It’s an understatement to describe John and Ann Lisk simply as horse lovers.
The couple, who run Southern Sun Farm Sanctuary, Ashe County’s only horse rescue, turned a passion for equines into a full-time job over a decade ago. It’s a job in which the only profits generated are good feelings.
Southern Sun Farm is a resource/solution for local animal control departments, veterinarians and other horse enterprises. Oftentimes it also serves as an alternative for horse owners who must surrender their horses to avoid starvation, domestic abuse situations and neglect.
While the concept of a horse rescue is the same as a dog and cat rescue, the operating circumstances are quite different, and a lot more expensive.
“A lot of our referrals come from veterinarians, some through owner surrenders, but most through animal control or through a humane society effort,” Ann said. “We don’t know a lot about the horses when they come here except what they tell us.”
In most cases, the horses are malnourished and in relatively poor shape when they arrive. In the most extreme, severe cases, some are near death.
“It’s our job to get them fit,” Ann said. “We also need to make sure they’re sane and physically sound if they’re gonna be adopted.”
When a horse arrives at Southern Sun Farm, a vet performs extensive blood work to see if there may be any underlying reason(s) why a horse is in poor physical shape, or if it’s simply malnourishment. In addition, they have their teeth floated.
“Sometimes the ones that we get are in such horrible, emaciated shape…it’s gonna take months for them to recover,” Ann said.
As the economy has gotten worse, the need for Southern Sun Farm and other horse rescues has grown.
“As the economy gets worse, so does the plight of these animals,” Ann said. “John and I both have a background in animal welfare, but with dogs and cats it’s a lot easier to place them and put them in foster homes. With these large animals, because of the expense and the amount of land that it takes to keep them, it’s a lot harder to find someone to take care of them.”
The process of adoption can be tricky.
“You have to be careful when you’re adopting out,” John said. “Everyone initially wants a free horse, but there’s nothing free about a horse.”
“Right now we’re at a low,” Ann said. “We’re only down to 10 (horses), but we normally average about 14.”
“We’ve had as high as 16 or 17 at times,” John said.
Occupancy and room at Southern Sun Farm varies from season to season, with the winter months being busiest and most expensive.
The couple is currently hoping to construct an additional barn to house more horses during the bitter Ashe County winters.
While most of the horses come from Ashe and the surrounding counties, the Lisks have taken in horses from all parts of the state and areas of the country.
The Lisks didn’t necessarily originally plan to operate a full-time animal rescue.
They’ve worked in animal welfare for over 16 years. Ann served on the Board of Directors of the Humane Society of Greater Miami and volunteered for the South Florida SPCA and the Horse Protection Association of Florida. John served as Executive Director of the Humane Society of Greater Miami.
When they relocated permanently to Ashe County, the two helped to fund and start the Humane Society of Ashe County and converted their property in Glendale Springs into a horse rescue.
Their involvement in animal welfare and horse rescue came about as the result of a devastating, personal tragedy - the loss of their only child.
“We do it because it was 18 years ago this past July that we lost our only child in an accident,” Ann said. “She was such an animal lover. She died trying to save her own dog.”
It was in July of 1996 that their only daughter, who was 15 at the time, was walking with her puppy, trying to regain strength in one of her legs after suffering a torn ACL. While hiking near Glendale Springs she fell trying to rescue her puppy.
“She was walking and hiking, trying to strengthen her leg when it happened,” Ann said. “We were so devastated.”
The Lisks, being people of faith, did the only thing they knew to do - they prayed.
“John and I are both people of faith,” Ann said. “I was praying hard.”
Ann started riding again and volunteering for a horse rescue in South Florida. It was through horses that the two found a renewed meaning to life in tragedy’s wake. It’s also how they discovered a way to honor their daughter’s memory.
“From the time she was very little, she just had this special way with animals,” Ann said.
“It’s through these horses,” Ann said. “It’s a way for us to give back.”
The cost of running Southern Sun Farm runs about $30,000 a year. Originally, all of that money came out of their own pockets. However, in 2012 the couple incorporated the horse rescue as a 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity, so others could help shoulder the cost.
“The work goes on, but with a nearly $800 feed bill last month and winter on the way, we have finally been hit by the harsh reality that we may not be able to continue this effort, even with the benefits of donated land and labor,” Ann said. “It can turn out to be more than a few folks can handle.”
With the economy continuing to struggle, the need for benevolence and Southern Sun Farm is at its height.
“We have done pretty much all that we can do and this fall, more horses will come,” Ann said. “We really want to be here for them.”
For more information on Southern Sun Farm or to donate, visit their website at http://www.southernsunfarm.com. Also visit their Facebook page to follow current situations and get updates on the progress of some of the horses.
Alan Bulluck can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @albulluck.