Alison Wheatley bought two horses in 2006 for her daughter, Loran, who suffers from a severe case of endometriosis and has undergone 20 surgeries. The horses soothed Loran and helped her get through painful moments. “Horses are very calming,” says Wheatley, associate broker at Wheatley Realty Group in Clermont, Fla. “You can talk to them, and they listen. It’s great therapy.”
While the horses brought her daughter comfort, they also gave Wheatley a mission: to save abandoned horses that still have a purpose. Now Wheatley has 60—all of them rescues—and she’s the one soothing them. Her nonprofit, DreamCatcher Horse Rescue, a 10-acre property equipped with stables and a large clay riding area, is managed by a handful of regular volunteers. Each horse has its own stall with fans to keep cool, and a vet tech is on hand to monitor the animals’ well-being. Visitors can ride the horses along serene trails around the property that lead to a nearby lake.
Wheatley admits that when she purchased the first two horses, Sonny and Little Girl, for her daughter, she didn’t know anything about handling them. “Those first two years, we learned everything we could about taking care of the horses,” she says. In 2009, Wheatley was approached by a woman who asked if Wheatley would take in a retired racehorse and start a nonprofit so the woman could donate money toward the horse’s care. Not long after, Wheatley had the opportunity to buy land next to her home, and she initially thought she would board horses, a popular service in Florida’s vast midsection.
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“This was during the [Great Recession], though, and we’d noticed so many horses in the fields around us,” Wheatley says. “We started talking to animal rescues and found out that the horses were unwanted and would be auctioned off. So, we started going to the auctions, bought the horses and started rehabbing them.”
Before long, Wheatley had 10 horses on the property and no idea what to do with them. So, she decided to open the property to the public for riding lessons, pony rides and trail rides. “The horses do really well when they get some attention and have a little job to do,” she says. “They’re like retired people. They love having a job and being around people.”
Today, DreamCatchers Horse Rescue specializes in horses with major medical needs. Oftentimes, the original owners can’t afford the medical care, so they bring the horse to Wheatley’s property. The rescue also provides a sanctuary for horses who are either too old or too sick to have small jobs and would otherwise be euthanized.
Somewhere along the way, Wheatley realized she wasn’t just helping the horses but the horses were helping the people—visitors, volunteers and the larger community. What started as a way to create a refuge for her daughter is now providing an entire community with equine therapy.“I’ve watched this thing and these horses transform lives,” Wheatley says. “Young children. Children with disabilities. Neurodivergent children. I had one child come in who had never spoken a word. The child took a ride and then started speaking the horse’s name. I have 80- and 81-year-old retirees who are volunteers. They now have something to do and be proud of.”