Tina Garrett is one of those people who has a passion for a cause and who has devoted her life to doing something about it. Many people may not even be aware that there are horses in need of being rescued–horses that are severely malnourished and abused. Unfortunately, as Tina can attest, there is a huge need for South West Florida Horse Rescue, Inc., the company that she founded and operates. There are actually more horses in need than the company can take in; they would take in more, and expand their operation, if they had more funding and help. This is where the generosity of Naples benefactors and volunteers can make a real difference in the lives of animals that are suffering, by providing much-needed funds and hands to help South West Florida Horse Rescue, Inc. operate and expand.
Not everyone would be able to do what Tina does. But Tina is special. Perhaps it’s because she was a foster child once, and experienced being shuffled from foster home to foster home. When she was a child, she found healing through a special horse that came into her life. Now, as an adult, she has a special affinity with horses that are neglected and unwanted.
This interview will give you glimpse into what goes on at South West Florida Horse Rescue, Inc.–how it came to be, its challenges and success stories, and what you can do to help.
Tina Garrett: We started rescuing horses back in 2010 and we never meant to be a big horse Rescue organization by any means. We both worked very full time jobs as FedEx Ground drivers and we owned horses of our own, which we would enjoy on the weekends with either a nice trail ride or a weekend camping trip to a horse park. After losing my home to a house fire in 2006, I would occasionally check Craigslist for horse-related items to replace all that I had lost in the fire.
One day, while looking through Craigslist, I came upon an ad from a local couple asking for help with saving the lives of our local horses. I just knew this was put in front of me for a reason so I contacted the lady. Matt and I both would send our monetary donations to different animal-related Rescue organizations all over the U.S. but this just made sense to me, local and I could actually ‘see’ where my money went as opposed to sending it to big orgs who paid their staff a salary with my hard earned money. We had a nice conversation with the lady and she and I set up a date/time for her to come to our little farm for a visit and to see if our property was suitable to house a couple of rescue equines. We met with her and became instant friends, with the same interest in our mission of helping equines right here in our own backyards. After she approved of our farm we went to work building a small barn on our back five acres and sectioning off two separate paddocks. Before our work was complete, we got a call from her asking if we could go pick up a senior OTTB mare who was in pretty bad shape. I said, yes without hesitation and off we went to pick up our very first rescue, Jeannie. Soon after Jeannie, we got a call asking us to pick up a little pony, Dover, whose owner had lost her battle with cancer and the husband was at a loss as to how to care for his late wife’s beloved equines. Again, without hesitation, we hooked up and headed to pick up our second rescue. A month or so passed and we got a call regarding a mare listed on Craigslist who was in very poor condition and the owner was offering FREE to good home and we all know how horrible that can turn out for the horse so we headed out to pick up our third rescue equine. In 2011 we discovered a herd of over 50 severely emaciated equines who needed rescue and at that point we knew, the need for genuine horse Rescue organizations in our local area was more than we could have ever imagined. I suppose you could say, that is really when SWFHR was born: we saved nineteen of that herd of 50 and with our FedEx salaries busting at the seams, we had to do things a bit differently.
Naples Noteworthy: Tell us a little bit about your company—what you do, and why you do it.
Tina Garrett: We are South West Florida Horse Rescue, dedicated to saving the lives of our local horses since 2010. We became incorporated in 2013 and received our 501c3 non-profit status soon after. In 2014 we were awarded a grant for $450,000 from a private Foundation, to purchase the 40 acre property that we are on today. We built our Rescue facility from the ground up and have much more do accomplish before it will ever be considered complete. What we do is save lives, why we do it is because it is a passion. There are so many abused, neglected and abandoned equines in our local area and without such organizations like South West Florida Horse Rescue, many would die. We pride ourselves in always putting these horses first and providing a safe and healthy environment for them to rehab and learn to truly live again.
