NEW HAVEN — Trotting through the horse-show ring at Addison County Fair and Field Days, Oliver and Zeb held their heads up high in the summer sun, far from the harsh conditions in which Anna Willenbaker found them more than two years ago.
Willenbaker, 15, was riding Zeb in the Gymkhana show, in which horses and riders compete on how quickly they can complete patterns.
In late 2009, Willenbaker was among the people and organizations that intervened for 11 horses on Bernard and Louis Quesnel’s farm who were to be shipped to Canada for slaughter. The horses were rescued, and the state banned the Quesnels, who did not have proper paperwork to sell the horses within the state, from trading livestock for a period of two years.
Willenbaker said of the six horses she and friends rescued from the Middlebury farm with the help of Spring Hill Farm in Clarendon, Zeb was the last to leave. On Tuesday, she recalled looking back at him as she left with a full trailer-load of horses, promising herself and the horse that she would be back.
“He was in the barn in deep mud,” she said. “He looked like a standing rack of ribs.”
That, she said, was the moment when she formed a bond with Zeb, whom she started riding shortly afterward.
“I just had that really good feeling about him,” Willenbaker said.
Zeb was already partially trained for riding, but the already-skilled rider went to work to prepare him for shows.
“He’s basically perfect,” she said. “Now he follows me around the pasture.”
Zeb is the one horse Willenbaker kept. Most of the others, she said, have been sold to trusted owners, given as gifts to the people who helped stable the horses after the rescue, or adopted out to loving families.
Willenbaker and friends, working with Spring Hill Animal Rescue, devised a strategy to adopt the horses for free with the promise of a good home and care. Adoptive owners must, among other things, sign a contract requiring them to report back if they ever became unable to care for the horse.
Sylvia Vorsteveld, 10, of Bridport was putting Oliver through his paces at Tuesday’s show. The Vorstevelds think the animal is about 20 years old and used to be a Gymkhana horse.
Lydia Vorsteveld, Sylvia’s mother, said when they found Oliver it seemed like the perfect match. Sylvia grew up teaching herself to ride horses on the family’s dairy farm in Idaho. When they moved back to Vermont to start an organic dairy here, they began looking for a new horse for Sylvia. This spring, they found the horse up for adoption on Craigslist.
Lydia said so far, the deal has worked out perfectly.
“I feel really good that he found a home and (Sylvia) found a horse,” said Lydia.
And the care Oliver gets goes above and beyond feeding and riding.
“Sylvia’s 10, so he’s getting shampooed and conditioned almost every day,” said Lydia with a laugh.
Once Oliver’s past was revealed, Sylvia decided that she wanted to ride in the Gymkhana show at Field Days. Lydia said though her daughter is a self-taught rider, her dedication to riding — and the demonstration videos she found on the web — have allowed her to train for the show.
For her part, Sylvia was looking forward to her first Gymkhana event on Tuesday, and she said she’s grown to love Oliver.
“I ride him every day,” she said. “I heard he was a Gymkhana horse before we got him, so I wanted to try that.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.