By Christin Rzasa
For Jasmin Shinn, the process of founding and running a non-profit organization that helps unwanted draft horses has taught her many things, and not just about these giant equines that have always held a special place in her heart. She’s had to learn hard lessons about the potential expenses associated with the care of rescued horses, the legal aspects of charitable organizations, how publicity and social media can build you up and knock you down, and the generosity and cruelty of human nature. Through it all, her ardent desire to keep as many of these horses from ending up at a slaughterhouse as she can has been a steadfast catalyst in her life, even if she’s only able to save one of them at a time. In fact, that is the name Shinn and the members of her board chose for their organization: 1 Horse at a Time Draft Horse Rescue.
In the summer of 2017, as Shinn attended several horse auctions, she noticed that the draft horses who came through generally sold to “kill buyers” — people who buy horses directly for slaughter houses or in order to sell them to slaughterhouses. The great size of these horses that makes them attractive to kill buyers also makes them expensive to keep: they need more food than most other horse breeds; their huge feet require regular trimming and special shoes; they need oversized (often custom-made) tack. Shinn is well aware of their drawbacks, but the gentle nature of these work horses makes that little extra care worthwhile. She watched the chaotic process of running loose horses through the auction and it haunted her, especially knowing what the horses faced when they were bought by a kill buyer – long rides in often over-crowded trailers to a miserable end. The old, the lame and the unhealthy sometimes didn’t survive the trip.
“They just kept coming,” she says of the draft horses at the auctions. “I wanted to get them away from the bad situation, to get them healthy, and then I wanted to find them a loving home. I just couldn’t do it as a private person.”
Shinn first fell in love with driving ponies as a child in Germany, and when her husband retired from the Army and they moved to their farm in the Bitterroot (in 2014), she started to dream about owning her own working horse. At the auctions, she kept seeing the draft horses coming through and realized she “couldn’t bring them all home.” Shinn had volunteered with another equine rescue operation here in the valley and thought she’d like to focus on the draft breeds, so she began looking into the legalities of starting a rescue program. She connected with some like-minded people who helped form a board, choose a name and create a mission statement: To save unwanted, neglected and abused draft horses from going to slaughter.
The group’s non-profit status was officially approved in January of 2018, and a timely article in the Missoulian newspaper brought in some donations and much needed publicity for their cause. The owners of the Black Cat Bake Shop in Missoula held a successful fundraiser for them in April. Over the course of the spring and summer, Shinn and her board members – along with a rescued horse or two – represented the group at several public events, creating important contacts that led to other opportunities to publicize their cause, like the non-profit fair in Hamilton and a booth at the Bitterroot Celtic Games and Festival. For the weekend of the 50-mile Garage Sale, the group set up a display at Cowpoke Ranch Supply where they sold used horse tack that supporters had donated, and at the end of the summer, Kari Schiffman of Valley Equine Massage invited them to share her booth at the Ravalli County Fair, along with other rescue groups in the Valley.
When she wasn’t spending her days at fund-raising events, Shinn was building relationships with other horse rescue organizations – Bella Dea Rescue Foundation in Great Falls, United in Light Draft Horse Sanctuary in Livingston, Coast to Coast Draft Horse Connection in Michigan, the Norwegian Fjord Horse Rescue Network, Western Montana Equine Rescue and Rehabilitation in Corvallis, to name a few. Shinn believes strongly that the groups need to work together toward their common goal of creating a happier outcome for unwanted horses. And she was working the auctions.
“She’s working the whole time,” Denise Vietz, one of the organization’s board members, says of Shinn. “It’s crazy! They come through so fast and she’s on her phone the whole time, networking with other rescue groups when she sees horses [other than draft breeds] that need help.” Because not everyone can get to the auctions, Shinn will serve as a proxy buyer to acquire horses for other organizations, as long as they can raise the funds in short order, and then if necessary, she will foster the horse until pick-up can be arranged. Right now, Shinn has a 27-year-old draft horse cross she bought at the Missoula auction who really needs to go to a sanctuary to live out his days, and United in Light Draft Horse Sanctuary in Livingston has helped with the purchase and agreed to take him, so Shinn will haul him there for them when she goes to the next Billings auction. In return, if she finds an eligible horse to bring home from the auction, the horse will spend the night at the Sanctuary on the way back to the Bitterroot, giving it time to recover from the auction process. It’s a relationship that helps both the humans and the horses, furthering the mutual goals of the organizations.
