Late on a recent Tuesday night, six strangers stepped foot on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation — at first, slowly and cautiously, taking in their new surroundings.
Bubba stuck close to Red, the wise old man of the group, while Benny broke out on his own, keeping with his independent nature. Clancey made no attempt to hide his inherent stubbornness and Roxy, whose affection is not easy to win, kept to herself.
Last, there was Rooney, typically sweet and laid back, despite being the largest of the group. But lately, he’d seemed angry and depressed, reeling from losing his longtime home and the family that loved him.
When he met Shinnecock tribal member Shane Weeks, that was all over. The Belgian draft horse knew he was home — together with Red the Appaloosa, Bubba the miniature horse, Benny the donkey, Clancey the mule, and Roxy the mare.
“It was amazing when the horses first got here how well they took to the land,” Mr. Weeks said. “We walked them all down to our beach over here on Shinnecock Bay and we’re not sure, but we think most of the horses probably had never seen the salt water before. They just went in there, one of them started rolling around in the water, the other one just kept splashing around.”
Sitting at the powwow grounds, where the community horses are currently living, he laughed at the memory, piquing Clancey’s attention. Naturally nosy, the mule wasted no time and trotted over to Mr. Weeks, plopping his head on his shoulder to eavesdrop.
“Say hi, Clance. He has his head on my shoulder right now, listening in,” he said over the phone. “I think it’s amazing. It’s really an amazing opportunity to be able to provide this for our people here, and also to be able to provide this home for these horses.
“I think every community needs something that uplifts everybody’s spirit, and I think these horses absolutely do that here. You can see it immediately how instantaneous everybody’s spirits are lifted.”
Matched with the nation by Pamela Rickenbach — founder of Blue Star Equiculture, a Massachusetts-based rescue for homeless, disabled and retired horses — the pack of six will become community horses, available to all to visit, but primarily cared for by a group of core volunteers, including Mr. Weeks and Chenoa Curry, who’s fostered a lifelong passion for horses.
“It was very revealing when they came. We all felt the energy,” Ms. Curry said. “They knew that we needed them just as much as they needed us.”
While a kinship between horses and the tribe dates back hundreds of years — “There have been horses on Shinnecock for many years, forever,” Mr. Weeks said — it is a first to have horses specifically for the community, where everyone can feel a sense of ownership.
Tribe members are encouraged to care for them, ride them, or just simply be with them, which the community has already embraced. Foot traffic to the powwow grounds has not slowed since the horses arrived.
“We’re tapping into mental health, tapping into disabilities, tapping into the children or elders who want to come out and have a companion, or just have a place to be,” Ms. Curry said. “So this is a holistic approach, and it’s kind of trial and error. There’s nothing rigid, there’s nothing set in place. We’re allowing the horses to teach us what they need, as well as what we need.”
Once the horses are acclimated, the volunteers plan to start a “work to ride” program that will teach children how to take care of the horses, and take on more responsibility, in exchange for a reward, which could be learning how to ride or drive — or, if that is too intimidating, simply spending one-on-one time with the horses.
“This kind of model is teaching these children work ethic, empathy, reliability, giving them all the tools that they may be lacking, that they can develop by just having fun and dealing with horses,” Ms. Curry said. “The ultimate goal is to get everyone involved.”
Eventually, the horses will serve as therapy animals for the entire community, but especially the elders. Some rarely leave their homes, due to blindness or co-morbidity, so the tribe plans to bring the horses to them.
“We’re gonna do door knocks — “Good morning, this is our horse” — and have the elders come to the doorsteps and meet them, so this is the first step with the therapy,” Ms. Curry said. “We even had therapy going on yesterday and we didn’t even realize it. We had children down here, who conquered fears just being here, jumping on the horse and sitting on them for two seconds. It was monumental.
“So that’s the end goal,” she continued, “to see these people coming in and reaching for these resources, finding something in themselves that they may have never found before.”
To comfortably accommodate the horses, the Shinnecock will need to build a barn space. The facility that Ms. Rickenbach proposed is circular in design, with a 70-foot indoor sand area, which will cost the tribe about $200,000.
“We’ll have to do fundraising for the horses, and honestly, if all we do is fundraise for the horses, everything else will fall into place,” Ms. Rickenbach said. “The way the community is gonna be blessed is beyond amazing, I just know it. Horses have survived countless cataclysmic earth changes; they’re ancient. And we have been in close relationship with them for thousands of years.
“They can help us come through hard things and stay present and aware and connected to spirit,” she continued. “They know how to do that, they activate that in us. And maybe that’s what we’ve always needed them for, more than any other thing — not to mention that they built the world we know. But maybe the real world they’re helping us build is our hearts, to connect our hearts to our heads.”
In the coming weeks, the tribe will also adopt a pair of Andalusians, which they will welcome into the community just as they did the first group.
“The pull was very strong,” Ms. Curry said. “They came, they opened up to us, we opened up to them, and they took it all in. They’ve already made spiritual connections. We’ve had some kids down here with autism who have conquered fears. Our donkey got out and ended up finding a new home with a little girl, some are reading books to them at night. It’s making connections that these broken kids can relate to, because these are broken horses.”
“They all lost something,” Ms. Rickenbach said.
“They feel the same way, whether they’re human or animals,” Ms. Curry said. “They connect in the same way.”
While Rooney has latched onto Mr. Weeks, Red and Ms. Curry have started to understand each other more and more. Benny the donkey continues to march to his own beat, doing whatever he pleases, as does Bubba the mini-horse, who runs around like he’s 20 feet tall as Clancey watches from a safe distance.
“Clancey is the man,” Ms. Rickenbach said. “He’s a mule, so he’s not warm and fuzzy like the horses are, but he’s amazing.”
When it came to Roxy, the horse rescuer was nervous that the retired New York City carriage horse wouldn’t want to interact with any of the tribe members. “She just doesn’t like anybody,” she said, “but then I met Al.”
Tribe member Al Marshall is a core volunteer who has ridden horses most of his life. It took no time for him and Roxy to form a bond and lean on one another, already trusting their friendship enough to swim together.
“For me, it’s just more for therapy,” he said. “Myself, I struggle a little bit with some stuff, so this is like awesome medicine for me. I’m right at home and it’s the best thing that’s happened, really. I’m happy that we’re able to bring them here to our community and it will also bring us together, you know? I think the horses are this great thing.”
Over time, Ms. Curry will teach them how to truly be together, fostering a relationship that will help them both grow and heal — an example of what Ms. Rickenbach hopes will happen for the entire Shinnecock tribe.
“I just know Roxy and Al are gonna make history, I don’t know how. But those two are gonna do great things together,” she said. “I realized he has this burning love for the horses and this mare needs him. She needs somebody that will love her like that. When you love them like that, there’s nothing they won’t do for you. That’s the kind of connection she needs and that he can give.
“She’s already been out in the ocean with Al. I knew it, I knew those two would see each other,” she continued. “Horses are an extremely, incredibly sensitive friend, and I think by taking good care of these ones that are at risk, we show that not only can we take care of them, they can uplift any community. I’ve done this work now for 11 years and I’ve seen the hundreds of lives that the horses can change, just by letting a person come and meet them, and know them in some way.”
Contributed to first place Writer of the Year award, New York Press Association, 2020
Judge’s comments: “This writer handled a diverse set of topics beautifully, mixing an investigative approach with rich storytelling and a human touch to produce in-depth news features with high community impact and interest. The writer understands that all great stories, though built on solid foundational facts and data, are about people’s experiences – their joys and sorrows, their fears and triumphs.”