predicament, or to provide resources for owners in need, they soon found themselves taking steps to acquire Toby and rehabilitate him. Mrs. Schwartz-Howe bootstrapped her way through much of Toby’s rehabilitation and Maryland’s legal system, though she credits local experts, welfare professionals, and veterinarians for lending critical knowledge related to tending to the unique needs of horses recovering from neglect.
Toby’s case was a success, and it ignited a passion in the Schwartzes that led them to buy a small farm and offer intervention and rehabilitation services to horses in need. Bucking the statistic that 70% of horse rescues fail within the first three years, what began as a labor of love grew into a tiny non-profit organization that is now, 31 years later, a successful 501(c)3 equine welfare facility, sheltering up to 150 horses every year.
Thanks to the support of loyal donors, local volunteers, dedicated staff, and skilled trainers, DEFHR has rescued, rehabilitated, and successfully rehomed more than 2,600 horses.
DEFHR is known for its strong relationships with animal control and law enforcement authorities as well as with humane agencies across the mid-Atlantic, and it’s through these agencies that horses in need come to the facility. The organization provides intervention support services throughout Maryland and surrounding states, including as far away as Massachusetts and Florida.
Because of the organization’s deep expertise in equine rescue and its relationships with local authorities and agencies, DEFHR develops and hosts ongoing educational programming to give investigators and animal control professionals the skills they need to successfully work on equine cases.
More Than A Rescue
While rescue and rehabilitation is a critical function of the organization, DEFHR’s mission extends further to prevent equine abuse and neglect through education programs and community outreach. As one of approximately 40 licensed Maryland Horse Discovery Centers, DEFHR plays an active role in educating the general public.
The Horse Discovery Center program was created by the Maryland Horse Industry Board with the goal of fostering the horse-human connection by helping all ages and experience levels learn about horses in a welcoming environment. As one of the inaugural facilities to be inducted into the program, DEFHR often serves as a benchmark for its entry-level, beginner-friendly approach. Over time, DEFHR’s educational offerings have grown more robust and diverse to encompass what DEFHR CEO Erin Clemm Ochoa calls “humane education.”
“As much as we are a horse rescue and we will always have a component of rehabilitation, we want to offer more comprehensive opportunities for learning and engaging with the natural world around us,” said Ochoa. “For example, if we don’t have bees, we won’t have hay. If we don’t have good water runoff, we won’t have good drinking water for our horses, and so on.”
Recognizing that today’s youth are our future, DEFHR has developed numerous programs designed to teach children not only about horses, but about the environment more broadly and our role in protecting and preserving it.
DEFHR’s Camp-In-A-Box program is just one example of the organization’s efforts to expand on its educational offerings. This past summer, the Camp-In-A-Box program was launched to provide “humane education” to children unable to attend DEFHR camp sessions in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program included hands-on projects, DIY experiments, online videos, and activities revolving around the DEFHR horses.
Campers also learned why caring for the environment is important to DEFHR. Each week’s activities focused on an environmental theme as part of “WE CARE” (water, erosion, composting, agriculture, recycling, and ecology = WE CARE). WE CARE helped children understand why caring for the environment also helps the horses.
Ochoa notes that what makes DEFHR special and well-equipped to take on the role of educator is its unique ability and willingness to offer access to the general community, and she has a bright vision for the future of the organization. “We’re a point of entry,” she said. “The horse industry can be intimidating given its sometimes exclusive nature. People as young as five years of age can come to DEFHR with nothing more than a general interest in horses and participate in a wide variety of relatively independent volunteer activities. That isn’t something you can easily do at other animal welfare facilities.”
“Our volunteers help us a lot, but what I love the most is seeing our volunteers learn a little more about compassion and empathy while strengthening that horse-human connection. They can come for two hours and groom a horse and perhaps they will leave with an understanding of what neglect looks like and ultimately advocate for the voiceless,” Ochoa continued.
Growing up competing in dressage, Ochoa recounts an instance that she says keeps her humble and helps to drive forward her mission for DEFHR. She remembers vividly a time as a young adult when she went to try a horse as a show prospect. She recalled it being sick or knowing that something was wrong, but what she didn’t realize at the time was that the horse was suffering from intentional neglect. She notes that she had extensive experience with horses, but in a pre-social media era, there wasn’t as much clarity as there is today about the degrees of horse neglect, and when horses require intervention. Had there been the resourcing there is today and information readily available at her fingertips back then, she would have been in a position to alert animal control. It’s this memory that motivates Ochoa to never underestimate the level of education people need about equine abuse and neglect—that even people with horse experience may not recognize a problem.
