“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light,” wrote author J.K. Rowling in one of her popular Harry Potter novels. For Denise Holton, an amateur dressage rider, this quote rang true. On her path to finding a new partner, she discovered a charming little horse who would change her world forever. He’d been plucked from the darkness of a terrible life and given a second chance. Knowing what the gentle gelding had gone through and overcome has made their journey together all the sweeter for Denise.
Their tale began nearly a decade ago, in 2011. After having to retire her gelding, Denny, Denise scoured the local ads and horse sales websites for a potential new horse. She sought a smaller-sized, affable gelding whom she could take lessons on and compete with at local dressage shows. As a self-professed cautious rider, she never considered stopping by Days End Farm Horse Rescue (DEFHR), a local non-profit facility in Lisbon, Maryland, that she passed frequently. “I did not think that I could rescue a horse. It pains me to admit that,” she says.
However, one day, her trainer, Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel, suggested they visit the rescue to see the horses. “It surprised me to hear this world-renowned trainer suggest that my dressage prospect could be found at a rescue,” remembers Denise. “But she dismissed this by saying, ‘Beauty is where you find it.’”
Felicitas contacted DEFHR’s head trainer, Sara Nyman-Strauss, and arrangements were made to see horses at the facility. Since 1989, the non-profit has rescued and rehabilitated more than 2,500 horses in the Maryland and Virginia area, with 98 percent of them successfully being rehomed. They have a well-earned reputation for finding the perfect match for their horses.
Two suitable prospects were presented as potentials based on her wish list, and in the end, she chose a 6-year-old 15.1-hand mahogany bay gelding, named Navajo Native. With his eye-catching blaze and his kind, intelligent expression, there was something enchanting about him.
An Escape to a New Life
Beneath his charming exterior, Navajo Native held a heartbreaking past, and one that he’d overcome with quiet strength and resilience, thanks to DEFHR and Denise’s support and love. In May of 2010, Navajo Native and another stallion were found locked in an old milk barn in Garrett County, Maryland, with a thin strip of chewed wood between them. The door had been nailed shut. Nearly three feet of compressed manure gave insight as to the length of time that they were captive. How they might have been given hay or feed was unknown, while the animals outside of the barn were clearly given little to none. Ground vegetation was gone, as was tree bark as high as the animals could reach. Among the 24 additional horses, 18 cows, and six goats who were living on just five acres, there were 17 carcasses and strewn bones around the property. One of the remaining horses had to be euthanized.
The DEFHR team pulled Navajo Native from the shadows, gifting him the chance for a new life. After a successful rehabilitation and castration, he was ready to begin his training. By February 2011, he was working well in-hand and started under saddle. “He accepted a saddle and bridle without hesitation, although it appeared that he had no prior experience with either,” recalls Sara. “He was a good student and worked hard to understand what was asked of him. He always took everything in stride and progressed quickly.”
“There were frequent entries in their training journals about how smart he was and how quickly he learned,” says Denise. “And he would later show me that you can be curious or fearful, but not both at the same time. He would always choose curiosity over fear.”
Developing a Partnership
Denise was more interested in getting to know her new horse than delving into the terrible story of his past, but she absorbed as much information as she could about the situation from which he was rescued. To her, this new horse would be one of the most important parts of her life. She decided to name him Patronus, in honor of the spell used to ward off dark spirits in the Harry Potter books. It seemed fitting for such a positive little creature, with a blaze as thin as a wizard’s wand.
For Denise, the adoption experience ended up feeling more comfortable to her than purchasing a horse. “First of all, everyone at DEFHR was cheering us on and celebrating one of their horses moving to a forever home. Then Sara told me everything she knew about my horse and his past, the good and bad. Knowing what he survived could be important for our future, even though it was difficult to hear. Over time, I would learn from Patronus that horses don’t forget, yet they generously forgive.”
As Denise prepared for her new life with Patronus, she was grateful for the diligent care and thoughtful training he’d received at the facility. “We often think of rescues as humble places, but I was so impressed with the level of knowledge and skill of Sara and her volunteers, and also their creativity in finding many ways to showcase the horses that they had rescued and were available for adoption.”
Denise brought Patronus to First Choice Farm, just down the road from DEFHR, to begin working with Felicitas and her assistant trainer Corinne Foxley. “His training began slowly to develop fitness and build stamina and he tried hard every day,” recalls Denise. “Patronus was instantly popular around the barn, well-behaved and friendly. He seemed to think that everyone in the barn was there to see him.”
The commute between Denise’s home in New Jersey to the farm in Maryland was a lengthy drive, but one that she gladly made twice a week for lessons. She’d kept her now-retired horse, Denny, in training at First Choice Farm as well, and for her, it was the right fit. “I was drawn to their compassion and dedication to the horse, addressing each as an individual helping them learn in their own way,” she says. “I was inspired to make my goal to become the kind of rider that my horse liked.”
After training at First Choice Farm, Patronus showed Denise that he was willing to try new things and she learned to trust his good nature. At the end of 2018, they moved from First Choice to Keep Stables next door to expand their partnership with new riding challenges. Holly Linz managed both facilities and Corinne continued to train them.
“I was emboldened by their support and grew in confidence. In the spring of 2019, Corinne opened her own business, Beaux Rêves Equestrian, in Leesburg, Virginia, with partner Katie Haugh. We moved Patronus there and from May to October we accomplished many things. Some were goals and some were surprises!” They competed in local schooling shows, as well as recognized competitions at Morven Park and the Virginia Horse Center. In their first year of showing, they qualified for the USDF Masters Challenge Award for Training Level.
Worth the Wait
For Denise, the most important event of last year was performing a demo ride at the DEFHR Fall Festival—to Harry Potter music, of course. “We were on cloud nine!” she says. “And our Leesburg family came. Corinne, who just had a baby a few weeks prior, came with her mother, husband, and toddler, and Katie came with her husband and two little boys. We are so fortunate to have known such wonderful people, trainers and well-wishers in our career.”
Even after such a successful year with Patronus, Denise has no plans to slow down any time soon. “My goal for 2020 is to continue riding, training and participating in events, but without such a long commute.” Recently, she moved Patronus to a boarding farm near her home where she sees him every day.
Spending time with Patronus is something she doesn’t take for granted—and a goal she’s had for a long time. “I waited many years for a horse,” Denise says. “One of the defining moments of my life is my experience with Days End Farm Horse Rescue and the adopting of Patronus. I remember every moment.”
Even now, all these years later, Denise still finds herself thankful for the people who work and volunteer at rescues such as DEFHR. “I am aware of how lucky I am to simply select a rehabilitated horse who has been nurtured to welcome working with people. And although the folks at DEFHR did witness the very worst at the farm they rescued Patronus, they focus on optimism and support for adopters and their adopted horses.”
The magic of Patronus is felt by nearly all who meet him, as he casts a charming spell on his many fans. His enduring spirit and resilience are a testament to a horse’s trust and faith in their partner, and one that Denise has treasured every day since they first met.
Learn more about Days End Farm Horse Rescue’s adoptable horses as well as their numerous education and volunteer opportunities. Visit defhr.org