AP NEWS

Coldwater equine rescue offers 2nd chance for horses, people

September 23, 2019
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In this Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 photo, leadership member Violet Cunkle, 13, cuddles with a rescue horse on at Hidden Ponds Horse Rescue in Coldwater, Mich. At Hidden Ponds, rescued horses are used for therapy, giving horses and humans a second chance. (Alyssa Keown/Battle Creek Enquirer via AP)
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In this Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 photo, leadership member Violet Cunkle, 13, cuddles with a rescue horse on at Hidden Ponds Horse Rescue in Coldwater, Mich. At Hidden Ponds, rescued horses are used for therapy, giving horses and humans a second chance. (Alyssa Keown/Battle Creek Enquirer via AP)

COLDWATER, Mich. (AP) — Jaxson Gutierrez gently groomed Tootsie Roll under the shade of a tree where the filly was tied on a warm Saturday morning.

The boy’s mother, Shawnelle Gutierrez, stood nearby as the 9-year-old demonstrated the proper brushing technique. She said her son has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and anxiety, which has resulted in some anger problems.

Tootsie Roll, an 8-year-old miniature that had been forfeited, also had a reputation for having a short fuse.

“We both have problems with our anger,” Jaxson told the Battle Creek Enquirer . “I think that’s how I connected with her.”

Jaxson has worked with Tootsie Roll for about a year. Both he and the horse have shown such a transformation, developed such a bond, that the Gutierrez family is in the process of adopting her.

The connection between the two was forged on the 80-acre grounds of Hidden Ponds Horse Rescue in Coldwater. Its motto is, “Where horses and people have a second chance.”

The nonprofit is set up to help young people who suffer from social, emotional and physical disabilities, as well as those who are struggling in school or who have run afoul from the law.

“We had issues with (Jaxson’s) medicine. Then we’d be here, and he’d be good,” Shawnelle said. “But he’d miss a couple days (here) and we’d see him withdrawing and fighting. Then we’d come here, and I’d have my little boy back.”

Many others have found their niche at Hidden Ponds. The ranch is not a licensed treatment facility, such as the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta, but a campground and rescue operation.

And exactly who is rescuing who is a matter of interpretation.

Jeff Friend, 62, owns two antique malls, two gift shops and a restaurant, but says he’s “semi-retired,” letting his managers operate his businesses.

With a mustache and salt and pepper hair, he resembles the Marlboro Man. While students went out for a trail ride on final exam day, the Hidden Ponds founder lit a cigar.

“It’s my only vice,” he said in his distinctive gruff voice.

Friend has worked with horses since he was 12 years old. He says his late father, Bill Friend, launched the Branch County chapter of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America and “taught me a great example.”

“My dad, when he died, he never told me I had done a good job. He would tell everyone else,” Friend said. ”‘Dad, why can’t you tell me I did a good job?’ ‘Because you will quit trying.’ When he died, he gave a message to the minister who said at the service, ’Your dad had a message just for you, ‘Well done son, I am proud of you.’ I think about it every day.”

With some financial help and encouragement from his late mother-in-law, Friend opened Hidden Ponds in 2013. The facility now has 20 horses, with colorful names like Snickers, Sunshine, Princess, Miracle and Cher.

Dr. Karen Waite, equine extension specialist at Michigan State University, says there is a need for rescue facilities like Hidden Ponds in Michigan and across the U.S.

“Those that do exist tend to be full, and this was especially true during the recession, when people no longer had the extra income to maintain horses that they once did. It likely remains true now, however... Given the ever increasing cost of keeping horses, it becomes more and more difficult for rescue or second career facilities to remain economically viable.”

Friend said he accepts all horses so long as they are under 15 years old, when the cost of care tends to dramatically rise. Some of his horses, like Tootsie Roll, were simply forfeited to the rescue because their owners could no longer care for them. But many have traumatic backgrounds.

