Serio Steps Up

Renowned hunter/jumper trainer fosters rescue horse

By Nancy Johnson

Walk down the barn aisle at Derbydown and you will undoubtedly see one lovely horse after another. Louise Serio’s Kennett Square, Pennsylvania farm is legendary in the show hunter world. Most of the horses are accustomed to the impeccable care and training they receive here, but for one horse, this is a world apart from what he has known and where he was headed. Just months ago, Paulo, a three-year-old Thoroughbred stallion, was destined to be on someone’s dinner plate.

It was in April, on one of her regular trips to a kill buyer that Kelly Smith, founder of Omega Horse Rescue, changed the course of Paulo’s life. “I still vividly remember seeing him at the kill pen,” Smith begins. “He was basically feral and as a stallion was separated from the herd in a stall. He was just petrified of people; you couldn’t touch him. The poor thing had a big gash in his head and a pretty nasty injury to one leg.” Smith explains that for some reason she was just drawn to the horse. “Even with the state he was in, he was magnificent. Seeing the beauty of that animal and his willingness to live; I just knew we had to try to save him.”

Paulo as Kelly found him in the kill pen.

The Journey Begins

Upon his “bail” being paid to the kill buyer, Paulo spent some time in quarantine as he, like many horses in that type of situation, was sick. Once his quarantine was complete, he was gelded and ready to start on a new life. Having run Omega Horse Rescue, a 501(c) 3 non-profit in Airville, Pennsylvania, for over 20 years and another rescue prior to that, Smith has the routine down to a science and relies on those who are experts in their field to assist her. “I had a hauler get him because he knows how to handle a horse like this,” she says, adding, “Basically, he needed to be loaded using a chute into the trailer; just like one does with a wild horse.” Paulo went directly from being gelded at New Bolton Center to David King, a trainer Smith works with regularly. In a month’s time, King concentrated on groundwork and desensitizing, then got the horse started under saddle. “As he always does, David gave me frequent progress reports during the month.” The reports were typical until after about three weeks when King noted that the horse was extremely smart. “He works with a lot of horses and to hear him so enthusiastic about this particular horse’s potential was exciting,” Smith admits. 

Paulo as Kelly found him in the kill pen.

Fate Through Facebook

After his basic training with King, Paulo returned to Omega. Smith and Omega have a huge following on Facebook, so she updated everyone as to Paulo’s progress and indicated that he would be soon be available for adoption. Once again, fate was on Paulo’s side. Serio recalls, “I saw Kelly’s post and immediately messaged her. I worked with a Thoroughbred horse for Omega years ago. It turned out to be a really nice horse. So when I saw this one and thought he was cute and since I had a little bit of time at home, it seemed like a great opportunity to help Kelly out.” Serio has also supported Omega financially over the years, usually in a special situation like a horse needing surgery.

Paulo was in training at Derbydown for about six weeks. Louse describes the horse upon his arrival. “He was broken, but very green and really didn’t know anything when he came. He was very nervous – internally nervous, which certainly isn’t surprising considering what he had been through so far in his short life,” she notes, adding “But he never did a thing wrong.”

Four months after arriving at Omega Horse Rescue, Paulo looks like a different horse.

Rachael Hake, who works for Serio, rode Paulo throughout his time at Derbydown. “Rachael took him on as a project and did a great job. After about the fourth week, he finally took a breath and relaxed a bit. We got him jumping little courses and swapping his leads. He’s only three so we didn’t push him but wanted to get an idea of what he could do,” she explains.  “He didn’t take to jumping instantly, but he never refused; sometimes he just didn’t want to come off the ground!” Serio says with a chuckle. By the end of his six weeks training with her, Serio was pleased with Paulo. “I think he will make a nice show hunter. He would especially be suited for the Thoroughbred divisions that are really gaining in popularity,” she says.

Rachael Hake and Paulo at Derbydown.

“Louise and Rachael just did a phenomenal job with Paulo!” Smith enthuses. “His time there confirmed our thoughts that he could go in many different directions and would make an especially nice hunter.” After his good solid start at Derbydown, Dr. Nikki Scherrer, a longtime volunteer and huge supporter of Omega, took Paulo back to her farm to evaluate him for adoption. 

Adopters Waiting in Line

Scherrer emphasizes, “Having Louise donate her time to work with this horse was such a huge help. A big chunk of the rescue’s finances goes into training,” because for an adoption to be successful, it is important to have the horse to a certain point. After riding him just a few times, she notes, “He is probably one of the nicest young horses I’ve sat on. Not only does he have a really good brain, but he’s balanced and has three beautiful gaits.”

