Like every worthy leader, 2019’s Horse Canada Heroes of the Horse Award winner Mike Grenier stresses the award belongs to his entire team, not him alone.
Mike is executive director of A Horse Tale (Une Histoire de Chevaux), a volunteer-run, registered non-profit charity dedicated to rescuing and rehoming equines in need. Unadoptable horses are provided a safe, comfortable retirement at the organization’s facility in Vaudreuil-Dorion, Quebec.
“Even though I was nominated, we’re all doing this together,” said Mike. “I know that maybe people selected me as the face of this, and I do feel honored by that, but I am sure that everybody recognizes and understands that they are part of the success of this as well.”
There’s no question, however, that under Mike’s direction, A Horse Tale (AHT) is more than simply an equine rescue. Volunteer Marie-Claude Gauthier nominated him for the award. “Mike and his team have created an environment of respect, inclusivity, learning and a sense of community. AHT rescue not only provides a second chance and a safe haven for horses, it has also become a home away from home for their volunteer caretakers.”
The organization boasts 250 members who pay $25 a year to receive access to a private Facebook page containing daily updates and information. This offers people a sense of connection to AHT and its animals, whether they can be there in person or not, explained Mike. Meanwhile a whopping 80 of the members are hands-on, dedicated volunteers. They care for the animals daily – feeding three times a day, grooming, exercising, mucking out, etc. Involvement “breaks the isolation barrier” for many of the individuals, said Mike, and makes them a part of something valuable. “Everybody has a role to play. Life is a rollercoaster ride for all of us – good times and bad times. Sometimes the bad times are due to stress, work, anxiety, family, health, you name it. We try to provide an opportunity for people to put life on pause for just a moment on the other side of the gates. When you come in, you’ll be treated with respect, inclusivity and be part of the family. And we work to give you the tools to demonstrate that you can make a difference as well. You can be part of a horse’s care and well-being. For a lot of people, that’s huge.”
And that’s how Mike himself became hooked.
“There’s Always a Solution”
Six years ago, the self-professed animal lover who counts several dogs and a parrot among pets he’s rescued, wasn’t what you’d call a horse person. His wife Sherry Gilmer had just undergone a kidney transplant and was questioning what to do after the life-changing experience. She decided, without a doubt, her future would involve horses and soon after, as if by fate, she saw an ad in the local paper for an AHT open house.
The rescue was borne out the efforts of Kerri Fenoff. In 2012, she saved 15 Appaloosas after the owner fell ill and could no longer care for his herd. His family planned to send the horses to slaughter, but Kerri stepped in and found them homes. She continued rescuing equines and launched AHT.
The place, its people and, of course, the horses were exactly what Sherry was seeking, so she began volunteering. Mike often tagged along to help.
“One day I was in the paddock just by myself,” he recalled. “The sun was out and a neighbour was playing Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones. I started sobbing. I felt so good and so worthy of just being around the horses and helping to look after them. “I thought, ‘This is incredible. The horses are just being, and they’re trusting me so much to be in their presence.’”
Mike then became even more involved with the organization, from mucking and feeding, to eventually serving on the board of directors in a number of positions, including, most recently, president. Earlier this year, after the board restructured to solidify AHT’s financial and operational sustainability, Mike moved into a newly formed executive director role, where he’s able to draw on a valuable 30 years of corporate experience.
One of the most significant and successful initiatives he’s instituted is A Horse Tale Experience Program. About two years ago, Mike thought AHT could translate the sense of empowerment and value the volunteers experienced at the rescue to the wider community. AHT began opening its doors to various groups supporting individuals with special needs and challenges – including those on the autism spectrum, with anxiety and depression, MS, the Canadian Armed Forces, shelter groups and many others. Through guided small-group interactions, participants interact with the horses and, in some cases, help with barn chores. He affirms that AHT doesn’t provide therapy. “There’s no end result. All we provide is the environment, the contact with the horses.”
Some groups told Mike they had been turned away from other facilities and types of programming and were surprised at AHT’s open reception. But, as Mike said, “There’s always a solution. As long as it’s for the greater good, there’s always a way.”
AHT doesn’t charge the groups a single dime.
AHT takes in horses for a three main reasons, Mike explained: the animal is chronically injured, abused, neglected or abandoned; the owner needs/wants to relinquish the horse due to lack of time, poor health or aging challenges, financial pressures, or moving/downsizing; the horse has retired from a previous career (i.e. the horse-drawn carriage industry in Montreal).
With a single barn and five acres, AHT only has capacity for 12 horses. That means, between 12 and 15 surrender requests are rejected every year. Horses that are approved by the rescue are put on a rehabilitation program tailored to the horse’s age, health, condition and particular needs. None are ridden, as generally they come to the rescue unsound or no longer capable of physical work.
The rehoming process is rigorous and includes a questionnaire that’s evaluated by a committee, submission of references from the candidate’s veterinarian and farrier, a pre-adoption site visit and a strict schedule of follow-up check-ins at three, six, nine and 12 months, and yearly thereafter. A contract stipulates the horse will be returned to AHT should the adoptee no longer be able to care for the horse.
As for the permanent retirees, they receive care, love and mental stimulation daily from the volunteers and Experience Program participants.
“These horses are getting a second chance, and they’re actually giving back. They have no idea the benefits they’re providing, not only to the volunteers, but these groups that generally don’t have access [to horses],” he added. “Horses can assist humans in so many ways, helping to redefine the meaning of our relationship with them. They have so much to give, just by being themselves.”
Ten equine residents currently call AHT home. Mike would like to see that number more than triple. Even at the best of times, there’s much more demand for surrenders, than need for second-hand horses, and the situation is expected to worsen when Montreal’s horse-drawn carriage ban comes into effect at the end of the year. A stall is always left open for any emergency case that should come their way or a horse from an adoption program that is returned, but they urgently need space to help more horses. “We need to grow,” said Mike.
To that end, he has launched Project Evolution, which would see the facility move from its current five-acre rental to a nearby 100-acre property. Here, a new, accessible, state-of-the-art facility would accommodate up to 40 horses and facilitate special needs groups year-round. The organization is actively fundraising to raise $2 million toward the land purchase and construction costs. Mike and his team are preparing to launch a crowdfunding campaign shortly. You can learn more about how to help through their website at ahtrescue.org or their Facebook page, A Horse Tale.
Recognition from winning the 2019 Heroes of the Horse accolade goes a long way to providing exposure for Project Evolution, said Mike. Meanwhile, the $2,000 that comes along with the award will go directly toward the medical needs of aging horses. AHT also gets 12 brand new blankets from Canadian Saddlery and Centurion Supply to outfit the horses for inclement weather when necessary.
Operations are financed entirely through donations, which are mainly secured through fundraising activities such as silent auctions, hay drives, annual events and calendar sales. Mike has also been working diligently on securing corporate sponsorships to enable the rescue’s growth – an effort that’s bearing fruit with Purina Canada recently coming on board to cover feed requirements.
Mike and the AHT crew might have some substantial plans in the works, but, as he said, it’s key for the organization’s survival to look forward and evolve. “So many horses and humans are counting on us to continue.”