by Katherine O. Rizzo (first published in the November 2021 Equiery)

In 2017, Melinda Burdin of Chaptico and a small group of Southern Maryland friends decided they wanted to use their empty stalls to help horses in need. They drove up to Pennsylvania and purchased three horses that were slated for a kill pen and took them home. “We thought that as long as we had the space, why don’t we help a horse in need,” Burdin stated. They did not, however, stop with just those three horses. “We wanted to do more,” she said, and in May 2018, the group of friends founded Southern Maryland Equine Miracles, Ltd. Later that year, the organization was approved as a 501(c)(3) non-profit equine rescue.

Building a Network
“We started out very small, and were very novice in what we knew about rescuing horses,” Burdin said. “But we have learned a lot along the way even while remaining a small rescue.” Southern Maryland Equine Miracles, S.M.E.M for short, does not have a base location, or a permanent sanctuary for its rescues. The group of three board members and four volunteers house horses at private farms. “We quarantine at my home and then find foster farms in the local community,” Burdin explained. “I like to think of us more as a networking community than a rescue.”

S.M.E.M’s network quickly grew to include not only the residents of Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s Counties, but other equine networking rescue groups in Maryland such as Maryland Association of Rescues and Equine Sanctuaries (MARES) and Maryland Equine Transition Service (METS). “We joined MARES, which is a huge help with networking,” she said, adding, “and I’ve been helping out with METS horses down in our area.”

In addition, S.M.E.M has partnered with larger equine rescue operations to help with the training of rescue horses after they have been rehabilitated. “Gentle Giants [Draft Horse Rescue] offered us 90 days worth of training with one of their trainers, and we have been sort of the in-between rescue for some horses placed through Lifeline [Horse Rescue and Rehabilitation],” Burdin stated.

Burdin also stated that they work a lot with Freedom Hill Horse Rescue, which is the closest equine rescue to the area that S.M.E.M tends to cover. “I like to think of Freedom Hill as our sister rescue because they serve the same community as we do,” she said. “We wouldn’t be here today without the mentorship from these larger rescues.”

Although S.M.E.M got started by purchasing horses directly from a kill pen at an auction, today, the organization has transitioned more towards education and preventing horses from reaching kill pens. The organization’s mission statement reads:

“We are a non-profit organization focusing on ending the shipment of American horses for the purpose of slaughter and human consumption. We support legislation for that goal and are dedicated to helping horses in need and placing them in loving, forever homes. We strive to educate the public on how horses end up in kill pens and how they can protect their equine pets. Remember, any horse that is sold can end up at slaughter.”

Burdin explained, “We have been much more active in personal surrenders verses going to auctions now. It’s more like ‘auction interceptions’ to stop the horse even getting to the auction.”
Getting their mission statement and goals out to the general public was a bit difficult at first, with S.M.E.M relying primarily on word of mouth and phone calls to various members of its ever-growing network. But then earlier this year, the organization got a huge boost through an unusual source.

Training for Value
It is not uncommon for horse shows and other equestrian competitions to donate funds to local charities. Many of the big shows such as last month’s Washington International Horse Show and the Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill have charity partners that they raise funds for. It is however, a bit unusual for an entire show series to be created with the sole purpose of raising funds for a charity.

Enter stage left… Julie Call of Free Rein Equine, LLC in Hollywood, Maryland.

Call grew up in St. Mary’s County as a horse hungry girl but left the state looking for bigger and greener pastures. She ended up in Ocala, Florida, where she immersed herself in the Hunter/Jumper world rising up the ranks to trainer of her own facility. “I came back to Maryland for family reasons three years ago and got involved with S.M.E.M because of our common interests,” Call said, adding, “I started retraining a few rescues on my own to be lesson-type horses for my program.”

Call reached out to Burdin last year and offered to train a pony named Milkshake at a “great discount,” according to Burdin. “Milkshake has become like a mascot for us and people ask about her all the time!”

When Milkshake first arrived at Free Rein Equine, Call said she would rear for the farrier, wouldn’t stand still, and had a hard time cantering under saddle. “Consistency and care” is Call’s motto and now a year later, Milkshake is showing with kids and winning. “She’s very good for the kids and showed her first time over fences at BEST earlier this year,” Call added. “She didn’t win but she went in the ring and did her job.”

Having a job is what Call feels is the most important part of working with rescue horses. “Milkshake is now earning her keep. We secure them a life and they become valuable now,” she said. As of press, Milkshake is remaining at Free Rein Equine as a lesson and show pony.

“I can help a horse get physically healthy, but it is people like Julie who can do the training and make these horses adoptable,” Burdin added.

Showing Rescue Horses
Call’s involvement with S.M.E.M quickly grew when she suggested hosting a series dedicated to raising funds for the organization, though the series turned out to solve another problem other than showcasing rescues.
“The 4-H shows in Southern Maryland are starting to die out,” Burdin stated, also pointing out that many of those who organized those shows have retired. “Kim Gladwell ran the Mounted Wanderers 4-H Club and ran the 4-H Horse and Pony Show at the fair for over 30 years and just isn’t able to do it any longer.” This is pushing those that want to show to travel further, increasing the cost of each show.

“The cost of showing is often too much for the average family,” Call added. “We never had a ton of money when I was growing up but I did the best I could with what I had.” That is the message Call wants to pass on to the next generation of horse crazy kids. In addition, Call stated that most people tend to point out problems without offering a solution. “We need to be part of the solution,” she said.

Call stepped up and created a local show series that was more affordable and offered special classes for rescue horses. “The whole thing was Julie’s idea. I can’t take any of the credit. It was all her!” Burdin said with a laugh. The schooling show series was held at Oakridge Park in Dentsville, managed by Charles County Parks & Recreation.

The four-show series offered both English and Western classes with eight classes being open only to rescue horses. “All entry fees for those classes go to S.M.E.M,” Burdin said. “We also set up a booth at each show and do most of our public outreach through these shows.”

“It has been very successful,” Call said. “It just goes to show you that when you look outside the box, good things will come.”

At each show, a Rescue Champion is crowned with one Grand Champion Rescue Horse being named at the end of the series. The individual winners this year were Elmer, owned by Free Rein, LLC; Irish Comedienne, owned by Jessica Kilcoyne-Beaver; Ginger, owned by Trudy Prenger and War and Thunder, owned by Caroline Lebo. This year’s overall series winner was S.M.E.M’s own Milkshake!

The series also offered a Rescue Showcase where other rescues could bring adoptable horses for demonstrations to help get those horses adopted. “So far only Freedom Hill has come down, but I understand that… we are fairly far for most of the large rescues,” Burdin stated. “Most of those entering the rescue classes are our own locals but I’m hoping more people will get involved next year,” Call said.

Due to the vast number of entries in 2021, the 2022 series will offer eight shows, separating English and Western classes into four shows each. Which gives S.M.E.M and all equine rescues who attend double the opportunities to showcase the value of rescued horses and to continue to facilitate moving horses into new homes through a vast community network of people like Burdin and Call. “It’s like working together for the greater good of the community,” Call concluded.