Interestingly, Ochoa points out that despite all of the resources available to individuals throughout the state, problems still persist because of a lack of knowledge. “Maryland is so well-resourced,” explained Ochoa. “It’s one state that shouldn’t have neglected or abused horses. We need to be forward-thinking in how we provide easy access to these resources and how we continue working with the community to bring about awareness.”
A Bright Future
It is this kind of access that Ochoa wants DEFHR to capitalize on. She also stresses that DEFHR has reached a critical juncture in its growth and it is time to look toward expanding the organization’s critical care and rehabilitation capabilities and dive deeper into the education space.
“There’s a common misconception that we’re funded by state and federal governments, but that’s not the case; the services we provide those agencies are free of charge and we’re 100% privately funded with grants making up just 10% of our budget. Now that we’re at this stage, I think we have a tremendous opportunity to continue on this education-focused trajectory and appeal to a wider audience of supporters,” said Ochoa.
With an aggressive, but in Ochoa’s mind, realistic plan in place, it became apparent that DEFHR’s existing property wouldn’t allow the organization to maintain existing operations and continue its growth. For example, the facility faces challenges when it comes to hosting large school groups because something as simple as bus turnaround is logistically problematic. Similarly, the size of the existing on-site classroom was too small to meet the increasing demand for animal control and law enforcement officer education. These ongoing factors drove the organization to begin exploring ways to expand its footprint.
“When we first moved to this property 12 years ago, we thought we’d never outgrow it,” commented Ochoa of their existing facility on Woodbine Road. “Then, it got to the point where we were turning away animal control officers that were coming for the educational series from all over the state, the mid-Atlantic region, and beyond.”
As DEFHR continued to explore ways in which they would expand, there was a general consensus that the current location was ideal. Its central location in the state, and the fact that it was easily accessible to Route 70, made the facility convenient for volunteers and visitors to get to, and suitable for DEFHR rescue teams to deploy quickly to almost anywhere in the state.
This thinking led DEFHR to enter into a purchase agreement with the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company right next door. The Fire Company, which was formed in 1944, had since outgrown its building. “We were looking for a buyer that the community would support,” said current Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company President Curtis Lowrey. “As long-time neighbors, we have always admired the work that DEFHR does and we appreciate the foundation of its mission. In particular, the emergency response aspect of the operation really resonates with us.” After the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company reviewed the renderings designed by Blackburn Architects, P.C., and saw that DEFHR planned only to update the building as opposed to making drastic changes the Fire Company entered into the purchase agreement that has DEFHR’s move-in date slated for the summer of 2021.
The firehouse’s existing banquet hall will be transitioned into a larger classroom, which will help expand the demographic that DEFHR reaches by accommodating partnerships with higher-education institutions, such as providing hands-on or situational learning for veterinary and law students. The lobby of the building will evolve into a welcome center where school groups and public tours will begin.
In addition to focusing on new partnerships, with an emphasis on access and education, Ochoa hopes that DEFHR will play a part in promoting agricultural tourism throughout Maryland by evolving DEFHR into a must-visit destination for hands-on, family-friendly experiences. The vision for the new space is akin to a state-of-the-art destination similar to an aquarium or science center. She envisions having interactive, tactile displays that allow for an immersive, educational experience before groups continue the tour throughout the property.
One Part Of The Solution
Though the expansion to the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company building is months away, Ochoa has no plans to slow down the continued development and implementation of creative educational curriculum, both hands-on and virtual. At the same time, she’s cognizant that DEFHR is only one part of the solution in advancing equine welfare and playing a role in supporting Maryland’s agricultural tourism industry. DEFHR’s strategic plan includes nurturing relationships with other non-profit groups that have similar missions and will help build awareness and contribute to the education of equine and environmental welfare.
Ochoa notes that DEFHR is unique among equine rescues because the organization has been able to effectively navigate a leadership succession from its founder seven years ago while maintaining an existing donor base. She credits the strong team around her for the organization’s achievements and believes that because it has managed a successful transition once, she knows it will be set up for success when the time comes for her to pass the baton.
“Our vision is lofty, and this year has certainly been a challenge, as it has for so many businesses, organizations, and individuals,” stated Ochoa. “However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t express my sincere excitement for our plans and immense gratitude to everyone who has played a part in our success to date. I have no doubt that the future of equine welfare is evolving for the better and I’m so grateful that our organization can be an active participant in the solution.”