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‘They are the healers’: Hope in the Valley gives horses a second chance at life

hope in the valley - ande in the barn.jpg
Suzanne Perez
Ande Armstrong started Hope in the Valley, a horse rescue and sanctuary, in 2005. Since then, the group has rescued nearly 500 horses, donkeys, mules and other animals.

Hope in the Valley, an equine rescue and sanctuary in Valley Center, has saved nearly 500 horses, donkeys, mules and miniature horses.

VALLEY CENTER — About 10 miles north of Wichita, there’s a special place for horses — and the people who love them.

Hope in the Valley, an equine rescue and sanctuary, started in 2005. Ande Armstrong attended a livestock auction in Hutchinson where she saw a horse headed for the slaughter truck. The aging thoroughbred was “hide over bone,” Armstrong said, and so weak he could barely stand. He had only three teeth.

“I thought, ‘I’m bringing him home. If he dies the next day, he’s here, you know?’ And so we brought Jim home. And that’s how it started — with Jim,” Armstrong said. “We had him five more years after that. We got him healthy, and the little kids rode him everywhere.”

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Suzanne Perez
Jeffrey is one of about 50 horses being housed and cared for at Hope in the Valley.

Since then, Armstrong and her team of volunteers have rescued nearly 500 horses and other animals, including donkeys, mules and miniature horses.

Some are saved from livestock auctions or from settings where they’ve been abused or neglected. Some are old ranch horses or racehorses that stopped winning. Others are surrendered by owners who can’t care for them anymore.

Armstrong transports them to her 75-acre farm in Valley Center, where a local vet checks them for health problems. During and after a 30-day quarantine, a team of volunteers goes into action, feeding and caring for the horses, assessing their dispositions and matching them with potential new homes.

Kelly Benton and Peggy Johnson do most of the morning feedings. They fill bowls with grain and each horse’s regimen of medication or dietary supplements, such as beet pulp. Then they make the rounds to more than 50 stalls, coaxing the animals inside and getting to know them.

“We spend some time just trying to get between their ears and figure out what they know,” Johnson said. “For example, will they let us lead them? Can we catch them easily? That’s where we really begin.”

If they determine that a horse is used to being ridden — or was at some point — the volunteers try to get them comfortable with a saddle again.

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Suzanne Perez
Ande Armstrong visits with Buckwheat, a miniature horse that was recently adopted.

“Sometimes it’s a rodeo when we get on, and sometimes it’s not,” Johnson said. “Sometimes it’s very unpredictable. But … if they’re able to go as a rideable adoption, we really do want them to do that.”

If not, they’re adopted out as “pasture companions” for other horses. Some, including ones with long-term health problems, end up staying at Hope in the Valley as sanctuary animals.

Hope in the Valley houses about 50 horses at a time. A chestnut-colored gelding named Stormy was so starved when he arrived several years ago, he couldn’t even stand. He slowly regained his weight and strength, and now he’s one of the group’s many success stories.

But there’s heartbreak, too. A mare named Vita arrived at Hope in the Valley several weeks ago with serious health problems.

“Everybody on this property fell in love with her, and everybody pulled for her,” Johnson said. “And we just couldn’t save her. And it broke all of us.”

“That’s the hard part of this,” Armstrong said.

“But she had a good two weeks here,” Benton added, fighting back tears. “She knew she was loved. … And so that becomes very, very hard.”

Because it’s the only equine rescue operation in the region, Hope in the Valley accepts as many horses as it can from across Kansas and surrounding states. Each animal costs about $3,000 a year, which includes hay and feed, medical supplies, veterinary care and farrier services.

“Unfortunately, we can’t save them all,” Armstrong said. “We have to say no sometimes, if we don’t have room.”

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Suzanne Perez
Dozens of volunteers help feed and care for the animals at Hope in the Valley Equine Rescue & Sanctuary.

Rising costs for fuel and other expenses means it’s getting costlier to care for large animals, so calls to Hope in the Valley have increased.

“The hay and grain is so expensive. We’ve got people that have had these horses for 20 years — they’re pets — and now they can’t afford to buy the hay or the grain to feed them,” Armstrong said. “And so we're getting calls.”

The group accepts donations in various ways, from general cash donations through its website, to an Amazon wish list for items such as feed buckets and curry combs.

And then there’s sweat equity. Many volunteers, including Benton and Johnson, love horses and choose to spend their retirement caring for them. Others help with maintenance, groundskeeping or mechanical tasks.

“People say, ‘Oh, you’ve done such a great job.’ And I have to stop them and say, ‘Wait, it’s not me. These guys here, these volunteers, they make this place run,’” Armstrong said.

Johnson, a retired musician who grew up around horses, moved to the Wichita area to be closer to family. When she learned about Hope in the Valley, she knew she wanted to help.

“I was looking for a place to spend my retirement, and, ‘Holy cow! There’s a place that has horses?’ … And so I’ve been here every day since then.
"And for all of it, I get way more than I give. These horses, they are the healers. They give so much joy and laughter.”

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.