'Rudolph' inspires sanctuary for unwanted horses
AMBOY — It was a Christmas classic, but as a child it always made Jody Thisted cry.
The Island of Misfit Toys, the sanctuary for defective and unwanted play things from the "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" cartoon, never failed to bring tears to her eyes.
"I couldn't imagine not being wanted," she said.
And she couldn't imagine discarding a toy or childhood friend just because it had grown shabby or old.
So strong was her belief in saving the misfits that as an adult she'd start a sanctuary of her own. But instead of a refuge for misfit toys, it is a refuge for misfit horses -- big, beautiful creatures no longer wanted or needed.
"Welcome to Misfit Acres," Thisted said.
A farm full of misfits
Of course, the horses at Misfit Acres are far from unwanted or unloved. Thisted cares for them all dearly.
Every morning, the Amboy woman sticks her head out the front door, yells out a greeting and waits for her small troop of horses to whinny in reply.
"You come out and you know who's going to holler first," Thisted said. "You know them by the sound of their voice."
Dreamer, a 28-year-old Morgan-Welsh cross with Cushing's disease, is usually the first to say "hello."
"She is the most person-orientated horse I've ever had," Thisted said.
Dreamer, whose pen is right outside the door to Thisted's house, will follow her owner along the fence when she walks outside. She always trots over to meet the postman, too, and begs to be petted whenever mail is delivered.
Because she has Cushing's disease, which is a dysfunction of the pituitary gland, Dreamer needs a special diet and gets sick easily. She also has bad teeth, and her feed needs to be soaked before she eats.
But she's a darling, Thisted said, and is a happy ol' horse, despite her health problems.
Her pen is across the driveway from Lucky's, Misfit Acres' official mascot.
"Lucky's the one who started it all," Thisted said.
The story goes that Lucky was in the kill pen, waiting to be slaughtered, when a man bought her for his kids. When 8-year-old Lucky couldn't be trained as a children's horse, she was put up for sale once again.
At the time, Thisted just happened to be looking for a horse. She purchased Lucky, and after hearing the horse had been in a "kill pen," began doing research on horse slaughter and abuse.
Shocked at the number of unwanted horses in the U.S., Thisted bought a small farm outside of Amboy and proceeded to get actively involved in horse rescue. In 2004, she applied for and received nonprofit status, making her eligible for tax-deductible donations and grants.
This month, for instance, Misfit Acres was one of 52 winners from across the country in the seventh annual Tom's of Maine "50 States for Good" community giving program, and received $20,000 to help fund its operations.
"This year's nonprofit recipients bring to life an inspiring picture of the care that Americans have for each other and their communities," said Susan Dewhirst, goodness programs manager at Tom's of Maine, in a statement.
Tom's of Maine is a natural products company focused on oral and personal care. For more than 45 years, it has invested in hundreds of nonprofit efforts by giving 10 percent of its profits back to organizations that support people and the planet.
A full-time job
Today, Misfit Acres provides a safe haven for 10 formerly "unlucky" horses, each of which will spend their remaining years on the property — thus sparing them from abuse, neglect and potential slaughter.
Thisted also has a rescued doberman, and several cats that were deemed unadoptable due to temperament issues and now live in the sanctuary's barn.
(One of the cats is known on YouTube as Ralph — the Equestrian Kitty." He likes to hop up on ponies' backs for rides.)
Though in many ways running Misfit Acres is a full-time job, it's not the only thing Thisted does.
"I have to feed myself, too," she said, laughing a bit.
She works at Crawler Welding in Mankato, and takes care of the horses in her spare time. That means waking up at 4:30 every morning and feeding the horses, cats and dogs before heading off to work.
"When I get home from work it is kind of a mad scramble," she said.
Since several of the horses have different dietary needs, she needs to mix five kinds of feed every day. Some of the horses are fed three times a day. When one gets sick, it's a call to a vet and a night spent outside calming them. Even when healthy, most of the horses need special consideration.
My Sweet April, 26, is blind in one eye due to an injury as a baby. Said Thisted, "She doesn't have any trouble except for that."
Cooper, a 16-year-old Morgan/Friesen cross gelding, came to Misfit Acres after his owner developed health issues and could no longer care for him. Champ, a 22-year-old quarter horse, is his bunk mate. He was sold to Misfit Acres after his owner's hours got cut.
Faith, Little Boy and Dixie are all ponies, which tend to have bad feet and can develop laminitis, which can be a crippling disease if their hooves aren't properly trimmed and cared for.
(Thisted has been afraid she would have to put Dixie down because of her hooves, but so far she's pulled through.)
Augie Doggy, the only horse born at Misfit Acres is now 18 years old. Thisted said she originally got Augie because she wanted to raise one little horse of her own, but unfortunately he has health problems of his own, and in the winter, swells up in reaction to the cold.
Magic, who pastures with him, has sight problems and depends on Augie to get around. Augie takes the responsibility seriously... most of the time. Known for his ridiculous antics, he'll sometimes run off with Magic's feed pan.
A generous gift
Taking care of the horses is expensive and time consuming, especially considering their age and medical conditions. Each of them is expected to spend the rest of their lives at Misfit Acres, and is only put down if their quality of life deteriorates drastically.
"Once they come here, they stay here," Thisted said.
There're a few different reasons for that. For one, if Thisted sold one of the horses and things didn't work out with the new owner, chances are she might not have enough room to take them back. The farm's just too small for more than 10 horses at a time.
"Another reason is mama gets too attached to them," she said.
To help keep the horses in good health and to keep their pastures in good condition, Thisted depends on grants and donations.
The $20,000 grant from Tom's of Maine will help a lot, Thisted said, but probably won't last long. She plans on using the money to repair fences at the sanctuary, purchase feed and pay down her vet bills.
But each of the horses cost between $2,500 to $3,500 to take care of each year. That's more than $25,000 just to feed them and get standard veterinary procedures done.
"That's not if something big happens," Thisted said.
It also doesn't account for sanctuary maintenance, not to mention the heartbreak Thisted goes through when she loses one of them.
"Every time it happens, I'll say I won't take another horse," she said.
She always does though, even though it's sure to end in tragedy.
Thisted said she can't imagine what she'd do without Misfit Acres or the community support she gets to keep it going
"I can't imagine not doing this," she said. "I cannot imagine looking out my window and not seeing horses ... if I won the lottery, this would be my full time job."