“Sadie was so skinny, we didn’t even know she was pregnant. On the third month, she gave birth and we call her Miracle Star,” Friend said. “Rosie was beaten so bad she had a broken bone in her back.”

A horse named Cher had a burn mark on her neck, he said.

Chief was buried in manure “clear to his stomach.”

“It took us five hours to dig him out and took us three weeks to teach him how to walk again,” Friend said. “Every horse has a story.”

Friend said it costs roughly $3,000 a month to care for the horses considering shelter, hay, vaccinations, vitamins and hoof trimmings. Hidden Ponds depends largely on donations that are tax deductible through its 501c3 status.

Friend insists his students refer to him as “Mr. Friend,” though he also accepts “Grandpa.” He and his wife of 27 years, Bonny Friend, share 12 grandchildren, and he’s happy to serve as a surrogate grandparent.

The classes he offers at hidden ponds consist of an hour of instruction followed by an hour of working with horses, including grooming, walking, feeding and cleaning up after them.

It costs $100 for each person to take the six-week beginners course, and another $100 for the advanced class.

After passing the final exam, which consists of a written and a riding test, graduates are invited to participate in a free leadership program, where young people literally take the reins and assist other students.

Sixteen-year-old Chloe Schaale participates in the leadership program, as well as Hidden Ponds’ 4H team dubbed “New Life,” which brought home 83 ribbons from the Branch County Fair.

“I was a bit nervous in the beginning, but, after all these years, I was OK with (riding a horse). I was a natural,” said Schaale, who was born with nerve damage that caused partial hearing loss. “I get scared because I’m with an animal that can go out of control, and I might not understand what is going on. If I feel it, they are going to feel it... I’ve been hurt riding a few times. But you get right back on.”

Friend encourages parents to be involved, too. When Regina Shook came with her son Gavin, 13, and her daughter, Jillian, 11, Friend convinced her to sign up for the beginners class herself.

“Jeff likes to throw me in the mix of things, and I’ve loved every minute of it,” Shook said. “This is something I never would have thought (Gavin) would enjoy. He’s mister video gamer. She loves horses. He has surprised me a lot being here, opening up and wanting to be part of things I never thought he’d want to be part of. Which made me want to be part of it, too.”

The Gutierrez family has been coming to the rescue for three years after their oldest, 12-year-old Jasmine, became enamored with Snickers during a Girl Scout outing on the property.

The family had moved back to Michigan from Texas. At the time, Shawnelle and her husband, Rigo, were on the verge of divorce.

“We weren’t happy anymore,” Shawnelle said. “It’s amazing... To see the change in all my kids, in our marriage, we’re happy now. Night and day, it’s been 180 for all of us. I tell everyone Jeff is an angel on earth.”

Friend said Hidden Ponds works with the Michigan State Police, Branch County Sheriffs Department and Animal Control in five counties when taking in horses. He also offers programs for recovering addicts as well as juvenile offenders through the Branch County and Hillsdale County court systems.

“We’re all about respect, honor and loyalty,” Friend said. “If you show a horse respect, he’ll give you honor and, if you give him honor, he’ll be loyal to you. If you disrespect him, he’s a 1,200-pound animal, just try it and see what happens. You will lose the battle.”

Josh Jacobus, Youth Specialist for the Branch County Day Treatment, said he’s been bringing groups to Hidden Ponds for each of the past two summers, spending a couple hours maintaining the property and caring for the horses.

“They get work ethic and trust and all the things you need to be productive citizens and stay out of the court system through his horse rescue,” Jacobus said. “I like seeing the kids change from not trusting and making bad decisions, and watch them evolve to trusting animals and people and eventually themselves.”

Friend said he’s been approached with offers to buy the property, but he has no desire to sell, and envisions Hidden Ponds growing to serve more horses and people in the future.

“This is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “Every time I see a child’s grades go up or a young person go off probation, what money value can you put on that?”

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Information from: Battle Creek Enquirer, http://www.battlecreekenquirer.com