Helping Horses, Helping People — For 20 Years, and Counting

Sunshine Horses in Clay has adopted over 250 horses since its inception in 2003. Volunteers work seven days a week to rehabilitate and retrain them

By Mary Beth Roach

Volunteering at Sunshine Horses — bottom row from left: Dianne Sestak, Marisa Jones, Patty Wolf, Robin Young and Charlotte Garofalo. Standing, from left: Sue Churchill, Bobbi Baker, Mona Hamlin, Chris Rowland, Anna Renfrew, Dawn Ellis, Janet McGraw and Karen Marcely. Not pictured but also part of Wednesday’s group is Ginny Quinn. The horse is Ollie, a 22-year-old standardbred gelding.

Just as dawn begins to break, volunteers arrive at the nonprofit Sunshine Horses facility in Clay, having traveled from various points across Onondaga County, to tend to the 24 horses stabled there.

They are part of a corps of people who take care of these animals, which are retired Standardbred harness-racing horses and rescues that come to the barn on Verplank Road to be rehabilitated or retrained for different equestrian principles.

Since starting in 2003, Sunshine Horses Inc. has adopted out more than 250 horses. The 501 (c) (3) organization turns 20 this year.

On one particular day, 13 women, all 55 or better, came in about 7 a.m., ready to feed the animals, make sure they got their meds, take them out to the pastures to get some exercise, muck their stalls and more. Most of them wrap up their duties by 11:30 a.m.

Another crew of volunteers comes in in the afternoon to bring in those horses that are out in the pasture, feed and groom them. Most volunteers will work one shift a week, although some opt to come several times a week. This schedule goes on seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, even on holidays.

In addition to their tasks, volunteers also assist in schooling the horses, helping them get used to saddles and people, since so many have come from the field of harness-racing. The volunteers receive a good deal of training at the onset, and they are paired with mentors who teach them the ropes. They also offer clinics and have guest speakers. There’s a separate group of volunteers who take on various maintenance responsibilities.

Although these early-morning hours might be a daunting commitment for some,the women on this one morning were all smiles, joking with each other and, of course, taking care of the horses.

This group of women joined Sunshine Horses for different reasons, but the common thread is their love of horses.

Dianne Sestak, 61, has been part of the group for about 11 years. She became an empty-nester at 50 years of age and had a cancer diagnosis. “It was one of those things that make you think,” she said.

A Texas native and current Bridgeport resident, she had always loved horses, so when she heard about Sunshine Horses, she checked it out.

Volunteer Marisa Jones

“Life’s too short. You have to do what you want to do. It was something that just needed to happen for me. It changed my world,” Sestak said.

Mona Hamblin, 60, of Cicero, joined Sunshine Horses recently because she wanted to do “something outside my comfort zone.” She refers to herself as the newbie, but yet has already found benefits from her involvement, appreciating the relationship with the volunteers and the horses.

“It gives back 100%,” she said.

When Anna Renfrew retired a few years ago, she said her plan was to take care of her elderly parents. However, they both died within a year. She recalled thinking, “Now what I am going to do with myself?”

Volunteer Chris Rowland

She wanted to stay busy and looked at different possibilities. She, too, always loved horses, and when she learned of the organization, she decided to give it a try. “Once I did, I loved it,” she said.

A volunteer at Sunshine Horses since 2015, the 72-year-old Clay resident noted that the experience has allowed her to make new friends and stay “farm fit.”

A one-time schoolteacher, Chris Rowland, 64, of Liverpool, had no retirement plans. Now, she’s not only a volunteer, she’s a horse owner, having adopted one of the Sunshine horses. She had come across the place while out visiting garage sales one day. She said she had wanted a horse since she was a child, so she inquired about the need of volunteers. She was at an orientation the following week.

Volunteer Robin Young

“Just being around the horses has been such a blessing,” she said, further explaining that the connection one makes with the animal is so endearing.

These volunteers’ comments underscore the sign in the Sunshine Horses barn — “Helping Horses. Helping People.”

Sunshine Horses Inc. is 100% volunteer-driven and of the approximate 300 volunteers, about half of them tend the horses, while others take on fundraising and event duties. It is funded solely by funds and donations, according to its website.

Events Help Fund Sunshine Horses

Sunshine Farms, founded in 2003 at the New York State Fairgrounds, celebrates its 20th year this year. After moving a few times in the past, it is now located at 3721 Verplank Road in Clay.

One of the major fundraising events for Sunshine Horses is the Kentucky Derby Gala on May 6. Other events include a garage sale on May 19 and 20; the Strawberry Shortcake Run and open house on June 17; the annual tack sale on July 21 and 22; and the Uptown Hoedown in October, on a date to be determined.

Those wishing to support this 501 (c) (3) organization can help in its capital campaign, volunteer, sponsor a horse, provide funding for the veterinarian fund, or attend one or more of the group’s events.

For more information, visit

Top image: Volunteer Anna Renfrew of Clay has been working at Sunshine Horses since 2015.