Our rehab program is quite extensive and we rely on a team of professional equine veterinarians to help us to get these horses on a structured diet suited for each of their individual needs. We rely on our professional farrier to help us get their hooves back to a healthy state and we rely on our professional trainers to help us by offering a 30 day training program for any equine who has the potential to be placed up for adoption after a full recovery here with us. We also rely on a team of amazing and dedicated volunteers who know and love these horses just as much as we do. Our volunteers come from all ages and all backgrounds. Some have owned horses and want to help out with grooming, mucking and feeding while others love horses but like to offer their time by bush hogging, trimming trees or installing fencing. Some are retired and bring their skills to help us get things accomplished that would normally require us to hire a company to do, for example, our volunteer who is a retired Electrician, he has helped with many electrical projects here at the facility and has saved us hundreds of dollars. While they are all a huge help in their own way, another thing that they are to us, is family. When you become a volunteer here at South West Florida Horse Rescue, you are adopted into a rescue family type atmosphere. We celebrate birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, baby showers and country picnics. We also are a shoulder to cry on in our times of need; so you see, it is a family.
Tina Garrett: I have no memory of a time when I did not love horses so I suppose I was born this way. I have always loved animals, all animals, but there has always been something very special about equines. From my early stages of childhood, I have always had a connection with horses. Being shuffled from foster home to foster home as a young girl, my only real comfort came from animals. When I was moved to a new foster home at the age of 9 or 10, I learned that the foster family had a pony and I was beyond excited about having a pony in my new temporary home. This pony was named Chubby Checkers and he was to change my life in a most unexpected way. After the foster family introduced me to Chubby and allowed me to help care for him, they both saw that the little foster child they had so warmly opened their doors to, needed this little pony to help deal with a not so pleasant past. They then trusted me to take Chubby on long rides around their country neighborhood and down by the lake to watch the ducks swim. Those wonderful rides on the back of my new best friend were exactly what I needed to help let go of the hurt and anger I felt from my past. I did not know it then but Chubby was put in my life to help me heal and I will always feel a great deal of gratitude to him for doing such a wonderful job of healing a broken little girl.
Naples Noteworthy: How do you find horses that need rescued?
Tina Garrett: Many ways, in our early days we relied on the lady who reached out for help on Craigslist. Later we would get calls from concerned local citizens or boarding facilities who had owners abandon their horses at their farms. In recent years, we work directly with local Animal Services Authorities such as County Animal Services and the Sheriff’s Department. Not all counties operate the same but we do have a good relationship with a few of the surrounding counties and we assist with seizures of equines taken by the Sheriff’s Department’s Ag Division. We have a very good reputation in our local and surrounding areas so we always have a waiting list of equines that need to come in. We focus on the ones who are in the most critical situations first and if we have room, we will take in owner surrenders. All surrender cases are based on a sense of urgency; in other words, if an owner simply wants to send his/her horse to a Rescue due to the horse being of no more use to them, we offer our Re-homing Program to them. We help them find a new home for their equine by networking on our social media pages and by word of mouth. This has been successful in many different situations over the years and we are happy to offer such a service to our local horse community. If the family has fallen on hard times, we offer our Feeding Program to them; this is a program that we set up to assist folks to feed and care for their horses until they can get back on their feet. All of our Programs are funded by our monthly fundraisers and in order to continue to offer such Programs, we must continue to find new ways of raising the funds that support our Programs.
Naples Noteworthy: What is your favorite rescue/success story?
Tina Garrett: While I must say, they are all my favorites, any equine who is rescued is a success story and all hold a special place in our hearts. If I have to narrow it down to just one, I would have to say our Latte is one of the most amazing and the fact that we saved this little pony from certain death, makes her story even more remarkable.
In January 2013, while on my FedEx route, deep in south Naples, I received a phone call from a lady who had seen a little pony listed For Sale on a Farm Animal Exchange site and she felt compelled to contact me for help. The pony was shown standing in a field, skin and bones, with a huge wound on her leg that had, clearly, never been addressed nor tended to. I ask the concerned citizen for the contact information and I pulled my FedEx truck under a shade tree to make my call to the seller. I explained who I was and that folks were calling me with concern about the pony she had listed for sale. She quickly agreed to pull her ad off the site and agreed to surrender the pony to our Rescue. Here is where it got tricky; I am in the middle of my route with several stops left to do and the pony was just outside of Lake Okeechobee. I assured the seller that I would make arrangements to pick up the pony and would contact her back as soon as I had a plan in motion. I then began my mission to contact everyone I knew on the east coast of Florida and my efforts paid off when a Facebook friend agreed to help me save the life of a little pony that neither one of us had ever laid eyes on.
