Every horse person knows the value of that one special equine relationship.

It’s the horse that seems to find you when you need it most—that you bond with on a deeper level. Days End Farm Horse Rescue (DEFHR) in Woodbine, Maryland, specializes in finding the perfect matches for their rescue horses to create lasting connections.

When horses arrive to DEFHR, they are first evaluated and then admitted into the rehabilitation program where they receive tailored care in an effort to get them to a stable and healthier physical state. Once the horses have rehabilitated, they move into the training program, where staff first determine what abilities the horses might already have before receiving individualized training to prepare them for the next phase of their lives in a forever home.

Building trust

DEFHR head trainer Sara Strauss works with numerous rescue horses at the farm every day, but one Thoroughbred mare stands out in her mind. Indy arrived at DEFHR in February 2013, when she was just three years old, emaciated, and neglected. She spent approximately six months rehabilitating before Strauss began her training.

Before she arrived at DEFHR, Indy lacked positive human interaction. Though she was obviously clever, she was also very wary, so Strauss had to determine the best way to connect with the closed-off mare.

“I had to be strategic in how I taught her and interacted with her,” Strauss explained. “She needed to see me as a respectable leader in our little herd, with the hope that the respect would extend to other staff members and volunteers that had to handle and manage her daily.”

Indy arrived at DEFHR in 2013 as an emaciated three year old. Credit: Days End Farm Horse Rescue

Indy’s intelligence helped her progress quickly through the training fundamentals with Strauss, and their focus became clear communication with one another.

“I spent a lot of time in the round pen asking her to travel around me. Then, I would ask more specific questions like when to trot, when to turn, when to slow down and face me,” Strauss recalled of Indy’s initial training sessions.

As Strauss got to know Indy, she could tell the mare thrived on their strong relationship, and the skills she developed came as a result of their unique bond. They did liberty work together, and Indy also learned to come when she was called. Strauss notes that the greatest representation of their trust in one another was having some of their best rides without a bridle.

“My relationship with Indy is so special to me because she let me in. Even though it wasn’t always easy, I felt like we were both invested,” Strauss reflected. “Some horses don’t ever allow you to fully see who they are, but I really knew her.

“We had so many cool moments together, like just the two of us in the arena playing around at liberty, or simply enjoying a quiet morning ride,” Strauss continued. “She was very cute in the field with me and was always game to hang out together. I also felt special to her because she didn’t respond to other people the way that she responded to me. It made me feel valued.”

DEFHR head trainer Sara Strauss developed a special bond with Indy during the seven years the mare was at the farm; yet Strauss knew Indy deserved a person of her own. Credit: Days End Farm Horse Rescue

Though the end goal for every horse is to find its perfect forever home, the path to get there is different for each animal. After seven years in the training program with Strauss, DEFHR staff discussed keeping Indy at the farm as a permanent resident educator in the lesson program. She had become so good at groundwork—even for interns and volunteers—and was also a great partner for intermediate riders.

However, something about that arrangement didn’t sit right with Strauss as she felt Indy had so much to offer someone if they could simply find the right match. As fate would have it, that’s when Meghan Gladle submitted a horse interest form.

Stronger together

Gladle grew up riding but struggled to feel like an official horse person. She lacked confidence in her skills despite her 15 years of on-and-off experience, and she never felt ready to make the leap to owning her own horse. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she found herself struggling with her mental health, prompting her partner to suggest she get back into riding. She found a nearby barn and instantly made a connection with its owner Robyn who was kind and encouraging during Gladle’s return to the sport.

Robyn let Gladle ride a horse called Waterman as she rebuilt confidence in herself and her abilities. Unfortunately, Waterman was injured in an accident and couldn’t be saved, leaving a hole in Gladle’s heart.

A month passed, and Gladle was struggling to find a way to fill the void. Robyn had been following Indy’s story on the DEFHR Facebook page and suggested Gladle go try her. After some encouragement, Gladle took the plunge toward horse ownership.

“Indy was the only horse that I met in person,” Gladle stated. “I was looking at a few others on the DEFHR website, but I just kept thinking about her. I knew that as much as I wanted a horse who I could work on my riding with, more than that, I wanted to be the person that the horse needed me to be. I was looking for a horse that would allow me to be part of their journey and that wanted to engage with me and to learn with me.”

DEFHR has a multi-step adoption process to ensure successful partnerships. In addition to a thorough adoption application, the staff have a conversation with prospective adopters, especially those who will be first-time horse owners, to confirm they have a strong support network. It is essential that a first-time owner have resources readily available around them to be able to help, support, and inform as questions arise.

DEFHR staff encourage the prospective adopter to try multiple horses, even at other facilities, and try the horses more than once with friends and trainers to allow the adopter to get to know the horse and make the best, most informed decision possible.

Once the adoption is made official, support from the DEFHR team continues. The team provides an initial supply of grain and supplements, as well as dates from the last visit with the farrier, vet, and dentist, when the horse was last dewormed, and any other important care information. They also are always available to consult on any difficulties the adopter might face to help them feel as prepared as possible.

Strauss personally trailered Indy to Robyn’s farm in Sweet Briar, Virginia, so she was able to see the space and advise Gladle on how to make the transition as smooth as possible.

“DEFHR helped with the adoption in so many ways,” Gladle said. “Sara [Strauss] was patient with my every question, and I felt supported by everyone’s care and concern for Indy throughout the whole process. They really wanted Indy’s placement to be correct for her, and that dedication was a relief and support to me.”

A blossoming partnership

Since Gladle’s adoption of Indy was made official on June 19, 2021, there have been challenges as the smart, loyal, and opinionated mare has adjusted to her new routine and the people around her.

However, through these moments, Indy and Gladle have achieved a better understanding of one another. Gladle has discovered Indy’s love of ear massages and snacks, and that she touches her nose to her front left cannon bone when she’s feeling unsure. In return, Indy has pushed Gladle to step out of her comfort zone and realize her capability as an equestrian, constantly learning along the way.

As a team, they are looking forward to marking the Virginia Commonwealth Games as their first recognized show together.

In their first year together, Gladle and Indy have built a trusting partnership in and out of the show ring. Credit: Meghan Gladle

“Indy was certainly a huge and overwhelming new part of my life, but I wanted so much to be who she needed me to be, and I wanted to make sure she was okay,” Gladle expressed.

“As a new horse owner, I have been surprised by how much there is to learn about Indy. I feel like even after a year, I still have a lot to learn about her! She is exceptionally brave and willing to try new things from jumping logs and water, to cow pushing.

“It is just so rewarding to receive her love and her trust.”

For more than 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 at www.defhr.org or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

Feature image: With the support of DEFHR trainer Sara Strauss and DEFHR staff, Gladle felt confident stepping into horse ownership for the first time. Credit: Meghan Gladle