Lois Fritz knows firsthand about the healing powers of horses. After a series of difficult times, military service and personal losses, the forensic nurse found herself in a spiral of depression and anxiety and in the grip of post-traumatic stress disorder. When she became an empty-nester, those symptoms worsened, and her therapist suggested she try something new. That’s when, at 40, Fritz first felt the healing touch of horses.
Her first time in the saddle launched Fritz on a whole new path in life. Soon, she was the owner of Chip, a horse given to her by her then-fiance. Levi followed. And then Dutch, Eli and, last of all, a yearling mustang named Cecilia. Fritz was living in New Jersey but wanted to move to Roanoke, where her mother-in-law lived. After the death of two family members, Fritz realized life was too short to not follow her dreams.
About a year ago, she and her five horses arrived in Buchanan, Virginia, where she and husband Mitchell, affectionately known as “Mr. Budget” to thousands of Fritz’s Facebook fans, found a place where she could share her recipe for healing.
While other programs rely on therapy models and specific paths to recovery, Fritz believes that what veterans suffering from PTSD often need is no rules and the freedom to just live in the moment.
“Horses were the only thing that made me calm,” she said, of her own experience.
The program at her New Freedom Farm follows the “no-plan plan,” she said. Veterans are given the chance to come to the farm and be present in the moment, enjoying the peace of spending time with the four-legged residents. But the humans aren’t the only ones who have known trauma.
It began in March with a call that 10 Thoroughbred broodmares, heavily pregnant, were in a kill pen in Pennsylvania, days from slaughter. Their owner had declared bankruptcy and sent the 10 mares to auction together. As she had no experience with foaling, Fritz was reluctant to take on the responsibility of a broodmare about to give birth. But with empty stalls in her new barn, she agreed to take in one of the mares and give her a safe place to foal. That mare, Maybelline, who was rescued by a Vermont rescue called Gerda’s Animal Aid, would quickly go from being a temporary foster to an adopted forever resident of Fritz’s farm.
Maybelline, 16, registered in the Jockey Club as Murphy’s Code, had been injured in her first race. She was royally bred — by Pleasant Tap and out of Royals Galore, a granddaughter of Nijinsky, and was bred every year since her retirement from the track. It was a Facebook comment made about Maybelline’s “new freedom” that ended up giving Fritz’s farm its name and forever cementing Maybelline in its story.
The mare gave birth a few weeks later, on March 29, to a filly named Liberty. The foaling was difficult, and the Fritzes had to make several trips to the Harry T. Peters, Jr. Large Animal Hospital at VA-MD Vet Med at Virginia Tech over the next few weeks for both the mare and foal. Today, Liberty plays happily in her paddock at the farm but still has myriad health problems, including a slight wry nose, an undeveloped lung, and a compromised immune system that will forever limit her future.
Through Maybelline, the Fritzes’ eyes were opened to the plight of kill pen horses and particularly pregnant mares set for slaughter. Soon they were called on again to help a heavily pregnant mare in a Pennsylvania kill pen. This time, it was a bay Tennessee Walker that needed their help. The Fritzes opened their hearts and their barn to the soon-to-be mom.
With no background information on the mare, they could only guess when she would foal. Fritz took to sleeping in the barn, waiting for the new arrival. For a month, she slept outside the mare’s stall. On the 33rd night, Fritz checked the mare, who seemed no different than she had for all the nights prior, so Fritz decided to go to the house for just a few hours. When she returned, there was a surprise waiting to meet her: a beautiful bay filly, already dry and standing with her mom. That foal would be named Silver Justice, after Fritz’s rescue mentor, Gerda Silver, who runs Gerda’s Animal Aid. L’Oreal has developed a special bond with one of the farm’s most loyal volunteers, Emma Beard, who has started riding the mare and taking riding lessons herself.
Then came Martha and George Washington. Martha was a loudly colored paint mare who was in a kill pen in Louisiana. She was not heavily pregnant, but she had a young foal at her side, George. In just two hours, $1,600 was raised to get Martha to safety. And then, a Facebook follower paid the mare’s “bail” to get her out of the kill pen. Fritz took another chance and agreed to give her a home at New Freedom Farm. Martha arrived sick. She had no milk for her very dehydrated foal. She had many skin wounds, rain rot, an eye infection and swellings. At first, George had to be bottle fed until the mare’s milk came back in. With medical attention and plenty of love, both mare and foal have been brought back to health.
Most recently, New Freedom Farm rescued two scruffy ponies, Patriot and Lincoln, also from the Bastrop kill pen in Louisiana. Lincoln in particular was very ill and had to be rushed to Virginia Tech with fluid on his lungs and a high fever. But on the trailer ride to Blacksburg, about an hourlong journey from Buchanan, his lungs cleared and his fever disappeared. While his sudden turnaround has not been explained, he thankfully has been healthy ever since. Although it is obvious the ponies haven’t been handled much, they are doing well and enjoy when children visit.
Among all that outpouring of love for horses in desperate need of kindness, The farm also took in a couple rescues — Maury and Piper — from Gerda’s Animal Aid to help lessen the rescue’s load.
All those rescues were accompanied by the juggling of five quarantines, each 28 days long. Buckets of bleach, isolated pens and visits from the vet became everyday activities at the farm that had never intended to rescue a horse. It now has 19 horses, ponies, mules and donkeys under its care.
The mares and their babies now safe in the paddocks, attention has again shifted to the original intent of New Freedom Farm. On Saturday, Oct. 8, a ribbon-cutting and grand opening will be held at the farm, which was granted its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status on July 1 and is now regularly receiving visits from veterans and police officers.
Scheduled to be held rain or shine from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 6118 Lithia Road in Buchanan, the grand opening will feature a patriotic opening ceremony, flag raising and Disabled American Veterans honor guard, vendors, a special performance by horse trainer Amelia Efland of Stem, N.C., live music, raffles, a silent auction, demonstrations, and children’s activities with the Botetourt County Farm Bureau Women. A BBQ lunch will be available for $8. Some of the vendors/organizations will include Harmony Farm Sanctuary, Angels of Assisi, Barn Cat Buddies, the Lions Club, Botetourt County 4-H Horse and Pony Club, Scentsy, Spurrs Big Fix, Cowboy Magic, Rockingham Co-Op, Gil Murray Photography, Mike Lee Studios, Botetourt County Horseman’s Association, Perfectly Posh, and Paris Emporium. The silent auction will include items from far and wide, including a special edition Breyer horse model of an Arabian connected with Amethyst Acres of Buchanan. Admission is free.
Two of the rescued mares will take part in the opening ceremonies under saddle. L’Oreal and Martha both proved to be broke saddle horses. Maybelline is also trained, but Fritz explained, “Well, she was trained to be a racehorse… ” to describe how she did under saddle. All the residents of New Freedom Farm will be on hand to greet visitors.
Donations to New Freedom Farm are tax deductible and help pay for care of the rescue horses and the work with veterans. The Fritzes keep their own expenses separate from that of New Freedom Farm, including the care of their original horses. The farm also has six volunteers and is always looking for more. New Freedom Farm has attracted a few sponsors in Spurr’s Big Fix and Cowboy Magic. The farm often holds fundraising efforts for their many needs such as hay drives, fencing efforts, and T-shirt and hat sales.
What does the future hold for New Freedom Farm? The Fritzes hope to build more fence and run-in sheds for the pastures plus a picnic area for visitors to use. The three foals will eventually go to training. And, most important, more veterans will be coming to the farm to find a little peace.