Riding instructor Sheila Steis held her breath as 10-year-old Scout Bendickson rode Hercules into the Odessa arena north of Tampa.
Rain pelted the covered show ring, surrounded by a sea of umbrellas, flapping vendor tents and the chatter of excited spectators. It was the worst possible scenario for an untried gelding to make his debut.
The four other entries in the children's Hunter Pleasure class were seasoned show horses.
But Hercules had never seen a show ring. He had no credentials and, until recently, he didn't even have a name. Hercules at North Carolina kill pen, April 29,2017, hours away from being transported to Mexico for slaughter.
A year ago, he was simply Hip #83, a half-starved American Saddlebred in a North Carolina kill pen, within hours of being shipped to slaughter in Mexico.
But on this Sunday in May, Hercules reclaimed his birthright as he and Scout trotted away with the blue ribbon.
"We were over the moon with their performance," says Steis.
Leap of faith
The young instructor/trainer is pinning the future of her new Lutz riding academy on a unique partnership with Erika Gilbert, who has been rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming discarded saddlebreds -- mostly former Amish buggy horses -- for more than 20 years at her Grune Heidi Farm
"It's been quite a leap of faith," says Steis, who has made Grune Heidi's rescues the foundation of her child-centered program at Selah East Stables
The academy opened its doors March 1. That month, two other Grune Heidi rescues made their Selah East debut at the Gasparilla Charity Horse Show
-- another leap of faith rewarded with more first-time ribbons for her stable of Amish rescues.
"They could have been a disaster," Steis says. "They could have been excused from the ring."
In addition to Hercules, who was adopted from Grune Heidi by the Bendickson family in December and is boarded with Scout's instructor at Selah East, there is Jagger, a former show horse that somehow landed in Amish country, pulling a buggy. Gilbert out-bid a kill buyer for him at Pennsylvania's New Holland auction.
Despite his obvious show training and experience, Jagger will never be able to compete in the "A" circuit, which requires breed registration papers. Scout Bendickson and Jagger were in the ribbons at the Gasparilla Charity Horse Show in March.The event marked the debut of Selah East Stables and the return to the show ring for Jagger, a former Amish buggy horse saved by Grune Heidi Farm Rescue.
Most horses that enter the slaughter pipeline are stripped of their identity and saddlebreds born before 2003, when the registry began requiring DNA samples, are unlikely to recover their birthright.
Lincoln, another Amish road warrior that Gilbert plucked from a Pennsylvania kill pen, also has found a place in the Selah East lesson program as a trusted beginners' mount.
Hercules is the only one of the three whose identity has been discovered. A DNA match revealed that the plucky little chestnut gelding was foaled in 2003 at a saddlebred farm in Georgia, where he was registered as "Without Worry."
The horses' road from impending slaughter to show ring was paved with the goodwill of Grune Heidi's small but committed cadre of "Saddlebred Saviors" who pitch in to raise some $2,000 in bail, transport and quarantine fees for each of the lucky few who make it to the rescue.
From trash to treasures
Gilbert grew up in Pennsylvania Amish country; her family began saving discarded buggy horses at the local auction while she was still in grade school.
She continued the tradition in 1996 when she moved to Florida and bought her small Lakeland farm. The adoption fee she charged would go directly to the rescue of another horse and her motto became: Adopt one horse and save two lives.
In 2014 Grune Heidi Farm Rescue obtained an IRS 501(c)3 nonprofit status and has earned a Top-Rated badge from Great Nonprofits
four years running. The 501(c)3 has opened the door to tax-deductible donations, which help with the expense of acquiring the rescues and bringing them to Florida.
Erika Gilbert, founder of Grune Heidi Farm Rescue.
Still, much of the cost of rehabilitating them once they arrive comes out of Gilbert's paycheck from the chemical company, Arrmaz, Inc.
in Mulberry, where she has worked as a full-time billing clerk for two decades.
"My boss is great, very supportive," says Gilbert.
The feed bill alone -- for New Mexico alfalfa hay, premium feed, and supplements -- runs more than $500 per week for the half dozen or so rescues in residence at any given time.
"Her feeding program is the best in the equestrian world that I know of," says Steis, who grew up riding and training Lippizans her family once raised. "She's an expert at what she does."
The result is #notyouraveragerescuehorse
The remarkable transformation from gaunt bodies and defeated psyches to glossy, turbo-charged equines blooming with good health and renewed purpose is a legend among the Saddlebred Saviors who follow each horse's progress on Grune Heidi's Facebook page
One horse at a time
Many rescues flounder under the emotional and financial burden of tending to the relentless tide of abused, neglected and unwanted animals they feel compelled to take in.
Gilbert has stayed afloat all these years by refusing to take on more than she can handle, her steely resolve forcing her to make heartbreaking choices every day as the kill pens fill with horses she can't afford to save.
"A long time ago, I made a promise to my dad and to myself that I'd never become a rescue that needs to be rescued," she says.
Those she can't save she shares on social media, urging people to contribute to other rescues that might be trying to raise bail for a road warrior about to ship to slaughter.
Meantime, each horse adopted from Grune Heidi -- about three dozen a year -- has received a riding evaluation, re-training, vet check, vaccinations, dental work and farrier trims. When they leave for their new homes, they are bathed, clipped, polished and presented as if they are about to enter a show ring -- even if they are destined for a life of semi-retirement riding Florida's trails.
While saddlebreds are somewhat unfamiliar outside of show circles in this quarter horse-centric state, visitors to Grune Heidi discover the breed is extraordinarily smart, versatile and family friendly.
"They love the littles," says Gilbert.
Many of the rescued Amish road warriors find homes with families looking for a pleasure horse for themselves or their children. Scout Bendickson and Sheila Steis, founder of Selah East Stables, celebrate a first-place win with Hercules, a slaughter-bound saddlebred the Bendickson family adopted in March.
Rhonda Eyring was looking to recapture the bond she shared with horses from the age of 5 through young adulthood, "until life got in the way."
Now 64 and a teacher of design and architecture at Pinellas Technical College
in Clearwater. Eyring recently adopted Shade, another Amish "buggy boy" Gilbert rescued from a Pennsylvania kill pen.
Eyring is back in the saddle again and visits Shade every day where he is stabled.
"I feel complete," she says.
To find more information, including how you can be donate to the cause, visit the Grune Heidi Farm website. Writer Jan Hollingsworth lives in north Florida with eight horses. Two are former Amish road warriors.