ROCKLAND — Dressed in only a shirt, down vest and jean jacket, Elizabeth Dickerson fussed over her four Thoroughbreds and smiled as the horses fussed back.
As the small, reddish Dotty lifted her head from a water bucket to nuzzle Dickerson, the water splashed on the horse handler’s neck and ran down under her jacket, no doubt adding a chill to an already frigid day.
But here on this windy, exposed hill in the Midcoast on an icy day hovering around 15 degrees, Dickerson was right where she wants to be, saving the country’s premier racehorse, one equine at a time.
Northstar Horse Rescue is the state’s newest horse-rescue facility with the special mission of helping primarily thoroughbreds. And after a lifetime of horse riding, horse handling and maybe some horse whispering, Dickerson is intent to spread an understanding of the breed across Maine, or at least the Midcoast.
“Thoroughbreds can do anything. They’re so smart,” said Dickerson, 48.
The plight of abused and neglected horses in Maine has been in the news since the recession hit. At that time many struggling horse owners couldn’t keep their horses, and many lost the right to do so. Neglected horses across Maine were seized by the state, and rescue facilities stables filled.
But at the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals, the number of seized horses brought to the Windham facility has been cut in half in the past five years from about 10 to five, said CEO Meris Bickford.
While there is no census of the state’s horse population, Bickford believes there are simply fewer Mainers choosing to own horses, because “people are not as well employed.”
But there are still more horses that need rescuing than horse-rescue facilities can help, she said.
“If we wanted to take horses that are surrendered by people who don’t know what to do with them, we could take a horse every day if we could handle them. But we can’t,” said Bickford, who already helps oversee a herd of 65.
However, the plight of the Thoroughbred has been a more long-standing and sad story.
For generations Thoroughbreds have been raced and cast aside, valued for their speed and then often discarded and left to an uncertain retirement, Dickerson said.
A former rider who had aspirations to become a leading female jockey, Dickerson decided to help her favorite breed. In 2012 she founded Northstar with the focus of the rescue facility placed on Thoroughbreds.
From Pennslyvania to Virginia, Thoroughbreds being sold for slaughter and at “kill” auctions were found homes and “networked” to rescue facilities.
Northstar right now can only house four Thoroughbreds, but Dickerson hopes to grow its capacity.
The farm’s annual operating budget is around $16,000 for four horses, but Dickerson wants to buy a larger, 30-acre farm with an indoor riding facility and help as many as 10 Thoroughbreds at a time.
There Dickerson said she could offer more opportunities for more volunteers, whose interest in the Thoroughbreds is endless.
And she said Northstar could help horse fans as well as horses. The rescue farm could run classes for schools, have horse clinics and grow horse awareness in the Midcoast.
“Living with horses, you adapt… You see the world in a much slower, measured way… You learn to see life a little differently than other people around you do. It’s a good way to be, and I find that the people who come here tend to let some of the business of the world fall away when they are here, and it’s just a matter of getting those stalls clean and lugging buckets,” said Dickerson, a high school computer science teacher and state representative.
Cindy Boisvert, another horse rescuer in Oakfield, is happy Northstar was formed.
The owner of at Sissy’s Livestock Rescue and Farm in Oakfield, Boisvert received a Thorougbred gelding in January that Dickerson helped place. Despite being thin and weak after a racing career at Suffolk Downs in Boston, the horse is now relaxing into a happy existence at the quiet Aroostook County farm.
“I understand he won quite a few races. It’s really sad. Despite everything he’s gone through and all the different people who have owned him, he’s amazingly gentle. My grandchildren love him,” Boisvert said.
“With Thoroughbreds, they race them until there’s no use for them. It’s like they use all the good in them and then there is no place for them to go. I think a rescue for Thoroughbreds is a good thing.”
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at: