BY RUTH FIELDS
Donna Stedman, founder and executive director
It is tranquil and quiet. A gentle breeze blows through the trees, and horses graze contentedly on this remote acreage that was once a part of the Boy Scouts of America’s Camp Strake. “God put us out in the middle of nature in a very peaceful location,” says Donna Stedman, founder and executive director of Henry’s Home, Horse and Human Sanctuary.
Donna began dreaming of this retreat when she was raising her children in The Woodlands about 25 years ago. “I was living the American dream, but there was this nagging feeling that I should be doing something else. So I started to pray about it,” she says. “I was at a retreat, and I had a voice in my head that said, ‘This is it. You are going to have a retreat someday. It’s going to be in the country and a place where people are going to heal their souls. It’s going to be better than anything you could imagine. Keep on seeking me and, when the time is right, I am going to bring together the land, the money, and the people.’ I had never had a voice in my head before, and people lumped me right into the nutcase category.”
The experience changed Donna’s life. She became a master gardener, a master naturalist, and (later) a certified professional equine specialist. Everywhere she went, she wondered if she’d stumbled across her future retreat, but for years, nothing came of her vision. She raised her three children and ran a company, but did not establish a retreat.
Several years ago, one of Donna’s sisters was suffering from bipolar disorder and was often unmotivated to get up in the morning. One day, however, she went horseback riding; later, she told Donna that a horse might provide her with incentive to get out of bed each day. The sisters grew up on a farm in Indiana. Horses, Donna knew she could handle.
Donna decided to adopt two rescued horses and went to a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) facility. There, she met a dun gelding named Henry that had nearly starved during the 2011 drought. When he was first rescued, he was too weak to stand, but with the help of slings, he was fully rehabilitated. Henry took a liking to Donna, following her around for four hours. “I finally gave in, because he was so persistent,” she says. When she established her sanctuary, she named it “Henry’s Home” in honor of Henry. “Henry is such a complete attention hog. He wants to remind us constantly that everything is about him.”
When another of Donna’s sisters was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she gave her siblings goodbye gifts of $13,000 each. Donna used her share to set up a trail riding business, Just Us Gals, keeping the horses at a less-than-ideal location in Spring. She rescued more horses, promising them lifelong sanctuary, and her herd grew to seven. One day, while sitting around a campfire, Donna was surrounded by riders who had experience with finance, law, and non-profit organizations. Then, something clicked, and she realized her horses could be the basis for the retreat she had dreamed of for over two decades. “It had never crossed my mind that it was going to have anything to do with horses,” she says. “It was already better than anything I could have imagined, because horses are the love of my life.”
In 2015, an executive with Johnson Development Corporation, which purchased Camp Strake (now Grand Central Park), learned from an article in the Houston Chronicle that Donna needed a new place for her retreat. He called her with a unique offer. About 1,200 of the 2,200 acres the company purchased from the Boy Scouts of America are undevelopable wetlands, and Johnson Development planned to leave this mature forest, with its miles of beautiful hiking trails, intact. The company offered Donna a long-term lease on 10 remote acres in the undevelopable section at the astonishing rate of $1 per year. “Johnson Development has been remarkable,” Donna says. “They have taken charity to a whole new level. They have been our biggest supporters.”
Donna was thrilled. She launched into action, using repurposed Camp Strake structures to equip the retreat. Through the work of Leadership Montgomery County Class of 2017, over $120,000 worth of infrastructure was donated and built. In addition, in keeping with the land’s history, several eagle scouts built projects at Henry’s Home. Meanwhile, Donna rescued and adopted more horses, plus a miniature mule, donkey, and horse, growing the herd to 12.
Because the animals require so much care, Donna created the Herdmate Program, headed by Linda Ward, another horse enthusiast. Herdmate volunteers pay $150 per month and help with chores in exchange for riding privileges. Non-riding volunteers pay $75 per month. Most Henry’s Home volunteers are women from their 40s to their 60s. “They have done their duty as mother and as a wife and finally they have reached the age they are doing something for themselves,” Donna says. To join the Herdmate Program, volunteers are asked to have a “seeker’s heart”—open to learning new things and being a part of a group. “We feed our souls by serving others,” she says.
Henry’s Home also hosts “family time” on an appointment basis. Parents bring their children to Henry’s Home and spend about an hour and a half learning how to groom, saddle, and ride horses. The cost is $100.
Volunteers at Henry’s Home start the day by putting out hay for the horses. “They go through approximately five to six bales a day,” Donna says. Thinner horses also get a flake of alfalfa hay, which has more protein and calories. Hay is periodically tested for quality by the Texas A&M Agricultural Extension Service.
Next, horses run in the arena for 15 minutes at “horse aerobics,” and are rewarded with a hosing down. At feeding time, each horse goes to its own stall, where it eats high-quality, grain-free feed. Thinner horses get more feed; heftier ones get less. Because the organization doesn’t have the resources for expensive veterinary procedures, volunteers try to prevent catastrophic health issues. “We keep them as healthy as we possibly can through exercise, the best food, plenty of fresh water, a lot of love and good preventive veterinary care,” Donna says.