Once a new horse arrives at the 1 Horse at a Time facility, it’s kept in quarantine for thirty days, well-separated from the other horses. Shinn’s acreage is divided into several spacious paddocks and pastures, all very clean and tidy, the fences sound and strong. The current equine residents have a pecking order, of course, but they appear comfortable – calm and well-fed – and they are clearly fond of Shinn.
“The thirty days is for the horse to decompress, because it usually either came from an auction or … from a bad situation,” Shinn explains. “It’s time for them to get comfortable with the new situation, with our routine, to get to know me, and for me to get to know them. But I don’t work them or really try to discover what [they] know or [have] been trained to do.”
That evaluation comes later. First, Shinn takes them to Tammany Veterinary Clinic (just up the road in Corvallis) for a thorough veterinary exam and to address dental needs and any other problems the exam might reveal. Next Shinn arranges to attend to lameness or pain issues that are so often the cause for these gentle giants ending up at the sale in the first place. The Bitterroot Valley has a lot to offer horse owners seeking alternative therapies for equine treatment, and the Rescue is open to considering anything that might help the horses. Depending on a horse’s particular issue, Rescue horses have benefited from chiropractic, cranio-sacral, and acupuncture treatments, as well as equine massage.
“I really believe in that stuff,” Shinn says. “It does work for the horses. While it’s expensive, to me it’s absolutely worth it, with the stuff they’ve been through. They need it!”
Vietz adds, “You can see the difference it’s made for Tiny, even Sophia (two big Belgians). It’s amazing!”
Again, Shinn emphasizes the goal of helping the horse. “Maybe people think I’m spoiling these horses or wasting money, but to me, those are all valuable resources that are really helping the horses.”
Discovering the ins and outs of setting up a non-profit organization, maneuvering through the auction process and learning how to manage a horse’s physical ailments have been huge hurdles Shinn has overcome in the past year. But the most challenging – and for Shinn, the most disheartening – lesson of 2018 involves the dangers of miscommunication and misjudgment, how the lockstep mentality and rumor mill that often defines social media can work with breathtaking speed to dissemble something you’ve poured your whole heart into.
“We had a rough couple of weeks [this past fall],” Shinn acknowledges. Amid the hectic turmoil of an auction, while Shinn attempted to place a non-draft horse with another rescue organization to prevent it from going to slaughter, she stepped outside the normal protocol for adoptions that she and her board had so carefully created. Her attempts to correct the misunderstanding resulted in a confrontation she regrets, and the fallout from the incident was swift. A cascade of negative comments overwhelmed the Rescue’s social media presence, from accusations of financial improprieties and animal abuse to personal insults aimed directly at Shinn.
“It really makes you doubt,” Shinn admits. “You’re sitting here, you’re doing something good, you have a clean conscience…yet people are quick to believe lies rather than check facts.”
Vietz agrees it was a difficult time. “Words on social media mean more than anything else. It’s just devastating. But we pulled through…because we’re doing the right thing.”
“We sat together as a board,” Vietz recalls, “and we said, ‘We know we’re doing something good here; we have the horses that need our help. [We’re] not going to let someone ruin something good that we’re doing.’”
“I’ve had to do some deep thinking about that,” Shinn says, “and it’s going to always come back to that’s what my heart wants me to do and there’s not anybody that’s going to stop that. I’m lucky that … I’ve found that [backing] in my board and my friends and the people that support us in what we do.”
“Christmas at the Rescue” in December was the group’s first open house and a chance to move forward. It turned out to be a very successful day with a great turnout.
Shinn smiles. “A lot of people came out to meet the horses and see the place and learn about the organization and what we do. It confirmed that we’re on the right track, that we’re strong and striving and not just surviving.”
And the work goes on. Winter is the hardest time to find homes for the horses, as there is no pasture and feed is expensive. The Rescue happily accepts volunteer assistance to help care for the horses, which currently include seven ready for adoption, three of which have pending home offers, three are awaiting evaluation, and one needs more medical care. Donations — welcome any time of the year — are tax deductible and can be made via PayPal or by check (mailed to the facility at 326 Popham Lane, Corvallis MT 59828). More details – contact information, photographs of the horses and their stories – can be found at the group’s website: www.1horseatatime.com.
“There’s always going to be people out there that don’t like what you do,” Shinn admits, “or don’t agree with what you do.” But her heart is clearly set on helping draft horses in need, however she can, even if it’s only “one horse at a time.”