Holding Horses

Holding Horses

Mary Santagata is a woman who, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw by way of Robert Kennedy, dreams of things that never were and says, “Why not?” In 2010, Santagata opened All the King’s Horses Equine Rescue in Northford, a sort of halfway home for animals—horses, ponies, donkeys, even goats—whose owners have been forced to give them up, most often due to financial problems or failing health. In the decade since, Santagata and fellow volunteers (there are no paid positions at All the King’s Horses, including Santagata’s) have turned a stretch of farmland on Route 22 into a compound for housing and training these animals on their way to adoption.

Santagata, a Guilford native, began her career as a social worker. But after adopting her first rescue horse, she quickly realized the pressing need to provide homes for more large animals. On a recent walkthrough, I met Chocolate, an irascible donkey who will be heading to a sanctuary in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Next came Scarlett, who’s been at the facility since 2012. Santagata suspects that her large size—and proportionate appetite—combined with the fact she can’t be ridden have kept her from being adopted.

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In the adjoining paddock was a handsome thoroughbred who’d been returned after eight years with an adoptive family. (All the King’s Horses follows its animals for life—all 121 of them at last count—so any of them can return if the need arises.) At the end of the row was Malibu, a mustang who stole my heart. Arriving as part of a collaboration with the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, Malibu has been gentled from an obstreperous rebel to an attention-seeking sweetheart who nuzzled me as I tried to take her photo. Farther along, in a separate pen with six-foot-high fencing and a special shelter mandated for wild horses, stood Sequoia. She’s a California mustang just beginning the gentling process. She warily eyed us—especially me—as we passed.

At the far end of the property, Santagata keeps her own animals, a convivial menagerie of equines, sheep and ducks along with an obligatory barn cat. Although she has purposely taken in some of them, many find their way to her when it is obvious that they will not be adopted. In pre-COVID days, Santagata tells me, one of her ponies, a white cutie called Winter, was a regular therapeutic visitor to assisted living centers.

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Last year, in partnership with the Ethan Miller Song Foundation, a second property was purchased in Guilford to house the SongStrong Sanctuary, where adoption-ready horses are not only cared for but given an opportunity to interact with the public. Currently, SongStrong Sanctuary offers horsemanship lessons for all ages using many of the equines housed on that property, including 32-year-old pony Bugsy and regal white mustang Arizona.

SongStrong is also where the rescue’s newest residents, Darla and Moony, are being nursed back to health from near starvation and a variety of ailments. Caring for large animals is expensive. Darla has a sponsor who pays for her special food, medicine and treatment and also participates in her care. But not all of the animals are lucky enough to have a benefactor. Though fundraising during the pandemic is difficult, Santagata and her volunteers are resourceful. They’ve held yoga classes on the sanctuary grounds and a decentralized scavenger hunt/race. In the coming days, All the King’s Horses will participate in The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven’s Great Give, an annual fundraising event involving matching funds and prizes in order to maximize the benefit for local nonprofits.

Santagata, who now works full-time for the state Department of Agriculture in a job that keeps her apprised of needy animals throughout the state, continues to look to the future. She plans to establish an equine therapy program at SongStrong and provide additional educational experiences for the public. And, later on, she’d like to create another sanctuary in the west, exclusively for the mustangs.

Why not?

All the King’s Horses Equine Rescue
630 Forest Rd, Northford (map)
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Written and photographed by Nancy McNicol. Image 1 features Arizona. Image 2 features Cedar, Sage and Pearl.

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