Saddles & Sanctuary: Amazing animals offer lessons that go beyond classroom |

Saddles & Sanctuary: Amazing animals offer lessons that go beyond classroom

Lumi Constantin, who is homeschooled in the Vail Valley, pulls guides one of the miniature horses who has found a new home at the Mountain Valley Horse Rescue near McCoy.
John F. Russell

The mission of the Mountain Valley Horse Rescue is two-fold.

The board and staff want to do everything they can to help horses that have found themselves in unfortunate circumstances and to teach people, especially children, about the responsibilities that come with caring for the horses.

It’s a mission goal shared by the rescue’s only two paid employees — Shana Devins, who spends most of her time caring for the animals and property, and Amy Ben-Horin, who leads the educational programs.

“I started riding when I was in second grade, and I think my parents were hoping that I would outgrow that phase,” Devins said. “Horses have always been a huge part of my life. The truth is that they have rescued me over and over again.”

She said she has learned a lot from horses and she knows they can teach those who come to the ranch.

“These are amazing animals, and they still have so much to give,” Devins said. ”The ultimate goal is that all of the horses that are available for adoptions eventually find permanent homes with private citizens.”

But that isn’t always possible.

“Many of the horses are elderly, many of them are in their 30s,” Devins said. “The chances of one of those horses getting adopted are slim to none. So they will, most likely, spend the rest of their lives here with us. But they are amazing animals. They are sweet and gentle and are perfect to work with children.”

That’s why nearly all of the horses, mules and donkeys on the ranch are used in education programs that introduce school-aged children, teenagers and adults to the responsibility that comes along with owning an animal.

“We are lucky enough and fortunate enough that we can provide a home for these animals,” Ben-Horin said. “They like to have a purpose, and the more that they can still feel needed — even our older horses who can still work with kids — the better.”

The rescue works with two schools in the Eagle County School District — Edwards Elementary and Homestake Peak Schools — and also works with homeschooled students in Eagle.

Educational programs include Mini Horse Heroes, a program designed for preschool students. The group meets for half-day sessions every other week, and the children spend time learning preschool skills, which are mandated by state standards, alongside the horses.

In summer, there is a Horse Heroes program for older children, which is like a summer camp program where the children learn to care for the horses and take riding lessons.

There is also a Horse Club for high school students that promotes horsemanship skills and allows students to learn to be advocates for the animals that they work with on the ranch.

“Once you make that connection with a horse, there is so much they can teach you,” Ben-Horin said. ”Horses are very empathetic. But they’re not just teaching the students empathy, but how to communicate and how to be patient and how to build trust and ultimately leadership.

“Horses are herd animals, so when you are with them, you have to learn how to stand,” Ben-Horin explained. “They weight 1,000 pounds, and I weight 150, so if I am not making myself the leader of this herd by standing confidently, they are not going to hear what I have to say.”

Both Ben-Horin and Devins believe education is the key to building life-long relationships with the horses.

“If we can continue to expand the program, as we would like to do, we will grow exponentially in the next few years,” Devins said.

Helping out

Devins said most of the support for the rescue comes through small donations.

“Our community has been incredible in supporting us in every way and have made donations from $5 to $5,000 and just helping out the horses wherever they can,” Devins said. “We have a number of levels people can get involved, and they can actually pick a horse and underwrite a horse and make sure they want for nothing.”

Those levels include Pony Pals for those that give between $10 and $499, Stable Mates for $500 a year, Ranch Hands for $1,000 a year, Wranglers for those who give $2,500 a year and Equine Advocates for those who donate $5,000 a year. Those wanting to be Rescue Heroes donate $10,000 annually.

They got a big boost in 2015 from the Shaw family in Vail, who stopped by for a pony ride and ended up finding a cause.

“The Shaw Family Foundations came forward with a leading pledge of a million dollars that allowed us to purchase this property,” Devins said. “They are incredible. They loved what we were doing and saw the value of it.”

Devins said the group is still looking for funds to make improvements that will benefit future programs. She said the ranch needs to build a new barn, a caretakers residence, and indoor and outdoor arenas.

To donate, visit

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966

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