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CHILOQUIN – When Snickers, a brown quarter horse, recently arrived at Project Spirit Equine Rescue Ranch in Chiloquin, the 25-year-old horse was starving. He had arthritis and worms, and his three remaining teeth had to be pulled.

Project Spirit’s Director Connie Willard jumped into action to help the horse.

Snickers was put on antibiotics and given a diet of soft mash, which he could eat with just his gums. On Thursday and Friday, his hooves were tended to and a veterinarian came to visit.

“He’s a good boy,” Willard said, stroking the horse’s coat on Tuesday. “Just none of them have been handled much lately.

“It’s just reintroducing them to humans and letting them know that humans help,” she added. “To know that people are good.”

At Project Spirit

Snickers, who was formerly known as Hershey at Klamath Falls-based Blue Sky Horse Rescue, was one of 18 horses to arrive at Project Spirit in the last two weeks. While Snickers has needed medical attention due to various reasons, including his advanced age, 16 of the 18 horses that have come to Project Spirit are in good health and just needed continued care, according to Willard.

The horses came to Project Spirit in light of Blue Sky’s owner, Maria Egbert, telling Willard she will most likely dissolve Blue Sky Horse Rescue, located south of Klamath Falls. H&N was unable to reach Egbert, and she declined to comment for the story via Willard and Project Spirit board member Maria Meister.

“Her concern was that as the weather progressed, she was going to have difficulty feeding them and she herself has physical limitations,” Willard said. “She’s looking to just find a future for them and we’re that avenue.”

After Blue Sky Horse Rescue fielded questions about horses that had been thought to be missing from the rescue, Meister decided to join the board. She found no malfeasance with the accusations and is a big proponent of Egbert’s decision to voluntarily surrender the horses to a facility that can continue to care for them.

“She has done everything in her power for those horses over the years,” Meister said. “Has it been enough? Has it been what maybe some people think what should’ve been done? Probably not, but she has sacrificed everything for those animals.”

Meister said the horses were always fed and sheltered as far as she could tell.

“Their needs were being met,” Meister said.

New pastures

Willard and Meister expressed gratitude that Egbert allowed the horses to come to Project Spirit.

Meister, owner of Klamath Equestrian Center, said she is thrilled to see the horses find new pastures. Meister is currently one of five active board members of Project Spirit.

“These horses are going to move on to better places and better things,” Meister said. “I think she (Egbert) did the best she could with what she had.

“She’s doing the right thing,” Meister added.

“(Egbert is) quite comfortable with what she knows about us and trusted us to come to the necessary conclusions,” Willard said.

Those conclusions involved housing six of the horses at Project Spirit, and fostering the remaining horses off-site.

Project Spirit rehabilitated and re-homed 33 horses at the ranch in 2019, up from 27 in 2018.

“Our average will be a little higher this time (in 2020) because we’ve already got 18 in,” Willard said, with a laugh.

But she and the board appear up for the challenge if it means a better future for horses.

And rather than focus on the past, Willard just wants to make a better and brighter future for the horses that were sheltered there.

“All we care about is the horses,” Willard said.

Care in action

The additional horses arrived on Willard’s ranch in the last two weeks, and Willard said she practically springs out of bed everyday to tend to each of them.

“The great thing about horses is they say that their energy field is an 8-foot circle around them,” Willard said. “Like right now, he’s absorbing what I’m feeling and I’m absorbing what he’s feeling.

“You can actually get sad feelings from them and it helps them release,” Willard added.

Her love for the animals runs deep and she knew she had to help.

“I like just being around them,” Willard said, scratching the ear of a Belgian draft mule named MollyBelle.

Snickers is slowly starting to gain weight and inch toward warming up to her.

“We keep a blanket on him when it gets really cold because it helps them gain weight faster,” Willard said. “But the problem with blanketing a horse is they become accustomed to them.”

Willard is beloved by her growing herd at the rescue, evidenced by horses who come right up to her, as does Fortune, a mustang cross from Blue Sky who laid his head on her shoulder.

Life’s path

“We never intended to have a horse rescue here,” Willard added, of the 7-acre ranch.

Willard started working with Project Spirit in 2013 when she and her husband, Ben, retired to Chiloquin. She took over as director for the founders when they retired in 2015.

The non-profit’s headquarters incidentally moved to Willard’s ranch in 2017, which focuses on horses able to be rehabilitated and adopted.

“We’re not a sanctuary,” Willard said. “Normally, this isn’t the kind of horse we focus on, but, you know, we have to help them.”

While the non-profit isn’t currently a sanctuary, Willard said it’s her goal to become one in the coming years, among other projects she hopes to tackle.

But first, she and her husband are working with an investor on creating an equine burial ground as early as this summer in Klamath County. There is currently only one official equine burial grounds in the whole state, located in the Willamette Valley.

The hope is that created such a grounds for Klamath County will also provide a revenue stream to help keep Project Spirit going.

“We’re hoping to set that up this year,” Willard said.

Willard remains focused on equine recovery, however, despite other projects.

“From the rescue standpoint, I love watching their recoveries,” Willard said. “We not only rehabilitate them physically and mentally, we also make sure that they get re-trained.”

Willard said Snickers is available for adoption, with the best scenario as a companion horse.

“We try to make them viable to go back out into the community and have a life, and so we try to find the perfect home for them,” she added.