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Horse rescue owner brings 'bittersweet joy' to local hospice

'End of life is a hard topic and I’m hoping maybe with the kids that the horses would be able to help them a little bit,' said owner of Tay Township equine rescue

The first therapy horse visit at Hospice Huronia Tomkins House provided a joyful time for people experiencing sorrow.

This past week, Chasing Butterflies Equine Rescue of Tay Township brought a horse, a pony and a therapy dog to visit members of Children's Grief Program, a support group for families who have lost a loved one.

The children ran out the door to the back parking lot, with their parents in tow, to hug, pat, stare at and feed the animals brought by Vicki Leppard-Conant, owner of the rescue and Topline Feed and Farm Supply. Her husband Rob Conant, her daughters and a friend came along too.

Kids and adults were chatting loudly and engaging with the animals while the equine team held the horses.

"The kids didn't know they were coming, which is great," said Sarah Schell, a registered social work and the community program lead for Hospice Huronia.

“We think it’s great because of how therapeutic animals can be but especially horses. They are very in-tune animals. They can sense feelings and provide that emotional support without saying anything,” says Schell.

But the residents and the families in the support program are not the only ones dealing with a serious situation and in need of some bittersweet joy.

Vicki has a rare genetic disorder, alpha-1 antitripsan deficiency (AAT) where her body is attacking her lungs. She has been receiving help from Hospice Huronia workers.

“They are amazing people," says Vicki. "They have come to the house and they’ve helped with the kids and having conversations about death and dying."

Despite her condition, Vicki still wants to give back to the community, so she approached Hospice Huronia with the idea of bringing her horses there.

"I love it that they are behind me for my care, but I would love to support the people that are at the home right now. It’s difficult getting around and doing the things I used to do but this is so important to me to have my horses there to help the kids and anybody that is there," she said.

"End of life is a hard topic and I’m hoping maybe with the kids that the horses would be able to help them a little bit and the residents that are there."

After the visit, Vicki posted this to the Chasing Butterflies Equine Rescue Facebook page: "As my health declines more rapidly then I want to admit, this amazing home, and the support people that come with it, have been helping me through a lot. I wanted to give back to them and the only way I knew how was to bring some horses for an event they had and also meet a couple of their patients. The joy this brought everyone was overwhelming."

Schell says that Vicki has been rescuing injured or unwanted horses for years and also helping people by allowing them to come to her farm, unofficially, for equine therapy.

"She's an empath. She gives back. She can't help it," Schell says.

On her 50-acre farm, Vicki has 12 rescue horses plus five friends' horses. Every horse that comes to their final home has a history.

Miss Karma was her first rescue horse. She's a big horse with previous injuries.

"She's not being ridden and that's OK. She's living out her life," says Vicki.

Big Mike is a Belgian who was a working horse on a Mennonite farm. When he got too old to continue pulling a plow, Vicki stepped in and brought him to her farm.

"I can put kids on him. He's absolutely amazing," says Vicki.

But, not all the horses that have come her way have lived long lives. Several have been humanely euthanized. Miss Rose was emaciated when she came to the farm. Vicki got her back to weight in a year, but she was still sick and needed to be euthanized.

Despite the sadness that comes with a death, there are an abundance of rewards.

"When they come here they are a little stressed — in a new environment, new people, new horses, and they’ve just been dropped off. When they start to relax and give you their trust, it’s amazing to see,” she says.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she invited nurses to come and enjoy the horses at the farm. Additionally, people randomly stop at her farm or call and ask if they can come over to spend time with the horses.

"A woman called me up and said 'My mother is struggling with cancer, can we come and see these horses?' I went through cancer two years ago and so I always say 'Yes'.”

Due to her health problems, Vicki is not taking in any more horses. Her husband and three daughters at home and friends assist her with farm chores.

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Gisele Winton Sarvis

About the Author: Gisele Winton Sarvis

Gisele Winton Sarvis is an award winning journalist and photographer who has focused on telling the stories of the people of Simcoe County for more than 25 years
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