Wednesday, May 22, 2013
MADISON -- Gary Davis stood in the middle of a corral at Albertson's Quarter Horse Farm, the long reins in his hands connected to the horse's halter.
Brenda Albertson, left, of Albertson's Quarter Horse farm in Madison, speaks about her program that offers homeless people an opportunity to learn about care and riding horses. From left is Albertson, as Gary Davis and Kurt Keschl of the Trinity Evangelical Free shelter in Skowhegan groom a horse named Dillon.
Staff photo by David Leaming
The horse responded to his voice commands to walk or trot or stop. When Davis finished learning for the first time how to "ground drive" and stepped out of the gate, he was smiling.
No one would know that Davis, 24, is currently homeless -- that as a Marine he completed two tours in Iraq and now can't find a job.
He has lived at the homeless shelter at Skowhegan Trinity Evangelical Free Church for about two weeks. In a week and a half, he said he applied for about 35 jobs.
"If I had more work, I'd keep him here," said the farm's owner, Brenda Albertson, 62. Instead of work, however, she is providing another opportunity. For about a month, she has taken the homeless onto her 168-acre farm to teach them how to care for and ride horses.
"This is my dream. Working with horses. Working with these guys. I think it helps them become people again," Albertson said.
Albertson, speaking on a clear day outside one of her barns, said she believes that horses are a form of therapy. Many of the homeless she has worked with have post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Horses kind of empower you," she said. "You're bigger and stronger. Being homeless, you feel sunk in a hole ... (Horses) just build your self-esteem and confidence."
She said, "(The homeless are) not bad people. They're people like you or I who have lost jobs or homes ... These are hardworking people who are down and out. It can happen to any of us."
Pastor Richard Berry, who runs the shelter at the church in Skowhegan, said he knows of no other farm in Maine that teaches the homeless about horses.
"Some of those guys have never been around animals in their lives. Others haven't been around them in a long time. Animals have a calming effect on people," he said.
Albertson accepts three men from the shelter two times a week. They start with the basics, such as grooming and cleaning hooves, and then work up to lunging and ground driving and, eventually, if they keep coming back, riding. Whoever comes also gets lunch.
Albertson provides the training and food for free, but participants complete basic chores in exchange, such as feeding the horses, raking the lawn or cleaning stalls.
Davis said, "I always loved animals. It gives me something to do, and I enjoy it."
Kurt Keschl, 38, wears yellow-tinted glasses and keeps his hair in a ponytail. He has lived at the Skowhegan shelter about three months. Before, he resided in New York City. He said he knew nothing about horses before he started coming to the farm.
"I like to learn new things, and it's a good opportunity," he said. "I spent a lot of time in the city, so it's good to be in the country."
The farm consumes Albertson's life. She works seven days a week and hasn't taken a vacation in years. The last time she took a vacation, she attended a horse event. In addition to breeding, showing and training horses, she gives children lessons after school, does 4-H programs and organizes children's camps. She has worked with special needs children for 40 years.
And, within a month, she hopes to expand her new program for the homeless, she said, to include women from New Hope Evangelical Free Women's Shelter, which operates out of the church of the same name on U.S. Route 201 in Solon.
Albertson said she dreams of having a gazebo on her farm, where people can sit outside and escape the weather. She is also looking for good horses for lessons, in addition to a picnic table and volunteer help on the farm.
Donations to the farm are tax-deductible, Albertson said, and may be sent to 155 Horsetail Hill Road in Madison. For questions, call 474-2097.
Erin Rhoda -- 474-9534