Equine Therapy

What Happens at Retirement? Giving One Show Horse a “Storybook” Ending

Michelle Durpetti and Reese, pictured in 2014. Photo by Aullmyn Photography

In early 2018, Michelle Durpetti faced a tough decision.

Her amateur-owner hunter Moody Blues had made an incredible recovery from cervical vertebral malformation, or “Wobbler’s Syndrome,” more than six years ago, and together the pair had gone on to achieve incredible success in the show ring and to share many special moments and accomplishments. But by the winter of 2018, Moody Blues, or “Reese,” was starting to show signs that his show life was behind him.

“He was sound, but he just didn’t seem able to do the job of a show horse anymore,” said Durpett, who trains with Caitlyn Shiels out of True North Stables in Illinois and Florida. “The class load of a hunter had gotten to be a little bit too much for him. I kept him with me all through circuit in Florida, mainly because he was my best friend and was always my steady Eddie, but I knew that it wasn’t entirely fair to him to be living the traveling life of a show horse if he wasn’t showing.”

So, with Reese no longer showing, but still, at the age of 18, relatively young to go retire in a grass field, Durpetti was faced with the same question that many equestrians run into:  What happens next for a horse that has given so much? What other retirement options are there?

“He has a big heart, and he’s always loved doing his job,” said Durpetti. “I don’t think that at his age, he was really ready to do nothing.”

Reese with (left to right) Michelle Durpetti’s parents, Marion and Tony Durpetti, Michelle Durpetti, and Dena Little, the founder and executive director of Storybook Farm. Photo courtesy of Michelle Durpetti

Fortunately for Durpetti, that’s when Ashley Foster, the daughter of Rolling Acres Farm trainer Patti Foster, introduced her to Storybook Farm.

Ashley Foster was attending school at Auburn University in Auburn, AL, and she had volunteered at nearby Storybook Farm in Opelika, AL, where children ages two through young adulthood can participate in the farm’s Hope on Horseback program.

The program serves children who face difficulties such as autism, cerebral palsy, cognitive delays, bereavement situations, and much more. Through horseback riding, the young riders are able to experience physical benefits including improvements in balance, motor skills, muscle strength, and coordination, as well as the development of social skills and the better articulation of emotions.

Not long after learning of Storybook Farm, Durpetti knew she had found the answers to her questions surrounding Reese’s future.

“I didn’t want Reese to be donated to say a university program because I knew the work load wasn’t something that he could sustain,” explained Durpetti of Chicago, IL. “But Storybook was so different. As soon as I spoke to the founder, Dena Little, on the phone, I was immediately struck by her energy and her spirit.

Photo courtesy of Storybook Farm

“She explained to me that she grew up with show horses and runs Storybook like a show barn. She said, ‘these horses are in programs that are designed for them; their care is of the utmost importance to me, and I run a tight ship.’ I thought, ‘okay, that’s amazing, because if you’re going to send your horse somewhere where you can’t keep your eye on them every day, that’s such a great thing to hear!” continued Durpetti.

Beyond simply Reese’s care however, was an even greater motivator to have him involved in Storybook’s program.

“One of my dear friends gave birth last year to her first child, a beautiful little girl with Down Syndrome, and I see what my friend and her husband go through to seek out the best physical and developmental therapies to give their daughter every tool that she needs to grow up healthy and strong,” said Durpetti, who outside of riding, is the founder and owner of her own Michelle Durpetti Events and a managing partner of her family’s Gene & Georgetti Restaurants. “At Storybook, Reese is a part of that. He has a higher purpose; he’s affecting so many lives and bringing joy. I don’t think you could ask for anything better than that.”

Storybook Farm is selective of the horses they accept, as each horse’s temperament has to be the right fit for the program, so, in March of 2018, Reese made the trip to Alabama for a one-month trial. By the end of the month, Reese was not only accepted into the program, he’d received a new name, Prince Charming, in keeping with the program’s naming of all horses after story book characters.

Reese, now known as “Prince Charming,” enjoying his new life at Storybook Farm. Photo courtesy of Storybook Farm

“We call it his stage name!” joked Durpetti of Reese, who’s personality with the kids at Storybook has proven fitting of his new name. “The photos and updates that I received from Dena are amazing. Here’s this giant, 17.2 hand horse, stretching his head all the way down as far as he could and just standing there for these kids.

“I miss him every day, but seeing the benefits that come from what this organization does, seeing the lives that they impact, and knowing that Reese is a part of it gives me such peace of mind,” concluded Durpetti.

While Storybook Farm offers a truly exceptional program, it’s not the only program of its kind offering horses a new and rewarding life after retirement from the show ring. If retirement is in your horse’s future, consider learning about the therapeutic donation options in your area!

To learn more about Storybook Farm, visit www.hopeonhorseback.org