“He raised my kids, my sister-in-law’s kids, and the neighbor’s kids.” Shari Montana, director and founder of River Pines Horse Sanctuary, isn’t talking about a man but a gelding—a horse. More than forty years ago, Shari and her husband Michael rescued the horse from starvation, and in return, he gave them everything.
Many of the horses that live at River Pines Horse Sanctuary have come from misfortune, some endured abuse or neglect, some were just unwanted with seemingly nothing to offer. This sanctuary is their refuge—a forever-home for equines that aren’t of any use for working or sporting disciplines.
But all equines evoke a sense of curiosity and fascination in people, despite what they’re used for. Shari’s patience and her degree in Research Psychology intuitively encouraged a new process in which the unwanted horse learns to not only trust people again, but to actually cultivate a desire for connection. It may have started with that gelding and another unfortunate soul, but today the sanctuary in Maclay Flat continues the mission of the first two rescues by welcoming in horses, ponies, burros, and donkeys that have no other choices. Maybe the owners had health or financial crisis, or maybe they were forced to move and couldn’t take the equines with them. Whatever the case may be, Shari waits with open arms.
Two of River Pines Horse Sanctuary’s Arabians came from land adjacent to Missoula’s dump. Their former owners lost their land and simply set them free. They ran with an elk herd for a few years until Shari and her volunteers were asked to capture the misfit horses that were damaging neighboring yards. Without Shari and Michael’s intervention, these animals would likely face a gruesome end.
“These horses [would] go to the canner, or the ‘kill pens’ as we call it. You can get a lot of money for them per pound. They go to Canada or Mexico. It’s a long drive where they’re not well cared for,” said Shari. “They’re loose in a trailer, they knock each other down, they stomp each other to death. If they fall, they can’t get up because there’s no room. It’s horrendous. It’s torture really.”
River Pines Horse Sanctuary is a safe place for these resilient steeds to live out the rest of their lives, but it’s more than that. Through the use of a trust-based, positive-reinforcement method of rehabilitation and training, these formerly unwanted equines are able to generalize and eventually give back to Missoula through various community involvement programs structured by the organization. RPHS’s website offers a diverse menu of spiritual, emotional, and physical wellbeing opportunities such as suicide prevention.
“We are teaching people to connect with horses. That allows them to connect with each other,” said Shari. A horsemanship program for foster kids incorporates an obstacle course, games and an art project that, together, helps children learn techniques for self-regulation—something that is a big deal for both humans and animals that come from trauma.
Shari, who also happens to be a Reiki master, enjoys guiding singles and couples through meditation where one of her more spiritual four-legged gurus stands perfectly still as the meditator relaxes into the message. “When you have one hand on the horse, you get an oxytocin hit, which allows you to experience connectivity and wellbeing. It’s calming, it lowers your heart rate, your blood pressure, it even enhances learning.”
For those of us who don’t have horses of our own but would love to enjoy the company and play of a mustang, there are two great options. The first is “Horse Time,” which can be scheduled for $1 per minute. The second is volunteering. Because of the trust-based protocol used while working with the herd, every volunteer is systematically trained before ever touching a horse. Everyone (with or without previous equine skills) starts from the beginning. First, volunteers come out and work with other volunteers to learn the ropes.
“Most volunteers don’t know anything about horses, so there’s a big training program that goes on. This is what you do, this is what you don’t do,” said Michael. “They’re prey animals and we’re predators, so it’s about teaching people how to act around horses so they become friends.”
Next, comes grooming, which is a specific method in itself. Volunteers are taught how to go over each horse several times with different grooming tools, paying attention to any nicks, scrapes or possible injuries. This is especially vital to the upkeep of the rescued horses because Shari and Michael simply can’t keep up on daily health checks themselves. Last, helpers are trained to learn and pay attention to language signals that horses give off so that they don’t lose a trust opportunity.
While volunteers are an integral part of River Pines Horse Sanctuary, so are donors. Hay is almost three times more per ton than it was a few years ago. Senior horsefeed is five to six times that. Vet bills are a constant, especially with an aging population. Currently, a pressing need for adjacent land and shelter materials is overwhelming. But rehabilitated horses have the capacity to rehabilitate people, and River Pines Horse Sanctuary will continue its mission with the help of our community.
River Pines Horse Sanctuary is dedicated to providing a forever home to horses in need. They provide a natural, herd-based living environment offering safety, health enhancement, companionship and play. These horses then give back to the community through an equine-facilitated learning program for humans by participating in resiliency training and social and emotional fitness education through equine guided activities.
Learn more by visiting RiverPinesFarm.org.
“We are teaching people to connect with horses. That allows them to connect with each other,” - Shari