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A ‘stable’ retirement

Edina man finds that working with horses is a perfect way to spend his retirement days.


During the summer of 2018, Bill Belknap of Edina started looking forward to retirement and began planning retirement projects. He would have time on his hands and desired to work with horses. It turned out to be a perfect fit.

Rex, shown here with Bill Belkamp of Edina, is a healthy and well-behaved horse. He is almost ready to be ridden. Bill and Rex have been working together at This Old Horse. The program has been good for both of them. Photo by Patricia Buschette.

“I was not raised with horses and had a limited exposure to them,” he said, “but I found something about horses compelling. They strike me as an animal with a special spirit and soul that I wanted to know.”

While Bill was raised in a suburban community, when he was first out of college, he was employed in a rural southern Minnesota community. He dreamed of having a hobby farm and even ordered stable plans. “For a long time, I toyed with learning about horses, but never acted on the impulse.”

When retirement posed the opportunity for volunteering and horses, he searched online and discovered This Old Horse. “It is the best of its kind in Minnesota,” he said. Bill, a former Public Information Officer for Hennepin County Public Health, wanted an endeavor that involved scheduled activity, and he found the organization a good fit.

This Old Horse was founded in 2012 and is a private, volunteer-based, nonprofit organization with a mission to “support and serve horses while they continue to serve as ambassadors to the positive effect of ‘horse power’ in the lives of people.”

The organization accepts horses from difficult situations. Most horses are housed and pastured at the nonprofit’s three owned locations near Hastings and Hugo, Minn., and New Richmond, Wisc. A variety of partnering barn and land owners in central Minnesota also offer their underutilized horse properties to foster additional horses, either short- or long-term, with This Old Horse managing their care and costs while there. There is no shortage of horses needing sanctuary.

Bill began volunteering before he officially retired. “At that time, they had a grooming and handling class on Sunday afternoons, during which volunteers could learn to become comfortable being in contact with horses. For Bill, “It was my litmus test to see if they are the creatures that I thought them to be. Do horses and I get along? I discovered to my delight that we do.”

Bill, who is now in his fourth year with This Old Horse, discovered that to get immersed with horses, one had to work on a feed crew.

Trainers have been moved by Rex’s willingness to try what we ask of him and his eagerness to please us. “I look into his big brown eyes and I swear I can see him think. It is a moving thing. We all sense that. He is a beautiful animal.” Contributed photo

“Then you meet the entire population – you feed every horse on site. I discovered I enjoyed it, and even the grunt work, mucking out stalls, and bringing bales was enjoyable.

“While I seldom have exercised in a gym, I find it good to have an outlet for physical exercise,” he explained. “I have always exercised through manual labor such as gardening.”

Bill works with a feed crew every Tuesday night when horses are brought into the stable. While there is a discipline and a schedule to the process, there is also an element of flexibility. The horses gallop into the stable and explore the barn until they find a stall that appeals to them. They are secured in their individual stall, and a volunteer brings a container prepared for them with the appropriate weight and blend of nutrients in their feed. They are then released to the paddock where they are held.

The organization operates only because of volunteers, and dedication to the horses is impressive. According to Bill, a fair number of volunteers are retirees; some have known horses all their lives. They can return to caring for a horse without buying a horse or a financial investment.

There are many opportunities for volunteering. “Many tasks are physical, but you don’t necessarily need strength to volunteer,” Bill explained. He told of a volunteer who walked with the aid of a walker. “She would come out and sit on a bench by a special horse she loved and read to it. She also did light training. She actually was able to have hands on the horse.”

He paused, and his reverence and respect for horses was evident as he went on, “There was interaction; the horse knew who she was, and she bonded with the horse.”

Bill’s description of his relationship with the horses and of his favorite horse, Rex, is insightful. “You need to have an affection and respect for animals but not be afraid of them,” he explained. They know if you are afraid and can pick up on your fear across the arena.”

Horses are accepted from a range of difficult situations to help transition them to something better. Some are rescued from abandonment or abuse and need to be taught to trust humans again. Some are ex-racehorses who might be trained for other kinds of riding. Still others are simply too old or impaired to “work” any more but deserve a safe retirement. Contributed photo

“Horses are prey animals, and thus are constantly vigilant. They use their ears – rotating them to capture almost inaudible sounds – along with keen senses of sight and smell to keep themselves safe.”

“Horses even pick up on how you are feeling,” he said. “It is a lesson you learn early on. I meditate regularly, and when I do that, I focus on my inner self, and get myself in the here and now. When I go to the barn, and am not in the here and now, the horses know that right away.” You need to leave problems at the door. “When I am in the barn, my whole self is in the barn. It is therapeutic.”

Rex, a two-year-old thoroughbred, was previously living at a private stable when its owner died. The stable’s seven horses were suddenly left without a future and were put up for auction. They had no apparent training, no papers, had never been on a racetrack, and so were just “horseflesh.” Emaciated and scared, the horses didn’t sell at auction, and were headed for the kill pen. This Old Horse rescued them.

“Rex was the youngest, the most frightened and needed a lot of love. He and I clicked the first time I laid eyes on him. I had never trained a raw recruit and I wanted to experience that. This is an experience a volunteer can have here.”

Bill is impressed with the transformation of Rex. “It isn’t just me, but his other two trainers see that as well. We are all moved by Rex’s willingness to try what we ask of him and his eagerness to please us.”

The goal of Rex’s trainers is to have him ready for adoption in a month or two. The ideal situation for him, Bill said, would be placement in a safe place; for example, in an environment with a 4-H high school student who wants to train a horse to ride. “We’re training him to be saddle ready. We’re teaching him manners to make him adoptable.”

Feeding time is twice a day when each horse receives an individualized, veterinarian-recommended mix and quantity of kibble and supplements to support their respective health needs; some to put on or lose weight, to accommodate digestive issues or whatever. During these feeding times, stable hands and volunteers can keep a close eye on each horse’s health and wellbeing. Photo by Patricia Buschette

As Bill explained, horses are keenly aware of their surroundings. “You have to earn their trust. They have to know you are in charge. Horses have their own social structure; there is a pecking order in a herd. They’re constantly figuring out where they are in that order. There is an adjustment when you add or take away horses from a herd.”

What is important in training horses? “They don’t need to be yelled at,” Bill said. “They can hear better than we can. You must use a lower tone, but an authoritative voice. You learn all of that,” Bill explained. “I learn something every time.”

The organization actively seeks volunteers and provides information. “There is a link with forms to complete to volunteer, and for preliminary training online before starting. Someone from the organization reaches out and discusses what you wish to accomplish,” he explained.

Bill has integrated well into the requirements and opportunities of the program. “It is a receiving and very welcoming community. They watch out for you – you watch out for each other.”

How does Bill’s wife Pam feel about his retirement plan? “She likes that I come home happy,” Bill said.

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