BIDDEFORD – When visitors enter the gates of the Bush Brook Farm on West Road, they are greeted by a menagerie of rescued farm animals.

Tick, the barn cat, saunters up to wrap herself around an ankle. Bailey, the dog, jumps up for a pat. Norman, the Holstein bull calf, throws back his head for a rub, his thick tongue thrusting out to lick a palm.

Finally, Reno, the mustang, and Chalupa, the donkey, poke their heads out of their stalls to nicker and ogle the strangers.

The scene had Roe Mitchell-Clark, 6, of Saco hopping up and down with excitement.

“I have never seen a real donkey with hooves before,” he said.

Bush Brook Farm, home of the Ever After Mustang Rescue, Training and Education Center, was among more than 40 horse farms across the state that threw open the barn doors to visitors Sunday as part of Equestrian Open Barn Day. The day was designed to give people a close up look at the joys of mucking out a stall, the trials of training and what makes the whinnying, tail-swishing creatures so attractive to so many Mainers.

The event was the brainchild of Lynda McCann, editor of The Horse’s Maine newspaper. McCann said she has watched the success of such open house events as Maine Maple Sunday and Open Farm Day and decided it was time for an open house at Maine’s horse farms.

“Why don’t we have one too?” McCann said.

McCann said her goal is to make Equestrian Open Barn Day annual.

Horses are big business in Maine.

A 2007 report on the economic impact of the equine industry commissioned by the Maine Harness Racing Promotion Board and the Maine Farm Bureau Horse Council concluded the industry generates $364 million in sales annually and supports 5,700 jobs in Maine.

The report found the roughly 35,000 horses that live in Maine preserve open space. Collectively they graze on about 265 square miles of pasture and keep another 89 square miles in active hay production.

The study also determined that 87,500 visits to Maine public parks are made for trailing riding and other horse-related purposes.

For Mona Jerome, co-owner of the Bush Brook Farm and founder of Ever After Mustang Rescue, the open barn day was a chance to show the public what her nonprofit organization is up to.

“A lot of people drive by here and they have no idea what we do,” said Jerome.

A longtime fan of mustangs, which are horses born in the wild, Jerome opened the rescue center 10 years ago with the support of her husband, Brad, who died earlier this year.

Today the center is home to 32 mustangs, most of them formerly abused and abandoned, and assorted other animals, including a 50-year-old pony.

They are cared for by Jerome and a team of volunteers, all of them unpaid.

“I brush them and mostly muck out the stalls,” said Kaitlyn Gagnon, 15, of Old Orchard Beach, who has been volunteering for a couple of months.

Running a rescue center for horses not only entails cleaning out the stalls and watering, brushing, feeding and tending 32 horses daily, but constant fundraising. The center operates on a $60,000 annual budget, from private donations and grants.

Each horse costs about $125 a month to care for, which is part of the reason so many of them end up abandoned, said Jerome.

The Bureau of Land Management sells the wild horses off for $125 dollar a head at adoption days in Vermont and other states. But the bureau does not have a good system for winnowing out the buyers who have the resources and knowledge to take care of the animals from those who don’t, Jerome said.

Jerome has big dreams for her center, which handles two to three adoptions a year.

She is going after a grant to replace the electric fencing with four-rail, wooden fencing so that more horses can graze out in the fields.

She has the design of a big barn expansion ready to go, thanks to York County Community College students, and will launch a fundraising campaign any day now.

Ever After Mustang Rescue offers programs for youths and adults throughout the year to connect people to the horses that are eager for human contact.

“There is a lot to learn about yourself with horses,” Jerome said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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