Salvation at Sandy Level--The Laughing Horse Sanctuary in Pittsylvania County rescues horses from neglect and abuse.
By Elizabeth Farina, The Roanoke Times
"One of their first dates was to a livestock auction, where Tom Durfee took notice of his future wife's interest in a calf.
"Most guys buy jewelry. He bought me a cow," Julia Durfee said.
The fully grown cow, known as Samantha, is now part of a large family of four-legged friends at The Laughing Horse Sanctuary in Pittsylvania County.
Tom and Julia Durfee, who married in August 1999, started the sanctuary in 2003 after Tom read an article about horse slaughter practices in an issue of "Horse Illustrated."
"It's a sick trade," Tom said. "I can understand if you have to humanely euthanize a horse, but you don't have to torture it to death. I felt that I should give these 'supposed' unwanted horses a place to live."
Tom, a New Jersey native and U.S. Navy veteran of the Persian Gulf War, was already raising a small number of livestock, such as goats and cattle, when the couple took in six horses from a trader. The couple decided Julia, 41, would focus on her home-based medical transcription company and Tom, 44, would focus on the full-time efforts of caring for the rescue's animals.
Blue, Sadie, Sarrie, Katie, Pepper, and Shadow now have a permanent home on 70 acres of land at the Sandy Level sanctuary with views of Smith Mountain.
"Shadow was beaten and terrified of people. He's survived two trips through the auction house," Tom said. "I've been riding him now for four years. It took me two years for him not to tremble when he made a mistake. He's my equine soul mate."
Since these six horses arrived, several more with similar past abuses by previous owners have been brought to The Laughing Horse Sanctuary. Recent arrivals include 10 wild mustangs that were part of a larger herd being starved to death in California. Now "the Wild Bunch" number 13 since three of the mustang mares were pregnant upon arrival.
Wendy Henderson of Richmond, a regular volunteer at the rescue, purchased Diamond from a co-worker and donated the horse with a sponsorship to the rescue.
"Forty dollars a month is cheap for boarding," said Henderson, who has two horses of her own in the Richmond area.
The Laughing Horse Sanctuary sponsorship program asks for a $40 monthly donation that covers hay, feed and grass seed cost for each horse. The sanctuary adoption rate for a horse is $500. There is a $50 adoption fee for the companion goats.
"We've adopted out six pet goats since February and one horse named Faith," Julia said. "It's not about the profit but taking care of the horses. We do it out of love."
The sanctuary also accepts volunteer hours. Volunteer opportunities include grooming and brushing the horses to experienced riders helping out in exercising the Appaloosas, Quarter horses, and other mares.
"We enjoy people coming to see the animals," Tom said. "The horses like a change of scenery and there is no charge to ride."
The nonprofit horse rescue, which is funded through donations, adoptions and sponsorships of the horses and goats, is only part of the Durfees' lives. The couple also lobbies Congress to pass a federal ban on the slaughter of horses, which are a considered a dining delicacy in European markets. The H.R. 503 bill, introduced in February by Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) with 113 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, was referred to the subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.
According to the Internal Revenue Service, nonprofit organizations are allowed to lobby for issues as long as they stay within various guidelines in regard to spending and effort.
"If we end slaughter, the rescues could do the job they were meant to do and focus on the injured, like Hoppy and Chico," Tom said.
Chico is a 28-year-old Tennessee Walker that was loved by a family who could no longer care for him. The sweet fellow greets every visitor to the sanctuary as he peruses the front yard of the rescue with several baby goats. Hoppy, a former show horse, broke his leg while he was neglected by his former owner in winter pasture. The blue-eyed beauty is now unable to put weight on the healed leg, which received treatment too late.
"Every horse has a story," Julia said.
On the Net: www.laughinghorse.org.