When Kathleen Howe first laid eyes nearly a quarter-century ago on a skeletal horse named Toby, compassion welled up from deep inside her.
The buckskin quarter horse — which Howe described as "a rack of bones" — lived on a farm where her 7-year-old son with learning disabilities was taking his first riding lessons.
So intense was her reaction to the animal's plight that Howe, a resident of Pasadena, did what came naturally, despite knowing precious little about horses. She took Toby in.
What began as an outgrowth of a mother's desire to connect with her son through a shared love of horses has evolved into Days End Farm Horse Rescue, an equine rescue, rehabilitation and education operation in Woodbine that is nationally and internationally known.
To pay tribute to Howe's accomplishments as founder and executive director upon her recent retirement, A Red Carpet Holiday Celebration will be held Saturday, Dec. 14, at Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City. In September, Howe turned over the reins to Erin Ochoa.
More than 1,800 horses have been saved through Days End since it opened its doors in 1989. Its annual operating budget has climbed to $1.2 million, and staff members have traveled as far away as Haiti to share their expertise.
Just last month, Days End sent an emergency team to Spokane, Wash., to assist with 63 malnourished horses seized by animal protective service authorities there.
The organization's success has spawned growing pains, which in turn have Days End's board of directors thinking about expanding capacity by adding a second location somewhere in Maryland.
"I felt like the farm was doing so well and that we have such a phenomenal staff and great board that it was the perfect time for me to retire," said Howe, 62, of her decision to step down.
"Besides," she said jokingly, "I'm getting old!"
When Howe observed the special affinity her son, Shawn Schwartz, showed for horses in the summer of 1989, little did she know what would result from encouraging that interest. Toby became the first of many horses saved by Howe and her first husband, Allan Schwartz.
The couple brought Toby to Days End Farm, their 10-acre property on nearby Frederick Road, and by November had tacked on "horse rescue" to the farm's name and started their nonprofit organization.
After an intermediate move to an 18-acre farm, the operation was moved again in April 2008 to its current 58-acre property on Woodbine Road. The organization has been leasing the former cattle farm with an option to buy, and purchasing the property is one of the agenda items the board will discuss in January.
Yet, Days End's rise to prominence has been "so gradual," observed Howe, who lives in Pasadena with her second husband, Jerry Howe. "It just happened."
Before the horse rescue was founded, there was no place in the region where starved, abused and neglected horses could receive care, and they often died from mistreatment, she said.
"The more I learned, the more I realized there was a lot to do," Howe said. "It just rolled out as if it were meant to be."
Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County and a member of Days End's advisory board, concurred.
"You know how they say that timing is everything? Kathy started Days End when there was a real need," said Ratliff, who became involved with the horse rescue in its early years when she was president of Professional Animal Workers of Maryland.
"She certainly was no expert back then, but I have never seen anybody work so hard to become knowledgeable," Ratliff said.
Days End became the place to take rescue horses because Howe had assembled experts to help document the animals' problems after they were impounded, and had acquired the knowledge and staff to testify against owners in cruelty and neglect investigations, she added.
Howe aligned her operation from the beginning with those who know the most about evaluating, treating and caring for horses, said new executive director Ochoa, who is 37 and lives on a 14-acre farm in Washington County with her husband and daughter.
"When Kathy started out, the problems were bigger than anyone knew," she said.
Partnerships with animal welfare agencies as well as with veterinarians, farriers and volunteers have allowed Days End to thrive and to increase its capacity, said Ochoa, who grew up with horses and has been employed by the farm for eight years.
In 2005, Days End housed 30 horses at a time, but that number jumped to 50 the next year and to 80 in 2010, she said. The horse rescue has also expanded its area of service to include Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
In 2012 alone, more than 1,300 volunteers gave over 57,000 hours of service, which is the equivalent of having 27.5 additional staff positions, according to the rescue's website.
Days End has found homes for 94 percent of the horses it has rescued and rehabilitated. Horses that are not adopted live out their years on the farm.
Adoption numbers have slowed in recent years, though, in part due to the downturn in the country's economy, Ochoa said. Maryland is an expensive place to board a horse, with rates averaging between $300 and $600 a month, she noted.
To encourage adoptions, Days End offers a return policy, Ochoa said.
"We'll take them back," she said of the rehabilitated horses they put up for adoption. "We're pretty picky about our adopters, but sometimes people try to make a commitment and can't stick to it."
Since neither the number of horses needing to be rescued nor the need to increase awareness show signs of diminishing, adding a second location where more horses could be boarded and rehabilitated tops the horse rescue's wish list.
"We're all about helping more horses, so we're looking to find ways to add another physical location," said Ochoa, whom Howe describes as "the perfect person" to take her place.
Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, an agency of the state's agriculture department, said Howe's impact on the horse industry cannot be underestimated.
"Kathy took a not-so-pretty side of the equine industry and turned it into a jewel of the horse world," he said. "Through a lot of chutzpah, hard work and dedication, she grew the project at Days End into a national model of excellence for horse care practices and responsible horse ownership.
"She willingly shared the knowledge she acquired in all of these endeavors until a whole network of equine rescue operations grew, not only throughout Maryland but the country," he said.
Suzanne Schooler, chairwoman of the Days End board, said Howe stirred a new awareness in people.
"The dimension Kathy brought was to get at the root of the problem and to make people accountable," she said.
"And that dimension has affected real change in closing the gap between what horses were [to people] and what they are today. There are no words to describe the depth of change she has implemented," she said.
Horses have a long history in America, serving on the battlefield as well as in farm fields and for recreational and other purposes, Howe said.
"They deserve our love and respect," she said. "After all they've given us, we owe them that much."
For information on Days End Farm Horse Rescue or for an update on the availability of tickets to A Red Carpet Holiday Celebration, which will not be sold at the door, check the website at defhr.org or call 301-854-5037.Copyright © 2015, CT Now