By Britney Grover
For Kelly Stackpole, it’s simply about the horse. When she was teaching and training to national success and felt pressure to make it about the ribbon, she closed her barn. Unable to stay away from horses, however, she was soon back training and teaching non-competitive riders — and learned how much America’s horse really does need it to be about them.
With one fateful conversation, Kelly’s eyes were opened to the horse slaughter pipeline and it changed her life — and the lives of many horses and people — forever. Not all horses bound for slaughter are castoff racehorses or mustangs: Many were once show horses, from the very world Kelly had worked in. She founded Rising Starr Horse Rescue and has made it her mission not just to rescue horses, but to educate the public about the reality and responsibility of horse ownership to stop the slaughter pipeline at its source.
From Rider to Rescuer
Kelly has been riding since she was 5 years old — even after a riding accident shattered her left arm as a teen. The injury, which required eight surgeries, ended Kelly’s showing career, but it couldn’t keep her away from horses. Her parents had to relocate her horses after they caught her riding in a full cast, and instead Kelly started training horses on the ground — beginning a lifelong passion.
“My favorite thing is taking a horse, listening to them and making them into what they can be,” she said. “In a way, I guess that accident was a good thing. Now that I think back, my life could have taken a very different turn.”
After hating her pre-law classes in college, Kelly dedicated her life to horses. As a trainer, she had tremendous success including taking students to top national horse shows. Even then, her favorite memories are not of the ribbons; they’re things like instigating the Short Stirrup division at the Lake Placid Horse Shows so that younger riders could also participate.
So when the pressure to win at the expense of the children or ponies mounted, Kelly realized it was time to make a change. “My passion became miserable,” she said, “and that’s not why I did this.”
But once again, Kelly couldn’t stay away from horses for long. Married and with a young family, she opened a small barn in Redding, Connecticut, to teach non-competitive lessons, and began shopping for school horses. That’s when she met Big Bert.
Kelly remembers it clearly: Her son was not quite a year old, cutting teeth and “super, super cranky.” They went to a big barn in the middle of Pennsylvania to try a horse, and Kelly spotted a big black Thoroughbred in the field. When she asked about it, the owners said dismissively, “Oh, that horse just came out of New Holland.”
“I said, ‘What’s New Holland?’” Kelly remembered. “New Holland’s the biggest auction house in the Northeast, where most of the horses that ship to Canada for slaughter from the area come through. I had no idea. Thinking back to all the dealers I worked with back when I had my show barn, I thought, Wow. I wonder how many horses I sent to slaughter.”
Unable to get the black horse off her mind, Kelly bought him. Big Bert was lame and wouldn’t pick up the right lead, but he was incredibly kind — including with Kelly’s son, and the pair feature in the Rising Starr logo. “I’ve had Olympic show jumping horses in my barn, and out of all the horses in all my life, he was so kind — just listening to him, I learned more from him than any other horse,” Kelly shared. “There’s always a heart horse. How could somebody throw him away? I started looking into that, and that’s how Rising Starr was born.”
A Second Chance for Horses
In 2015, Kelly’s students rallied and wanted to be a part of her efforts to rescue horses. She did the 501(c)(3) paperwork on her own, and the students, mostly middle- and high-school age, raised enough money to go rescue the first horse. The plan was to rescue one horse at a time, but it quickly grew. In December 2019, Rising Starr moved to the rundown, once-famous Firestone Estate in Wilton, Connecticut, with 13 horses. After putting in the money and effort to make the property usable, by May 2020, their 30-stall barn was full.
Some of those horses are boarders, including past rescues that were adopted by students. Rising Starr has two instructors in addition to Kelly in the lesson program, which uses safe, seasoned school horses — although a few of them were once rescues. The income from the lesson program has allowed Rising Starr to continue funding operations after the massive investment in “rescuing” the new property and the cancellation of all 2020 fundraising events due to COVID-19.
Rising Starr is open to all — volunteers of any age can participate in free programs that teach about how to take care of the horses and every aspect of what Rising Starr does. Riders and volunteers, including those in veterans and first responder programs and teens with special needs, experience the therapeutic stress relief of the horses even as they help support the rescue. Kelly and the Rising Starr team know they can’t rescue every horse — so they’ve chosen to use their knowledge, time and prime location in Wilton to educate the community.
“We actually have a junior board that does a lot of wonderful things,” Kelly said. “We were supposed to perform at Equitana this year before COVID hit, but hopefully you’ll see us next year. The junior board is going to put on ‘The Reality and Responsibility of Horse Ownership,’ a presentation they’ve put together themselves.”
For those considering horse ownership, Rising Starr offers sponsorships — the opportunity to see what owning and caring for a horse really entails before committing to care for a large animal that may live upwards of 30 years. “Our main focus is that humans make the best, educated choices for the horses,” Kelly said. “I think they’ll get more of a second chance that way.”
In the meantime, Kelly envisions someday acquiring acreage as a sanctuary, and is currently fundraising to build their own quarantine area so they can continue rescuing individual horses as they’re able — and following them for life to ensure they go on to caring, well-educated adopters.
“Rising Starr has grown into a lot of pieces, including that it’s such a great therapy for today’s stressed youth. But our main focus is education and community, and what we can all do,” Kelly said. “For every person who walks through here, if they can tell two or three people about the plight of America’s horse, I think we’re going to make a bigger impact than as many horses as we can rescue.”
For more information, visit risingstarrhorserescue.org
Portraits by Liv Taber
Photos courtesy of Kelly Stackpole