It was a slow Saturday afternoon in January at the L.V. Harkness & Co. store on Short Street. Owner Meg Jewett was surfing Facebook when a picture on one of the horse rescue pages she follows leapt off the screen and touched her heart.
It was of a 10-year-old Belgian in Pennsylvania, a former work horse, rescued from a slaughter pen with hooves so damaged she could barely walk. Within minutes, Jewett had bought the mare she would name Mercy.
Then Jewett, who also owns Walnut Hall Stock Farm, started thinking through the challenges: How would she get this horse to Kentucky? If she could save her, what would she do with her? And how would she explain all this to her husband?
As it turns out, husband Alan Leavitt, a fellow horse lover, had bought a 29-year-old rescue Standardbred he had not told her about. So that part was easy. The rest, not so much. Jewett and her farm staff went to Pennsylvania with a trailer, carefully brought Mercy back to Walnut Hall and spent months nursing her back to health.
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What is Mercy’s future? The gentle giant who loves nothing more than having people pet her and feed her horse cookies is beginning a second career as the “spokes-model” for a new service-learning program for Fayette County Public Schools.
The program, called Take the Reins, has two goals: to teach children about horse care, the industry and compassionate service; and to raise money and awareness for the Kentucky Equine Humane Center.
Mercy will be taken by horse trailer Aug. 29 from her forever home at Walnut Hall to Julius Marks Elementary School, where 750 students will get a chance to pet her. That will launch a Take the Reins pilot program, which organizers hope to expand to other Lexington schools next year.
“I feel very honored that this has fallen into my lap,” said Julius Marks Principal Lynn Poe. “It’s bringing the real world into our classrooms and teaching children that it’s not just about receiving but about giving back.”
Jewett is a founder and board member of the 11-year-old Kentucky Equine Humane Center, located on a 72-acre farm in Jessamine County. The center cares for about 50 horses at a time. Some are brought there by authorities after they have been found abandoned. Others are surrendered by owners who can no longer care for them because of health or financial problems.
With a lot of help from the industry, including Alltech and the major equine veterinary practices at Rood & Riddle and Hagyard, the center’s small staff heals and retrains horses and finds them new owners.
The center takes horses of all ages and breeds from Kentucky and has sent them to new homes all over the country.
“The eventual goal is for every horse here to be adopted,” said Karen Gustin, the executive director. “A lot of our placements are a perfect match: the right people, the right horse at the right time.”
More than 1,000 horses have passed through the center, spending anywhere from weeks to years there in rehabilitation.
“You really do see magical things happen with our horses,” Gustin said. “Some of them don’t make it, but a large majority do.”
The idea for Take the Reins developed quickly this year as Mercy healed.
Gustin and Jewett had always wanted a fundraising, education and community outreach program for the center. Laura Schnettler, a center volunteer, works for L.V. Harkness, as does Mindy Mobley, the PTA president at Julius Marks.
They found eager partners in Poe, an award-winning principal with a background in both the horse industry and service learning curricula, and Alltech co-founder Deirdre Lyons, whose company is the presenting sponsor of Take the Reins.
While Mercy is the face of the program because she is gentle with children, Julius Marks students will actually “foster” a 5-month-old black and white grade colt that was brought to the center from Eastern Kentucky after his abandoned mother died. The center staff has named him Patrick’s Bullseye.
Julius Marks students will write letters to the colt, draw pictures of him and write stories about him, Poe said. In math lessons, they will calculate how much hay and straw he needs and what that costs.
Young students will grow carrots for Patrick’s Bullseye in the school garden, and fourth- and fifth-graders will take field trips to the humane center and see him. The school will have guest speakers from the equine industry, and the curriculum will incorporate elements of the state’s guidelines for college and career readiness.
“I can see some of them becoming veterinarians, veterinary assistants, farriers, farmers, running non-profits,” Poe said. “Our kids are so creative, and they are ready to make a difference in this world.”
Poe said she has talked with the principal of Locust Trace AgriScience Center about how its high school students could collaborate with her children on the project. Julius Marks students and their parents will raise money for the colt’s care, which costs about $500 a month. Fundraising ideas will come from the students.
“There are all sorts of ways that they will create, they will lead and we will support,” she said. “You know, the best initiatives come from young minds.”