For more than 33 years, Days End Farm Horse Rescue (DEFHR) in Woodbine, Maryland, has specialized in the rescue, rehabilitation, and rehoming of horses.

Over 20 years ago, in November 2000, a young chestnut mare arrived at DEFHR looking for her second chance after she was discovered living in a field in Frederick County, Maryland, fearful of human interaction. The staff at DEFHR named her Cotton Candy, or “Cotton” shortened.

Though it was obvious Cotton had minimal handling experience, she was curious and eager to please. After rehabilitating and undergoing training, she was matched with an adopter, however, that was not the end of her journey at DEFHR.

While DEFHR staff work tirelessly to find the most appropriate homes for their horses, adopters can find themselves in new situations that make it challenging to continue to meet the needs of their horse. With this in mind, DEFHR will happily welcome back a horse and go to work to find a new, loving home. This was the case for Cotton, who was adopted and returned to DEFHR twice.

When Cotton returned to DEFHR for the second time in 2013, staff noticed that she would benefit from additional handling and guidance before being offered up for adoption again. She re-entered the organization’s training program under the guidance of current DEFHR head trainer Sara Strauss.

“Cotton was a bit of an anxious and defensive mare,” recalled Strauss. “She would rear when she was unsure or concerned.”

Strauss began working with trainer Tara Jones of Pieceful Solutions Riding and Training in Telford, Pennsylvania, in an intensive course focusing on cavesson work and helping the horse and human utilize their bodies to foster the best possible connection. Strauss and Cotton spent a week with Jones and then went home for several months to hone what they had learned before returning to be tested on what they had accomplished together.

“Cotton was an absolute rock star,” reflected Strauss of her experience in the program and their final assessment with Jones. “We had to do both in hand work with the cavesson as well as walk, trot, and canter under saddle. I think we received over 100% on the test.”

Making the match

Two years into her training with Strauss, Cotton had a meeting that would change her life.

Cindy L., of Catonsville, Maryland, was a lifelong horseperson who grew up working with Thoroughbreds and showing Quarter Horses. Later, she diversified her equestrian expertise by scribing for several top dressage judges and attending a British-run riding school for more formal training in other English disciplines including jumping and eventing.

Cindy had previously owned a horse, but after a period without one, she decided it was time to look for her next equine partner.

In 2015, Cindy’s daughter suggested she consider adoption and directed her to DEFHR. “You never know!” Cindy recalled her daughter saying.

While there were quite a few horses on DEFHR’s website that Cindy thought might be a fit, Cotton, who was 15 or 16 at the time, really caught her eye.

“I just wanted to find a horse that I could enjoy,” she explained of her decision to re-enter the world of horse ownership. “I didn’t really know what my goals would be, whether that was going to a show or simply trail riding. I saw Cotton’s picture, and I could tell she was a good mover, and that immediately got my attention.”

Cindy and her daughter paid DEFHR a visit to get a better idea of the next steps. Strauss wasn’t there that day, but a DEFHR volunteer helped acquaint Cindy and her daughter with the horses before they met with staff who help prospective adopters understand the process.

“They sit you down, and they talk to you to find out about you and what your arrangements would be if you had a horse,” detailed Cindy of her evaluation interview with DEFHR. “They explained that they conduct follow-up visits for two years after adoption before they make the decision to turn over ownership of the horse. They also provided me with a training journal of everything that Sara [Strauss] had done with Cotton, so that was really nice.”

After her initial meetings, Cindy went back to watch Sara ride Cotton and to ride Cotton herself. Even in their short time together, Cindy knew Cotton was the horse for her.

“She just seemed really sweet, and I liked her right away,” shared Cindy. “I saw this mare that looked like she was really sensible and good minded. I just felt like it was right.”

Cotton had one more piece of training to complete with Strauss before she could go home with Cindy. Once she was ready, Cotton was officially adopted. The little chestnut had already built a strong relationship with Strauss, and Cindy knew she would need to create her own connection with the sensitive mare.

“It was all about building the bond with her,” said Cindy of developing a relationship with Cotton. “Initially, she was very defensive about her ears and it was difficult to put on a bridle. You couldn’t go anywhere near her with clippers, either; she’d be [rearing] up in the air.”

Cindy took her time with the mare and focused on establishing trust through skills she had learned in Masterson Method courses. In time, the mare let down her guard and began to work with Cindy rather than against her.

“Now you can drop the lead rope on the ground and use the clippers and she won’t move a muscle,” stated Cindy, “It also turns out that when she hears my truck and sees me pull in at the farm, she begins to pace in her stall and she calls for me.

“We’ve gotten to the point where just the other day she was hanging her head out of the stall and I was rubbing and scratching on her ears, which is something she would have never allowed before,” Cindy continued. “I just love her so much. It’s taken a while, but it’s so great.”

Patience and persistence paid off for Cindy and Cotton who have built a trusting relationship and enjoy riding both English and Western. Courtesy of Cindy L.

Building on their strong partnership, Cindy has found success with Cotton under saddle. They have dabbled in English riding and trail riding, and recently tapped back into Cindy’s Western riding background, bringing home a blue ribbon at a local Western pleasure competition in September 2022.

Though the journey to creating a trusting relationship with a rescue horse won’t always be smooth sailing, Cindy notes that with the support of organizations like DEFHR, happily-ever-afters are possible, and she and Cotton have found that together.

“Each day we build a little more on the relationship [and, no matter how the day unfolds,] the time I spend with Cotton is so therapeutic,” Cindy concluded of her progress with the mare.

“I always knew if I had a question or needed anything, I could contact Sara. I really respect DEFHR’s thorough adoption process and ongoing support. I know that they care so much about the horses.”

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 or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

Feature image: Cotton and adopter Cindy recently earned a blue ribbon in a Western pleasure class. Courtesy of Cindy L.