LIVINGSTON — When Deborah Derr enters the pasture, she’s immediately flanked by two massive draft horses looking for attention.
She knows the exact spot to scratch one’s belly. Another tugs at her sleeve, impatient for affection. She gives the horse, Bentley, a quick peck and tells him he’s being sweet.
“He used to be a nipper, he didn’t want to be touched,” Derr told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Not wanting to be touched is a fairly common characteristic among the horses that come to the United in Light Draft Horse Sanctuary, Derr said. She founded the nonprofit 16 years ago and has learned that if a horse is hesitant around people, there’s a reason.
“These guys have had one form of abuse or another. We take the worst-case scenarios,” Derr said.
But on Saturday, Jan. 4, the draft horses here seemed comfortable and happy with the dozen or so people who milled about the pasture. They were particularly excited during snack time.
United In Light was hosting a family-friendly open house. Visitors could watch the horses from afar, groom them with brushes, and feed them apples and carrots. Derr said the produce is donated each week by Costco.
United In Light will host these events throughout 2020 on the first Saturday of each month. In the summer, the sanctuary will hold open houses every Saturday. They’re free to the public, but a donation is suggested.
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The horse sanctuary sits on 22 acres west of Livingston, close to town. It used to be 10 acres, but Derr bought new land last year through fundraising and donations.
The sanctuary is home to 12 draft horses and one quarter horse. All are mature in age, in need of rehabilitation and have been rescued from abuse.
Derr said she’s housed around 30 horses over the years on the property and found foster families for hundreds more. They come from all over the country.
“I call these guys the last of the unicorns. They are so majestic. They call them gentle giants for a reason,” Derr said.
The operation is run by volunteers.
Karen Renbarger of Bozeman has been on United In Light’s board for two years now, but started as a volunteer seven years ago. She said she visited the sanctuary during an open house, and has been involved ever since.
“I just fell in love with the gentle giants, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be a part of it because it’s very special,” Renbarger said.
Renbarger said she enjoys watching other people engage with the animals, that it can be therapeutic to spend time with them.
Kathleen Brand, another volunteer, said her job is to answer questions and help visitors have a good experience with the horses. She said she would encourage anyone interested to attend an open house.
“At the very least, it’s a lovely opportunity to come out, sit and just observe and sort of experience it all,” Brand said.