Creating a Safe Space for Everyone
By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alice G. Patterson
Marion Secor, The Haven at Skanda’s board president, had little experience with horses, let alone any inkling of desire to raise them — at least not until a cross-country trip changed her life.
After she set up camp one evening, she noticed her neighbors had horses with them. There was something about the animals that affected her.
“I looked into the eyes of the horse and it was the most profound thing I ever experienced,” Marion said, describing the love, tenderness, gentleness and compassion she saw.
A couple years later, when her friend rescued a couple horses, Marion knew she had to take one.
“The journey began with them,” she said. “They just won my heart.”
Skanda Equine, which offered traditional boarding and lessons, was born from that bond.
Then, in February 2013, the team at Skanda received a call from the CNY SPCA. Fourteen wild horses needed a home. The team knew if they didn’t take them in, no one would, and the animals would die.
It was a wild journey, Marion remembered. Since the horses weren’t accustomed to the people, containment or even the food at Skanda, it was both intense and heartbreaking, she said.
They had to keep the new rescues away from the horses already housed at Skanda Equine, which meant constantly reconfiguring the animals’ living space. Marion even got kicked across the barn at one point.
“They were just adjusting,” she said. “We were all adjusting.”
The fate of the weakest of the group — a blind yearling they named Modig — was particularly heartrending, Marion said. While Skanda received a great deal of generous donations to help nurse him to health, Modig passed away after a week.
After the experience with those 14 horses, Marion and Ellen Beckerman, The Haven at Skanda’s executive director, knew they had a new journey ahead of them. The Haven at Skanda was born, with a mission to “provide a loving home to rescued and endangered animals where they can relax, live in their own natural rhythms of life, and emerge into who they really are,” according to the organization’s website.
“It wasn’t a logical choice, but it wasn’t a tough choice,” Marion said. “If your heartstrings are plucked, and you know that that’s what is needed, then you’re going to do it.”
Welcoming people to The Haven
As The Haven at Skanda continued to grow, the team worked to help more rescued animals and endangered species. Now, the farm is home to horses, goats, mini donkeys, chickens, ducks, roosters and more. They work with the ASPCA in NYC and local branches of the SPCA
to provide comfortable homes for the animals that come to live at The Haven.
Even animals rescued from the most traumatic situations have found a home.
“What we find with every rescue is if we step back — and it’s the hardest thing in the world to do — and we don’t have an agenda, and we allow them to become who they are, our most seemingly aggressive animals are the gentlest, most tender of all of them,” Marion explained.
As more people began to visit the farm, Marion and Ellen realized the animals had a calming effect on most visitors. From people with anxiety to PTSD to depression, the animals seemed to help.
“So, we started to realize it’s really important for people to be welcomed to Skanda as much as possible,” Ellen said.
The women have found that different people are drawn to different animals, Marion explained. In the future, they hope to be able to expand the diversity of the animals they rescue.
“If we’re more diverse, that supports what we want to do with people and children,” Marion said.
Summer at Skanda
After realizing the connection visitors share with the animals, the team’s next step was crafting programming that could serve as a resource for children.
Having spent years as a social worker, Ellen knew the best way to determine how The Haven could help the community was simply to ask. So, she connected with a variety of organizations geared toward helping children, hoping to learn what gaps existed and how The Haven could fit into the puzzle.
From those efforts, the Summer at Skanda program was born. According to the organization’s website, the program “teaches children to become compassionate, loving caretakers to the animals and to nature, while also building self-confidence and leadership skills,” through daily activities that include caring for the animals, gardening, nature walks, art projects and recreational games.
Last summer, sessions were offered at no cost to participating low-income families from the Madison Central School District. The goal was to teach skills that could translate from the farm to the classroom and home, like those of mindfulness and peaceful conflict resolution.
The campers began the program by creating a set of rules. A lot of the animals had been mistreated and rescued, the facilitators explained to the campers. Then, the facilitators asked the children to compile a set of guidelines to follow in order to keep the animals comfortable.
“[The children’s] connection to animals is a lot of times more profound and richer than their connection to people, so they really want to be with the animals,” Ellen explained.
Upon the program’s conclusion, the campers’ parents were invited to the farm to see what their children had learned. It gave the children an opportunity to teach their parents those skills they’d developed.
“In that moment, that kid is the expert in the family,” Ellen said. “It’s really amazing.”
Throughout the following school year, Ellen followed up with the schools to check if the skills learned at Summer at Skanda were employed in the classroom. She’s heard positive feedback, she said, adding that most of the children were able to focus better and tended to be less disruptive in the classroom.
The team is planning to add a component for parents to this year’s program, too. They’re still in the planning stages, but the goal is to encourage parents to coach their children to use the skills developed at Summer at Skanda throughout the rest of the year.
The power of prevention
At the heart of The Haven’s mission is educational and preventative programming for the public. The team organizes a number of events and programs throughout the year, including the annual Horses for the Holidays donation drive.
Winter is “cruel at best in Central New York,” Marion said, adding that some people have animals that are old, frail or ill. Those people might need extra help to care for their animals. The Haven collects donated items like blankets, grain and hay at various pickup points in the region to distribute to those in need. The Haven serves as a conduit, all while increasing the awareness of need. For a complete list of suggested donation items and pickup locations, visit thehavenatskanda.org/horses-for-the-holidays.
In general, Ellen would like to see The Haven serve as a place to educate people about their own possible relationship with animals, she said.
She described the experience of someone walking into the barn and seeing the animals for the first time.
“You can hear them gasp,” Ellen said. “They’ll go into the goat barn and look into a goat’s eyes, and they just recognize an intelligence, brilliance, aliveness and a fullness that we don’t normally even see when we’re looking at animals.”
Overall, the team at The Haven strives to change how most people might think about animals.
“The big preventative project is to provide a setting where people can have this awakening of their own connection and respect for animals,” Ellen said.
“It’s always about what’s possible, and what’s the next thing that’s possible,” she said. “For people to start thinking about themselves and to feel good about what they hold inside, it’s very powerful.”
The future of The Haven
Though The Haven has evolved since those first 14 horses were rescued, the team is always looking for ways to grow. They have land to welcome more animals to the farm, but don’t yet have the structural space, Ellen said.
It’s an important time for The Haven in terms of growth and expansion, the women agreed.
Along with a number of fundraising events throughout the year — including The Haven at Skanda’s Little Moe 5K Walk-Run For Horse Rescue, slated for May 12 at Green Lakes State Park — most support comes from individual donations to The Haven. The organization also relies on some funding through grants.
The team would like to add more structures so they can take in more rescue animals, as well as acquire a camp license, which would enable them to have more children on the property at one time.
They aim to empower both the animals on the property and the adults and children who visit, too. The philosophy behind operations at The Haven mirrors Marion’s personal philosophy.
“It’s all about possibilities and just going for life and living life,” Marion said, “and helping others go for life and live life.” SWM
The Haven at Skanda is located at 4000 Mosley Road in Cazenovia. For more information, visit thehavenatskanda.org.