Daniel Rubin: Where horses are put out to pasture in grand style

Ryerss employee Sarah Barnshaw gives a carrot to Dancer, who was a racer in California before coming to the farm about 19 years ago. Dancer is among 79 horses at Ryerss.
Ryerss employee Sarah Barnshaw gives a carrot to Dancer, who was a racer in California before coming to the farm about 19 years ago. Dancer is among 79 horses at Ryerss. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 26, 2011

There's nothing better for the inside of a man, according to an old cowboy saw, than the outside of a horse.

A friend who knows horses told me this. I don't know horses. Never been on one, never even petted one. Until Monday.

"You'll lose your fingers that way," cautioned Sarah Barnshaw as I tried to feed a carrot to a beast named Wheaties. She showed me how to center the offering in my outstretched palm so the horse could retrieve it with practiced lips.

Barnshaw was giving me a tour of what she called Chester County's best-kept secret, the Ryerss Farm for Aged Equines, the nation's oldest retirement home for horses.

And Wheaties, a cross of Arabian and quarter horse, was happy to serve as sidekick. Wheaties doesn't play well with other horses, Barnshaw said. Prefers humans. Thinks he's a giant golden retriever.

The 36-year-old horse filled the doorway between the farm office and the lower barn, insisting that tribute be paid before we could pass. If Wheaties is a bit spoiled, he is not alone. Soon the entire lower barn had joined in on percussion, flicking the metal gates with front legs. Carrots for everyone.

At Ryerss, 79 retired or rescued horses have been put out to the nicest 383 acres of pasture you can imagine. You'll find old stadium jumpers and cutting horses, studs and broodmares, race horses, therapy horses, polo players, and police mounts, all grazing on homegrown hay and alfalfa.

There's Stanley, who worked for Big Pharma before his retirement. Researchers injected him with snake venom and his responses helped create an antidote that's eliminated much suffering. Now it's his turn in the sun.

Still quarantined is Magic Touch, the daughter of Ferdinand, who won the 1986 Kentucky Derby. Ferdinand was destroyed in Japan after he proved a dud at stud. Horse lovers were not going to let his daughter suffer the same fate. The recent rescue will be fostered until another home can be found.

If you saw the movie Elf, you might have glimpsed Judd. He was one of the horses that New York City Central Park rangers rode as they chased after Santa's sleigh.

Celebrity for most of the horses comes after their arrival at the retirement home. Ryerss' website and Facebook page offer photos and bios. The horses' mugs are available on mouse pads, tote bags, buttons - anything to help pay for their care.

A decade ago the home was losing more than $50,000 a year. New management has made changes, pulling in grants, raising admission "donations" to $4,500 to $5,000, depending on the age of the horse.

Once a horse arrives at Ryerss, it has arrived. It never has to work again or carry a human rider. A steady stream of admirers comes bearing combs, carrots, and apples. No wonder the waiting list for admission is five years and 300 horses long.

The retirement home's benefactor was a rich Philadelphia animal lover named Anne Waln Ryerss, who bristled every time she saw someone working a horse too hard. She would offer to board the horse for free for a few weeks at her Burholme summer place, and often that stay stretched to the remainder of the horse's days.

She left $70,000 for the care of horses, worth about $1.6 million today, and the Ryerss Infirmary for Dumb Animals opened in 1888 in the Bustleton section of Northeast Philadelphia. Since 1987 the farm has been located on Route 23, straddling South Coventry and Warwick Townships.

If you have to go into a retirement home, this one seems pretty wonderful. In the upper barn, I got to watch the farrier at work. Paul Messner stops by every Monday to trim hooves. On average the horses go six to eight weeks before needing to see the compact man with massive forearms.

He worked through a half-dozen horses and ponies in 15 minutes, coaxing them to bend their legs one at a time as he sliced a thin "C" of white nail from the sole, then clipped the edges with what looked like a giant iron ice tong.

Kasey, 31, didn't seem thrilled.

"She has a camel face when she's angry," said Lisa Shotzberger, Ryerss' animal-rights manager, who was sweeping up and scissoring an occasional tail. "See that face? It isn't pretty. At least she doesn't spit."

Messner nodded and said, "Give her time."

Daniel Rubin:

To see a video from the Ryerss Farm for Aged Equines, go to www.philly.com

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com or @danielrubin on Twitter.

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