WATERLOO — Cindy Orr started Linn County Animal Rescue to save unwanted horses.
Along the way, she found the organization is good for saving people, too: from fears, depression, isolation and the struggle to connect with something outside themselves.
Orr herself battles post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic illness. Having horses helped her cope, as did classes specifically geared toward building trust in others.
It was during one of her classes that a teacher who knew Orr rescued horses asked, have you ever thought about people coming out to see them?
"I thought, well, why not?" Orr said. "Lots of horses have PTSD, too."
Orr has been working with rescued horses for about a decade. She currently has 22 of them at her 53-acre Linn County Animal Rescue center just outside the tiny community of Waterloo, east of Lebanon.
She recently added 26 dogs, including dogs on hospice care from Linn County Dog Control. The dogs sometimes get more attention than the horses: "To a lot of people, horses are scary," Orr explained.
About a year ago, Orr began working with both treatment centers and individuals to bring people to the rescue center two Saturdays each month.
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One Saturday is reserved for people with developmental disabilities who want to interact with the animals. The second is reserved for people with PTSD or other chronic illnesses.
The visitors don't ride, but there's plenty of petting and cooing and feeding of treats.
"I know horses are very relaxing. They help me through a lot," Orr said. "I'm a certified peer support specialist, and decided, why not have (others) come out and spend time with these wonderful animals?"
On one particular Saturday, guests included Nicole Bowery and Christel Erickson, both residents of Chamberlin House in Albany, which serves adults with developmental disabilities.
Bowery was thrilled to meet more than a dozen horses, stroking noses and necks and feeding carrots and chunks of apple.
"Oh wow, they're beautiful!" she exclaimed, making her way through the stalls as horses perked up, sensing treats. "I am having a great time!"
Erickson was far more interested in cuddling Peanut, an aging Chihuahua, but eventually grew comfortable enough to pat the nose of a horse named Cherry, completely without prompting.
The horses don't care what people look like, what their intellectual capabilities might be, or, really, anything about their backgrounds, said Dennis Schlitzkus of Lebanon, one of Orr's regular volunteers. "They just want love, and they want to be loved."
The effect on the volunteers is usually as profound as it is on the visitors, Schlitzkus said. That's what keeps him, and his 14-year-old daughter Simone-Louise, coming back.
"I have seen people come out depressed. By the time they leave here, they have a smile on their face," Schlitzkus said. "I know. I'm one of them."
Schlitzkus said he fights PTSD himself, and being around the horses helps. "My depression goes way down when I'm out here," he said. "I love it out here. I could put a bed in a tent and live out here."
Volunteer Chris Forrest of Lebanon said both the animals and the people need the same thing: patience, gentleness and empathy.
Horses that have been abused have a heightened sense of fight or flight, Forrest said. They can sense when someone's agitated. The key is slow, steady breathing and movements, keeping everything calm and being mindful of what they can sense. "They're very able to read you," he said.
To avoid triggering the animals, people who struggle with similar issues find they must learn to be calm and empathetic themselves. It takes patience and practice, but both gain strength over time.
"This is a very special sanctuary," Forrest said. "It's kind of for throwaway people and throwaway horses. No one wants to take them."
Some of Orr's horses actually are ready to be taken to new homes, however. Orr works with sheriff's offices around the state and with people who voluntarily surrender their animals, and some, she said, are available for new families.
Orr's volunteers are wanted, too, badly. In fact, she said, she'd like as many more as she can get. The rescue center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and relies on grants and donations to cover its bills. No one on site, including Orr, is paid.
Ideally, Orr said, she'd like to expand her visit program. Bring in veterans, maybe, or women who have experienced domestic abuse, or people struggling with substance issues. But program expansion means more volunteers; people to help feed animals, muck out stalls and maintain the property. "It's a struggle," she acknowledged.
To Orr and her current volunteers, however, the mission is worth the effort. People are connecting with animals, sometimes, stepping out of their comfort zone to do so — and learning they can.
It's the same for the animals, Orr said. They're learning "that not all people are bad."