Scherrer believes that Smith’s “feeder system” really works well for the rescue to prepare the horses for adoption. “A trainer, [like David King in Paulo’s case] gets them started to the point where they can then go to someone like Louise for detail work. Then the horse is ready to go to potential adopters. It’s just a beautiful thing when that happens like it should and we wind up with a really nice horse like Paulo,” she says with a smile.

After riding the horse just a few times herself, including a couple of trail rides, Scherrer felt confident that Paulo was ready for adoption. “I only showed him to two perspective adopters. The first one immediately set up a pre-purchase exam and the second one said she wanted him if the first one backed out.” Many others had also expressed an interest in adopting him. The pre-purchase exam went well, and Paulo headed to his forever home with Jennifer Lavin. Scherrer feels it is an excellent match as Lavin not only wants a horse that is versatile enough to do some dressage and trail ride, but especially wants one with which she can bond. “Not only is Paulo athletic, but he has really turned into a love bug with a great personality. If you saw him when he first came, you would never have believed he would be the horse that he is today!” she says with a big smile.

Paulo finds his forever home with Jennifer Lavin.

A Call to Rescue

Smith, who has devoted much of her life to rescue, believes she was led to do so by divine intervention. “I grew up having horses and they were my saving grace,” she remembers fondly. “I had a special pony, Patches, then went on to have successful horse showing career.” After she got married and had a family, the horses became a thing of the past – for a while. One day Smith was feeling a bit melancholy she recalls, “I questioned why God had given me the gift that I had [working with horses] but I was not able to use it. I wondered if I would ever be able do so.” Shortly afterwards, she took her first excursion to New Holland Auction where she “saw things I could not believe.”

Smith admits that despite having spent most of her early life in the horse world, the experience was eye-opening. “I was in shell shock that I had no idea this was going on.” She knew right then that she was destined to help. Initially, she got involved with a donkey sanctuary which, due to financial support by a friend, led to starting her own horse rescue. She ran the rescue very successfully, but unfortunate life circumstances brought it to a halt. When her life turned around again, Smith once again dedicated her life to the animals by founding Omega in 1997.

Although on occasion she still purchases horses at auction, Smith explains her logic in preferring to pull horses from kill buyers. “You will see 100 plus horses at an auction and 100 plus horses at a kill buyer. The difference being the horses at the kill buyer are on a deadline. This is where they are tagged, weighed and shipped. This is literally their last stop before they go to slaughter,” she says solemnly. 

She believes there is a big misconception as to the type of horses that go to slaughter. “A lot of people, especially professionals, think any animal that came from a kill buyer’s pen is just junk; that is so not true,” she says emphatically. Paulo is just one example of the many success stories Smith cites of their rescues going on to be a great partner in a variety of disciplines.

Fueled by Fostering

Smith is inspired having a top professional like Serio take part in Omega’s fostering program. “We have had some very good success with fostering, and we really want to encourage more professionals to participate in the program,” she says. “If a foster trainer takes one of our horses in, it opens up a spot for us to take another rescue in. With their training, [a professional] is making a lifetime difference in that horse and in the end making someone, the person who adopts that horse, very happy. To me, that is a win-win for everybody.” 

“We love Louise; she’s been an incredible supporter. I am so blessed and grateful that she has taken the time to do what she has done for us,” Smith says.“Collaboration with trainers is so important because when we get this kind of expertise working with them, we wind up with the nicest well-trained horses that are excellent rescue representatives.”

 “I wish more trainers would be open to the idea and the concept of taking on one of these horses and giving it a chance. Just partner with a rescue you believe in and work together to include some of these horses and ponies into your programs,” she adds.

Serio was thrilled to hear that Paulo was adopted almost immediately after his training at Derbydown. “Kelly just does such remarkable things for the horses; it’s really rewarding to help her,” she says with a big smile. She is happy to see that rescues, of all types, are in the forefront today and notes that foster training expenses are tax deductible.

“People should be lining up to foster horses in training to help rescues like Omega. Anybody who has an empty stall, a little bit of time, and an interested rider should take one of these horses on and play with it; make it better and help it get adopted,” she concludes. 

To learn more about Omega Horse Rescue, see or call 717-862-3322.

A lifelong rider, Nancy Johnson has shown and judged hunters for decades.  Her professional background includes writing on diverse topics such as news, features, and business, but she especially enjoys combining her writing with a love for all things equine. Nancy currently writes for the Aiken Horse on a regular basis and has recently published a children’s story, Moe & Lucy – Reunited at the Rainbow Bridge.