When it comes to horses, Tracy VanRyen-Kiefer has a soft spot. “My wallet is always empty, but my heart is always full,” she says with a sigh, but as her herd of 30 horses comes galloping over a knoll, her face breaks into a smile and she reaches out to pet and caress each and every one.
As a group, these steeds present a beautiful picture, back dropped against a lush green field and bright blue sky. Their coats gleam in the summer sun and their tails and manes flow like gossamer in the wind. But in reality each of these animals has a sad story to tell and a past that often includes neglect, abuse and abandonment. “Most of the horses on this farm were abused,” she said. “Many were starving and bone thin when I got them. But I think it’s important they all have a chance at a good life.”
For Tracy, horses have always been the center of her world. She was born and raised in Tomahawk and during her youth was involved in 4-H where she frequently participated in horse shows. “I got my first pony when I was four years old,” she said. “I can’t remember a time in my life that I wasn’t involved with horses.”
Tracy has trained and ridden horses in almost every discipline from dressage to cattle roping. She has participated in barrel racing competitions and English Pleasure shows; in trail riding excursions and in rodeos. Naturally she wanted to make horses her career and she did just that when she moved out to Oregon and got a job as a trainer on a working ranch. “That was my dream job,” she said. “We bred and trained our own quarter horses and worked with them on the ranch.”
Then her father became ill, and her grandmother developed Alzheimer ‘s disease. In 2009, her dad, Pete, asked her to come back to Wisconsin to take over his business, Pete’s Pump Septic Service. “Well it’s not exactly the career choice I had in mind but it’s not a bad job,” she said with a laugh. “I’m very lucky in that I have a great crew and I know a bit about the business because I grew up with it.”
While settling into this new direction in her life, Tracy had to find a spot to keep the six horses she owned and bought a large piece of property on Lakewood Road in Cassian. She spent hours stringing up fencing and mucking out a small barn to keep her animals. Then someone asked her if she could board a horse. It wasn’t long before other horse owners were asking Tracy if she could take more animals in on her farm. Many of these horses were in very poor shape.
Statistics are hard to determine but as the economy has suffered so has horse care. “The cheapest part about owning a horse is buying it,” said Tracy. “They need teeth care, their hooves trimmed, deworming and they are a big animal and eat a lot.”
Animal rescue groups have been overwhelmed with the number of horses that are neglected, abandoned or malnourished because their owners can no longer afford to keep them. Tracy sees this over and over again. “That’s how I’ve gotten so many animals,” she said. “People have to move because they can’t afford their homes anymore or they can’t afford vet care and feed for their horses.”
Each one of the horses at Lakewood Farm has a unique, and often sad history. Some have made their owners lots of money in the past. “This horse here,” said Tracy, as she reaches out to pet a tall dark bay, “Was a race horse and made his owner close to $2 million.”
Other horses have long and lengthy pedigrees. “This little paint was a very successful show horse,” said Tracy. “This one raced as a pacer and that little black and white paint was a pick up horse in rodeos.”
But almost all of her 30 geldings, seven mares and three ponies (not to mention a donkey and a mule) have scars to show their past abuse. One has a healed, but bulging wound on its side, some of these horses have limited vision, while others suffer from various leg injuries. Almost all were starving by the time Tracy adopted them. “When I see a neglected horse I see their potential,” she said. “I see them as individuals that deserve to be treated humanely. A few times I have taken a horse or pony in that is so bad it died shortly after it arrived here, but at least it died knowing someone loved it. That’s important to me. ”
Once a horse is lucky enough to come under Tracy’s care, and then recovers, she starts accessing its abilities. “Some of these horses have been professionally trained,” she said. “They have many good years left in them as companions for the right families.”
And that’s her goal-to eventually find good homes for her charges. She offers these animals out for lease under strict guidelines or to be purchased, mostly to families looking for a docile animal to trail ride on or for a pet. “I do a very thorough check on the people that want one of these horses,” she said. “They’ve been through enough already so I want to make sure they get a good home.”
Lakewood Farm is not a non-profit, and all the money Tracy makes goes into her horse rescue operation. In addition, life has been a little rocky lately with taking over her father’s business and the death of close family members in the last few years, but Tracy finds solace every day when she finishes her work day and comes to take care of her horses. “They bring such joy and I feel so happy when I can come out here and spend time with them,” she said. “That to me makes it all worth it.”
Editor’s note: To learn more about Tracy’s Lakewood Farm and her horses, visit lakewoodhorseform.com.