As the world navigates through the turmoil that COVID-19 has left in its path, many equestrian organizations are working to come up with solutions to maintain the care of their horses during the pandemic.

For some, especially those who rely heavily on volunteer support, keeping a farm running smoothly and safely requires a great amount of leadership, planning and teamwork.

Days End Farm Horse Rescue (DEFHR), a nonprofit equine rehabilitation and welfare center in Lisbon, Maryland, is one such facility. DEFHR’s staff jumped into action last month and were prepared to deal with the unknown. 

An organized system

“What’s really important in times of chaos is routine,” says DeEtte Hillman, DEFHR’s Equine Programs Director.

Protocol, routine and procedures are three of the organization’s key focuses. “That’s enabled us to make adjustments to protect our staff. We just add in pieces to our protocols and to our day.”

The farm has gone through a few modifications since the stay at home, state-mandated order for Maryland went into effect.

“We started with varying degrees of protection for our staff and volunteers, and as time has gone on, we’ve tightened those restrictions and modified staff schedules and daily operational schedules to minimize the risk as much as possible,” explains Hillman.

Soon enough, it became evident that the farm needed to be closed to all outsiders, other than the on-site staff.

With an average of 60 to 80 horses at any given time to care for at DEFHR, the organization has come up with creative ways to ensure safety for everyone involved—and avoid burnout from overwork. Currently, the staff are operating in teams that are working the same days and shifts as each other.

“So, if we do have, God forbid, one team become exposed or need to go into a quarantine situation, we’re not losing all of our staff,” says Hillman.

The staff are not sharing any equipment, whenever possible, from lead ropes to grooming equipment and even to general medications and topical treatments (fortunately, they have they have a variety in stock). The trainers are continuing to help the horses along in their physical and mental rehabilitation, but they have no direct contact with the barn staff.

Personal protective equipment is also worn by the on-site staff, especially when using more commonly used materials or objects.

“Additionally, at the end of each shift and at the end of each day, everything is wiped down and decontaminated,” says Hillman. “We feel like we’re using the best practices that we can with what we have.”

“What’s really important in times of chaos is routine,” says DeEtte Hillman, DEFHR’s Equine Programs Director. Photo courtesy of DEFHR.

Keeping a connection

There are no visits to the farm from the public, and no volunteers are permitted on-site either.

“We see a lot of our highly skilled, longer-standing volunteers almost as a second wave of unpaid staff,” Hillman says. “We’ve forecasted out to have an identified group of core volunteers, should we fall short on staff resources, and they can be called in to assist.”

“Closing our volunteer program is something that we’ve never done in our history,” adds Nicky Wetzelberger, DEFHR’s Community Outreach Director. “There are probably 30 to 50 volunteers who are really key and they’re at the farm all the time. They tell me, ‘This is my safe haven, this is my special place. This is where I come in moments of stress, crisis, and anxiety. I’m understanding, but heartbroken to not be there.’”

Some volunteers have been reaching out about sending food and providing care packages for the staff during the day. The facility also encourages supporters to buy their own supplies on Amazon Smile, which donates portions of every designated sale to the organization. DEFHR has also set up a COVID-19 Preparedness Fund to give their supporters a chance to help financially during this time.

Keeping DEFHR’s volunteers, donors, and supporters updated has been challenging for Wetzelberger, who manages the farm’s social media. Because she and most of the staff have been homebound for the past month, the team has devised innovative ways to provide online content.

“We’ve been doing lots of brainstorming,” says Wetzelberger.

The two on-site trainers, Sara Strauss and Leigha Schrader, have helped create weekly behind-the-scenes videos of daily life at DEFHR.

“We want to let people know, ‘Hey, you’ve donated to us because you trust us, and there is a level excellence you’ve come to expect from us.’ Rest assured it’s still all being executed right now,” says Wetzelberger. “There is no panic at the farm. We’re making decisions in a calm orderly fashion and things are continuing on in this new ‘normal.’ That’s really what we’re striving to depict and ensure people still feel connected.”

A rainbow after a recent storm provides a stunning backdrop to DEFHR. Photo courtesy of DEFHR.

A silver lining

Like many other organizations forced to work from home, the DEFHR leadership team has stayed in constant communication via Zoom and private messaging. “We’re actually in touch more now than we were prior to COVID-19,” says Hillman. “So that’s been good – it’s enabled our staff to work together to accomplish set objectives and priorities, almost in a creative think tank. All of that’s happening on a daily basis.”

Each Friday the entire DEFHR staff meets on Zoom. “It’s gone a long way in encouraging staff and keeping people from feeling worried about the organization,” adds Hillman. “Questions are being addressed, leadership decisions are being shared, and perspective is being communicated.

“Every day is different. There’s always something new that we as an organization need to find solutions to or come together as a team on. So, this open line of communication and exposure really builds a lot of confidence and morale around the staff.”

Planning for the future

As horse owners lose their jobs, suffer financial or health hardships, and can no longer care for their animals, DEFHR is focusing on what they need to be doing now to prepare for the months after this crisis. Though the farm is closed to most outsiders, it continues to remain open for animal control and law enforcement related needs, whether it’s a consultation or impound.

“The fallout we are witnessing from this pandemic is that fellow rescues do not have reserves built up or a healthy donor base and are having to close doors and redistribute horses in their care,” says CEO Erin Clemm Ochoa, who was a recent guest on the Horses in the Morning radio show and talked about the steps the organization has done to protect their staff and horses, and also provide community resources.

“We are fielding these calls for help first-hand and are trying to support as best we can within the parameters of our mission.”

Though the impact of COVID-19 throughout the next several months remains to be seen, one thing is clear: DEFHR will be working diligently to help horses who are affected by the aftermath of the pandemic, thanks to their strong leadership, thoughtful planning and experienced staff.

Over the past three decades, Days End Farm Horse Rescue has been renowned for working to not only prevent equine abuse and neglect, but also to educate the public about equine welfare and help their staff, volunteers, and members of the public become better horsemen and women. Learn more about DEFHR‘s adoptable horses as well as their numerous education and volunteer opportunities. Visit or follow them on Facebook.