Reclaiming the Dream
Krista Pollack, a grand prix dressage rider and trainer, is carefully rebuilding a horse farm in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy.
By: Sarah Godbout |
The smell. That’s what hit you first. Many people have seen the pictures and heard descriptions of what happened here, the condition of the animals and farm when they were discovered, but to smell it leaves something with you. Even after the dead animals, piled up manure and other debris were removed, the smell was like a black fog that filled your nostrils and clung to your memory.
The farm is located in the rural community of Stouffville, Ontario, and owner Michael Cheung purchased the peaceful, sprawling property as a weekend home, an investment and a way to relax from his business interests. Knowing nothing about animals, never mind horses, Michael was a handy mark for David Lee, Jason Leroy and Victoria Small, who offered to run the barns and also sell him shares of several racehorses they owned in the name of SpeedSport Stables. He was on his way to becoming a country gentleman! However, the Smalls soon began to show up infrequently to care for the horses, and neighbours became concerned when they noticed what looked like starving and unkempt animals in the paddocks. They reached out to Michael, who had yet to move into the house, which was under renovation. Attempts by Michael to contact the Smalls resulted in little action. When a neighbour’s dog dug up the remains of several horses buried right in the paddock, the OSPCA, animal control officers and the police became involved. Horrifically, the bodies in the paddock were only the tip of the iceberg. As many as 13 dead horses were unearthed from the paddock, the manure pile as well as a trailer parked on the property and the 15 horses trapped in the barn for an unknown length of time were emaciated and covered in their own filth. Once the extent of the abuse was known, it was hardly a surprise to Michael to also find out that the “racehorses” he had purchased shares in were fictitious. The Smalls were charged animal abuse and cruelty causing death and are awaiting trial.
When news broke of the devastating and gruesome find on a local horse farm, Krista Pollack, a grand prix dressage rider and trainer, from Stouffville, Ontario, was heartbroken and could not understand the cruelty that lives in some people. Like the rest of the horse community, she wanted to do something, to help in some way to try to make it right, to bring some peace to the poor souls that had suffered in unimaginable ways. Krista reached out to Michael, who was horrified at what his dream farm had become. Through this initial offer of support, a friendship grew and Michael knew this was the person who could bring the property back to life. Krista was not deterred by the farm’s dark past. She had a vision, could see past what was, to what it would be. This was her opportunity to finally strike out on her own, and create something positive from a tragedy.
Close to 20 years ago, at just 18 years old, Krista and her sister Michelle opened their first boarding facility. They soon outgrew the barn, more than once, and eventually landed at a large equestrian farm. Despite a deep desire to strike out on her own and see what she could accomplish, Krista stayed with the family business for years, growing her own KP Dressage brand and a list of loyal clients who believed in her. Patiently, she waited for the right opportunity, at the right time.
Unsure at first, knowing salvage would be a daunting task and understanding the risks involved being associated with such a notorious property, Krista went to see the barn and paddocks. The clean-up had not even been completed when Krista first stepped onto the farm, evidence of the neglect the animals had suffered was everywhere; paddock fences chewed to nothing by horses desperate for food, stall walls eaten down and clawed at by frantic animals trying to escape. Even as she looked around at the remnants of the devastating abuse that took place, she knew this was her place, that she could transform it. This was the place in which she could create a home for KP Dressage. But it wouldn’t be an easy task.
Understanding that simply bringing the facilities back wouldn’t be enough, Krista spent time in the paddocks where horses were left to starve, where some died at the hands of people she will never understand. Quietly speaking to the souls lost, Krista apologized for their suffering, and promised that as long as she was on the property, it would never happen again. That the horses that would soon call it home, would be loved beyond measure.
Krista, her husband Kris and son Ethan spent weeks working late into the night hauling out garbage, tearing down walls, gutting the barn. Even the footing in the arena had to go, stripped down to its base. Every corner was scrubbed, disinfected and painted by her small team.
New large, bright and airy stalls were built. Krista was adamant that the barn must always feel open and fresh. New indoor and outdoor wash stalls with hot and cold water, a large tack room with oversized lockers, and a kitchenette off the massive viewing lounge overlooking the arena were all completed with care.
Michael spared no expense in repairing or replacing the damage wrought by the previous tenants. One gets the impression, speaking with him, that he is still trying to atone for what happened here. Despite being one of the people who led the rescue charge, those are memories he will never fully shake.
While still not completely comfortable around the animals, Michael is becoming a regular around the barn. Always smiling, with a kind greeting for everyone, he can now enjoy watching people ride, care for their horses, enjoying the beauty of the farm, listening to the horses happily munch away or play in their paddocks. This is what he envisioned when he purchased the property.
Now, the barn is filled with light and life. Children and puppies run through the aisles. Horses are spoiled and treated not just as elite athletes, but family members and best friends. The viewing lounge hosts parties and regular get-togethers, and it is the place where the family gathers. There is a new sense of purpose to this farm, and under Krista’s care, it will continue to thrive, just like the horses that now call it home.
When you step onto the property now, you would never know the horrors that once happened on the farm. But Krista and her clients will never forget the history, and will always honour the memory of the horses that died and suffered on these grounds, as well as the many incredible people who rescued them. Krista and her team are not done yet, with a number of renovations planned over the coming year. She has big dreams for the facility and the horses and riders who call it home.