The woman who answered the phone sounded pleasant and confident. I was calling Kathy Zweber, founder of Witchtree Training Center in Duluth, Minnesota, located near the shores of Lake Superior. I wanted to learn more about her formula for saving horses and giving them renewed value and purpose. It’s complicated. As Kathy said to me at the start, “In this line of work, there are no easy answers.” What Kathy envisions at Witchtree is a self-sufficient non-profit where children and adults can learn proper horsemanship on the horses that once-upon-a-time had fallen on hard times.
Kathy was 15 when she got her first horse, and had a real epiphany about horses when she discovered the teachings of Ray Hunt while in college. “He [Ray Hunt] changed my life,” said Kathy. For those who do not know of him, Ray Hunt was a true pioneer in the world of horse-human communication. He taught Buck Brannaman and his teachings have influenced thousands of horse professionals who aim for a harmonious relationship of mutual respect and sympathy between equine and human. “I’ve incorporated Ray’s philosophy into virtually all aspects of my life,” said Kathy. I do not doubt it for a minute. She is absolutely convinced of a couple of truths when it comes to horses – a superior horse can be at risk of abuse because of what it knows how to do well, just as much as a horse can be at risk because of what it does not know.
Kathy is determined to avoid the pitfalls that plague many equine rescues across the country. With 13 rescue horses currently at her barn, Kathy puts in the training needed to ensure her horses are capable mounts for riders. She carefully selects horses whose temperaments match a rider’s skills and abilities.
Running her barn as a non-profit focused on giving horses the gift of training and purpose accomplishes two big goals for Kathy. First and foremost, Kathy is helping horses find a safe landing spot, and she is teaching a new generation of riders the importance of partnership with equines.
The horses that enter Kathy’s program reflect the many issues facing horses and their owners today. Although some may be neglect cases, the majority arrive because owners became too elderly or ill to care for them, or owners suffered a financial setback, or land use policies changed and horses were no longer welcome. No matter what the reason, Kathy withholds judgement. The important thing is someone is seeking help, and a horse and owner can both feel good knowing that Kathy is there to provide a safe landing.
Each horse that Kathy takes in is given a full medical evaluation, including dental exams. The average age of the horses in her program is 20, but as Kathy puts it, “I generally get two kinds of calls about horses needing placement – old horses that need training and young horses that need training.” Witchtree makes some of its horses available to interested parties, “but only after a careful screening process,” emphasizes Kathy. She then relates a story to me about a young woman who spent months working with a young horse that Kathy had taken in to Witchtree Training Center. She really wanted to buy this horse to be her very own. Kathy then tells me, “I wrote down what this horse is worth because of all the training she had put into him, and then deducted from that price what the value of what those training hours were worth. She was stunned.”
Yes, training really means something. That young woman has a horse for which she invested considerable time and training. That horse has a secure future, and a young woman now has a quality equine partner and knowledge of how to train a horse properly. Both are amazing gifts.
Although Kathy admits that running a non-profit means “taking a vow of poverty,” Horses Without Homes is convinced that Witchtree Training Center is on the right track for a successful formula that benefits horses and people. Their emphasis on training both horses and riders also plugs a hole that exists at many equine rescues, which is the inability to provide training for equines. The biggest challenge facing every rescue is trying to place equines into new homes. It becomes for more difficult if a horse lacks any training. Sadly, many rescues do a great job of treating the medical, physical and mental needs of rescue horses, but do not have anyone on hand to provide key training.
Witchtree offers equines the best outcome – a quality home filled with kindness, coupled with training which gives them increased value and makes future placement into a loving home much more likely.
For the horses that stay at Kathy’s barn and become part of the lesson program, they are loved and cared for every single day. When the time comes, however, that their days of working are over Kathy has a plan for that too….
Stay tuned for the other half of this story. Trust me, it gets even better.
In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Witchtree Training Center, check out their facebook page @Witchtreetrainingcenter or go to their website at https://witchtreetraining.org/