There is no fly infestation at Henry’s Home, thanks to manure scooping every morning and afternoon. “Scooping the poop is like cleaning a kitty litter box the size of a football field,” she says. Horse manure is composted in huge piles and is free to local gardeners.
Volunteers know horses by name and treat them according to their unique histories of neglect or abuse. They try to groom them, examine their feet, and ride them every day, but most days, some tasks are left undone. “If we had more volunteers, we could get more work done,” Donna says. (See below for expanded coverage on the horses at Henry’s Home.)
Donna believes the horses also help the volunteers deal with the problems all humans experience. “I struggle with depression,” agrees one volunteer. “I had a horse as a teenager. Without that horse, there’s no doubt that I would have been a teenage suicide.”
Horses and Heroes
When she first founded Henry’s Home, Donna decided to focus on serving the estimated 35,000 veterans in Montgomery County. So, she started the Horses and Heroes Equine Program, which offers weekly group sessions to help veterans cope with wartime trauma issues and the often-difficult transition to civilian life. Sessions, each facilitated by a certified professional equine specialist and a licensed mental health provider, are offered at no cost to veterans, whether disabled or not, whether they served during peacetime or war.
Shannon Novak, director of Horses and Heroes, first came to Henry’s Home with her husband Jay, an Air Force retiree, to reconnect with each other and to help Jay deal with wartime memories. “All of us need Henry’s Home as much as it needs us,” Shannon says.
Horses and Heroes sessions usually begin with a task that involves horses. “The idea is to get them talking amongst themselves,” Donna says. Participants work with the horses “creature to creature,” and do not ride them. “They focus on living in the moment. Horses are prey animals. That’s a big part of why horses are so perfect for therapy. They have to live in the moment to be able to survive. They force you to deal with honest emotions.” Veterans are given tasks that are generally metaphorical, designed to encourage the application of principles to daily life. For example, they might be instructed to lead horses through an obstacle course without touching them, and are asked to think about how the exercise might relate to a life struggle, such as dealing with an obstinate teenager. “The horses are therapists,” Shannon says.
Participants range in age from their 20s to their 70s, and veterans of different military branches often engage in good-natured rivalry. “I have been able to experience camaraderie again with other vets,” says one Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. “It has been helpful for me. I can come and enjoy good times with them, and I can come and cry with them.”
Members of the Assistance League of Montgomery County
Donna hopes to eventually include first responders in the program at no cost, and her ultimate goal is to provide equine therapy for the general population on a fee basis. She is grateful for Assistance League of Montgomery County, which recently gave Henry’s Home a generous grant through its scholarship program. It will help defray the cost of the Horses and Heroes program for a year.
Henry’s Home welcomes donations and can accept them through its web site (www.henryshomehorsesanctuary.org) or its Facebook page. Henry’s Home also accepts non-cash donations and has a pressing need for a reliable tractor.
Managing a non-profit organization is a lot of work, but Donna does not complain. “No matter how hard it is, no matter how much stress I have, I have such a sense of peace. There’s something about being in nature and being around animals that feeds your soul,” she says. “I know that this is my purpose for being on earth.”
Expanded Coverage: Henry and His Friends
First there were Henry and Lexi, the original rescue horses belonging to Donna Stedman, founder and executive director of Henry’s Home, Horse and Human Sanctuary. Henry, so starved and emaciated he could not stand up, is now fully rehabilitated and is the namesake of Henry’s Home. Henry loves attention and seems to know that he is an integral part of this non-profit organization.
Over the past few years, Donna has found room for more donated and rescued horses. Each horse has its own story. For example, Mick, a thoroughbred and former racehorse, was twice sold for slaughter and twice rescued. The second time, he became a police horse for the Fort Lauderdale, Florida Police Department. His specialty was to patrol during spring break, when rowdy students flocked to the area. Mick needs rest to overcome a fetlock injury, and he is finding it at Henry’s Home. “We are a sanctuary, which means that the horses that come to stay with us are here for the rest of their lives,” Donna says.
Another recent rescue is Johnny Cash, a beautiful paint horse once used for fox hunting. His previous owner thought he had cancer and sent him to TMR Rescue in Plantersville. Later, his rescuers learned that he had not cancer, but a serious hock injury, and Henry’s Home adopted Johnny Cash for its Horses and Heroes program that serves veterans. After more than two years of rehabilitation, Johnny Cash is now enjoying light arena riding.
In addition to horses, Henry’s Home has a miniature mule named Mini Pearl, a miniature donkey named Patsy Cline and a miniature horse named Willie Nelson. The retreat is also home to one pig named Augustus McCrae—nicknamed Gus—in honor of the epic hero of Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.” Gus was part of a package deal that included the adoption of Mini Pearl. The two were roommates in “livestock jail” after Mini Pearl was found running loose on Highway 105. The thoroughbred Mick likes to spend time with the miniature animals and Henry’s Home volunteers often refer to the group as “Mick and the minis.”
All of the animals at Henry’s Home are treated to loving attention, high-quality feed, plenty of exercise and good veterinary care. Each one has thrived under the care of Donna and the volunteers at Henry’s Home.