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A Heart For Horses:

The Chocolate Box Horse Rescue, a haven for retired horses

By Jim Mount

Fort Wayne Reader


Next to the dog, the horse has always been man’s best friend. From transportation to work to racing, the horse has always been a part of human society. But what happens when an injured or an old horse that has seen its days? In most cases euthanasia.

With the Chocolate Box, a horse farm between Spencerville, Indiana and Hicksville, Ohio, saving these horses and providing them care and relative tranquility is its mission. The owner and chief operator of the Chocolate Box, Vaunetta Barnhill is no stranger to horses or to animals in general. When it comes to rescuing animals in need, Barnhill has spent her life working for their needs and her upbringing provides a glimpse into the origins of the Chocolate Box;

“I've rescued animals my entire life” Barnhill says. “Primarily horses, of course.”

Barnhill’s affection for horses goes back a long way. “ My maternal grandparents lived down south in Terre Haute,” she says. “They had dairy cows and I broke one of the dairy cows to ride. It really upset my grandfather because it didn't give milk anymore because it was getting ridden all the time. Also, growing up in Terre Haute, my mother had a horse in a boarding stable which wasn't too far from where we lived. When she went to ride she'd take me over there and put me on this little pony they owned, a little white pony named Snowball. I was probably about three, my mother looked out the back yard and I was gone and before she could even call the police, the boarding stable called and said ‘Vaunetta just left on Snowball.’ I had gone to the boarding stable, gotten on Snowball and had taken off. I didn't know that Snowball wasn't my pony, I was only three at the time. My grandparents eventually got me my own horse to keep me from riding the cow all the time and stealing pony rides.”

What is it about the horses that causes Barnhill to care so deeply and to set up a rescue for them? Barnhill explains her thoughts and feelings about what makes the horse so special and worth allowing to live out their days beyond their usefulness;
“Horses live longer than dogs, they're smarter than dogs and they remember forever, like the elephant. So if someone wrongfully injures a horse and passes it on to somebody else and it sees this person again 10 years later it will remember that person. The same if you care for it properly, they bond to you. I took care of a horse that came to my rescue and then it eventually went to another home. Then, three or four years later I went over to see it, it was just all over me, like ‘Hi, hi, hi, how are you?’ and it occurred to me that it remembers me. It was a big, beautiful Tennessee Walker Horse.”

What drives Barnhill to run the rescue is seeing that these horses, having served out a useful capacity, earn the right to live the rest of their days in relative tranquility. When she opened the rescue, it occurred to Barnhill the way horse ownership had changed over the years; “It used to be that people who had horses had them in their back yard at home so if you had a sick old horse you could just keep it to the end but nowadays people tend to board. And when they can't afford to board a horse they can't ride, because they want a horse they can ride, they have to do something with the horse. So their choices are that they can send it to the meat market or euthanize it or find me.”

The Chocolate Box has been around for awhile, having it got its name from the Forrest Gump movie, but taking care of old and infirm horses wasn't Barnhill’s first career choice. “I was originally getting a degree in the human services field at IPFW” Barnhill explains. “I worked in the criminal justice system because I thought it was broken. When I was at Red Ceder (Red Ceder Camp Grounds) doing an internship, I realized that horses needed just as much help as humans because there is a terrific support network for injured people and not so much for horses.”

Red Ceder is where eventually Barnhill got the rescue started; “Red Ceder got the horses that couldn't show or jump anymore but could still give rides to kids and disabled people but when they reached the point where they couldn't do the Red Ceder jobs anymore, Red Ceder sent them to the meat market. Chocolate Box’s first rescues came from Red Ceder.”

Getting its start from a barn on Adams Center Road, the first horse the Chocolate Box received was what Barnhill describes as “a beautiful Arabian mare from some very high dollar investment Arabians that just couldn't produce anymore but the owners didn't want her to go to the meat market so they asked me if I would take her and of course I said yes. I don't know how many foals I'd received over the years who just couldn't produce anymore. Arabians have always been my first love, beautiful horses.”

Keeping up with the expenses of running the Chocolate Box, Barnhill sinks in her own income as well as relying on donations; “All my social security goes into it and there are people who do help out with donations. It seems like they always come when we need it—Divine Intervention, just like that.”

In the long run, Barnhill sees a transforming quality that the Chocolate Box provides not only to the horses it rescues but to the people who come to visit or volunteer at the rescue. “We've got a couples that have come out after going through fights at home and they're not even really talking to each other and they just walk through the barn and by the time they leave they are holding hands because there is enough peace there, enough love there that it heals them. We've had unemployed volunteers come out who eventually found paying work. I've always felt that the Chocolate Box gives back like that.”

Reflecting on what her work for the horses means Barnhill says that there is value in a horse that is regarded as no longer useful or defective that translates into how people can sometimes be viewed, in that there is value in life. “I think people need to know that there's nothing wrong with defective, there's nothing wrong with ill, live with it. The horses don't seem to know when they're terminally ill, a lot of them, they don't have a clue. The biggest bred in the barn is diabetic and has Cushings Disease, he should have died years ago. Whatever illness or defect they have they don't care. They're perfectly happy being horses and doing their little horsey thing.”

Earlier this month the Chocolate Box suffered damage to their barn. To learn how you might be able to help or to learn more about the Chocolate Box, by donating or volunteering you can visit their FaceBook page “Chocolate Box Horse Rescue”

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