Days End Farm Horse Rescue: Empowering Youth to Make a Difference

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Lilliana’s first time riding (June 2013). She’s aboard Isaac, who is one of Days End Farm Horse Rescue’s most popular ambassador horses. Courtesy of Lilliana Sonpar.

By Emily Daily/Jump Media

Days End Farm Horse Rescue (DEFHR) has worked tirelessly for more than 30 years to distinguish itself as one of the most well-respected and successful horse rescues in the United States. Incredibly, the Maryland-based nonprofit has rescued and rehomed close to 3,000 horses in its history, but one of the main aspects that makes the organization unique is its youth volunteer program. Education is an integral part of DEFHR’s mission in helping to prevent equine neglect and abuse, and young people play an important role in sharing the knowledge they gain at the farm.  

Though many animal welfare organizations have age stipulations, DEFHR opens its doors to children as young as five who are welcome to come and volunteer. Starting from an early age, DEFHR’s youth volunteers learn first-hand how to care for horses, and over time, they in turn teach others. 

“We feel that we can have the biggest impact in equine welfare by including and empowering youth to be the role models,” says Nicky Wetzelberger, DEFHR’s Community Outreach Director. “These children are the next generation of animal owners. They’re such a key part of our mission.” 

Lilliana was a member of the 2019 DEFHR Drill Team, which performed at the Montgomery Fair (pictured) and at the farm’s annual Fall Fest. Courtesy of Lilliana Sonpar.

For the young people who take part in DEFHR’s youth program, they learn more than just how to care for horses. “We focus heavily on equine welfare, but through learning about the needs of horses, our hope is that these children will practice a compassionate lifestyle moving forward and be more empathetic towards all living things,” explains Wetzelberger.  

“I have parents come to me all the time telling me about the amount of confidence that their child is now showing after being a part of our program,” Wetzelberger continues. “These youth are more than just volunteers, they’re mentors. Some even teach adults about horsemanship, animal welfare, and how DEFHR operates. They get the undivided attention of these adults and they’re teaching them the ways of the farm and how to care for horses—it’s an incredible experience for these kids.” 

Lilliana Sonpar, a 15-year-old who lives near the rescue, is just one of the numerous young volunteers who dedicates her time to DEFHR. Sonpar had no prior horse experience before getting involved with DEFHR in 2013, but since then she’s learned about general horse care, riding, and rehabilitation. Awarded DEFHR’s Youth Volunteer Award last year, the hard-working high school student has become an integral part of the organization. 

Lilliana spending a quiet moment last winter with Eensy Everett, one of the miniature horse foals at DEFHR who has since been adopted. Courtesy of Lilliana Sonpar.

“She’s a role model to others and represents what it means to be a DEFHR volunteer: responsible, committed, and caring,” says Wetzelberger of the teen who logged an impressive 292 hours at DEFHR last year. 

We caught up with Sonpar to learn first-hand what it’s like to be a part of DEFHR’s youth program. 

What types of things have you done in your volunteer work at DEFHR? 

In the seven years that I have been at DEFHR, I have cleaned pretty much every surface,

mucked every stall, groomed countless horses, and that’s just the beginning. I have helped with quarantine, watched minor medical procedures, and learned basic wound care. In addition to all of this, I ride and am on our volunteer training team. This includes sponsoring a horse (helping to support the daily needs of Turvey, one of DEFHR’s program horses) and riding on our drill team. 

For the past few years, I have also been an educator myself, giving tours, teaching introductory classes for new volunteers, leading volunteer groups, helping with scout days, and camp counseling the same Legacy Camp that I used to attend every summer.

Lilliana alongside Vinni the Mini, DEFHR’s resident miniature trick pony, dressed as a parrot in the 2019 DEFHR Fall Fest Costume Contest. Courtesy of Lilliana Sonpar.

What is the community like at DEFHR? 

The Days End Farm community is very educated, and everyone is always willing to share their knowledge. As a youth volunteer, there is so much that I can learn from the horses and people. DEFHR provides a place for me to be able to share my passion with people like myself, as we work together to spread awareness about horse rescue.

I have also been able to establish so many lifelong friendships with people who I likely would

never have crossed paths with if it weren’t for DEFHR. Watching the horses’ rehabilitation process is incredible, but the sense of community is beyond belief. DEFHR attracts people who all want to make a positive impact on the horses, despite any difference in age, background, or experience. I find that it is easy to set aside differences when we can all work together, motivated to rehabilitate horses who were previously deprived of compassion. I personally believe that the unconditional kindness found at DEFHR resonates with everyone who has visited the farm, even if it’s only just once. 

Lilliana enjoying a ride on Topsy Turvey, a DEFHR horse whom she’s been fostering for the past two years. Courtesy of Lilliana Sonpar.

What is it about DEFHR’s youth program that’s so special?

DEFHR’s youth program is the gateway to success for young horse lovers. Children learn to have consideration and kindness for animals, but more importantly, they can process the importance of rescuing animals everywhere. 

DEFHR is a large organization, with horses from every situation imaginable. Many of our horses have suffered terrible conditions and survived. As a child, you learn from what you see. Kids in DEFHR’s programs witness the resilience of these beautiful animals and the immeasurable positive effects of kindness on others, for humans and equines. 

Has your experience at DEFHR helped you in any other parts of your life?

By watching the tireless efforts of staff and volunteers for so many years, I have become responsible for my actions, self-motivated, and more resilient to challenges. I am humbled by the work ethic of everyone at the farm, including the horses. Seeing that the dedication and concern for others leads to the healing of our animals never fails to inspire me. I am always reminded that hard work and good intentions can get you anywhere. 

I have watched the devastating effects of abuse and neglect, and with each horse that steps through the gates, I am more determined to make a change. I witness the most extraordinary, selfless people rise to the challenge of reversing the damage done by others, without expecting anything in return. I have learned to cherish every step of a journey, and to appreciate the imperfections of rescue animals, because the road to recovery makes each of their stories unique to them. 

Lilliana Sonpar pictured with Community Outreach Director, Nicky Wetzelberger (right) and Volunteer Coordinator, Carrie Koehnlein-Alden (left) accepting her 2019 Youth Volunteer Award. Ron Diehl Photo.

Has volunteering at DEFHR given you any ideas for your future career?

My experience at DEFHR has led me to pursue my dream of becoming an equine veterinarian. I have found my greatest passion, and my amazing network at Days End will lead me to continue the work of healing for many decades to come. I don’t think I could ever have found my mission in life without my years of volunteering at the farm. 

Over the past three decades, Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine, Maryland, has been renowned for working to not only prevent equine abuse and neglect, but also to educate the public about equine welfare and help their staff, volunteers, and members of the public become better horsemen and women. Learn more about DEFHR‘s adoptable horses as well as their numerous education and volunteer opportunities. Visit https://www.defhr.org or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

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