Next up was to find a Veterinarian in that county to do the farm call to first, address the pony’s wound and secondly, pull blood for her coggins testing. I found a reputable Vet who agreed to make the trip to the seller’s farm and take my payment for all cost over the phone using my credit card. When the Vet arrived, she cleaned the wound and gave the seller pain meds for the pony, pulled blood for coggins and called me with the update. I ask her to tell me what the pony’s name was and she said, “she has no name, they are calling her Bay pony.” This broke my heart , no name, how could she have no name? I then ask the Vet to ‘be my eyes’ and tell me what the pony looks like. She said, “she looks like a coffee drink, maybe a cappuccino or a latte.” Well, that was all I needed to hear, Latte it shall be and on that day, this precious frail little girl had a name and her life was about to change in ways that she would never comprehend.
Latte was moved to my Facebook friend’s farm the next day and her journey began. After a couple of months in the care of my friend, it was time to make the 3 hour drive over to pick her up. My friend was concerned that Latte may have been bred while at the previous home and she was apprehensive about being a foster for a pregnant pony. We hooked up on Saturday and headed over to meet our little rescue pony for the very first time. When I first saw Latte, my heart belonged to her, she was so tiny and smelled of that sweet pony scent I always cherished as a child. We loaded her up and off we went. Latte’s wound was still very concerning and it had not healed like we all had hoped so we opted to take her to one of our Foster Farms located just a mile from our Rescue. Our friend who offered foster to many of our new intakes was retired and she could doctor Latte’s wound several times per day, something Matt and I could not do, due to our hectic FedEx schedules. We decided to call our long-time Veterinarian out to the Foster Farm to have him offer his expert opinion on Latte’s wound. He came out and did x-rays to determine if the Phythiosis had gone to the bone, in which case we would have no other choice but to euthanize, and to our relief it had not. It took nearly one full year of costly injections and daily cleaning for her wound to heal completely.
To this very day, if you did not know the story of this little miracle pony, you would never know she was ever that close to death’s door. Latte is still with us today but she is adoption pending as of this year and will be going to her new home soon. I have mixed emotions about her departure, not because I don’t know and love her new parents but because when you go through so much with them and you grow so attached, it is heart wrenching to let them go. The ups and downs of horse rescue is one that most could never do; most could not nurse them back to health, treat them like their own and then let them be adopted but if you are in rescue for the right reasons, you put the horses first and that includes letting them continue their new journey knowing you will suffer a broken heart. I have cried many tears over our little Latte and I will cry even more when we say goodbye to her and see her off to her new home, but I would not change a thing about what we do here and Latte will go on to maybe do some healing of her own, just like my Chubby did for me.
Naples Noteworthy: How many horses do you usually have? How many stables do you have?
Tina Garrett: Although we try to keep our limit to ten rescues, we rarely are at that number with so many out there needing us. Last year, at one point, we were at 22 rescues due to a large herd of 11 Mini Horses we took in. We are currently at twelve and have a waiting list of horses who need to come in. We stick to the belief that, we must be financially able to provide the proper care and attention to the horses we rescue so keeping our numbers low is a must for any non-profit organization. We are not funded by any state or government agencies and all of the funds we bring in are done via fundraisers, donations and grants.
We have an open pole barn in our back paddock and three enclosed barns in each of our front paddocks. We have plans to build the additional three barns up front, when we have the funds, and we recently got an estimate to build a much needed Medical barn to be able to properly care for injured, ill or quarantined equines both now and in the future. Ideally, we would like to have run-in shelters in all pastures to provide shelter for our rescues during harsh weather. It is all a work in progress and over time, we feel that we will reach our goals.
Naples Noteworthy: How do you find people to adopt your horses?
Tina Garrett: Oddly, over the course nearly eight years, we have been very fortunate with little to no advertising other than our social media sites. Word of mouth is most definitely how we find loving homes for our rescue equines. In any small community, we feel that if you have an open door policy and you are 100% transparent regarding your organization, your reputation will continue to grow and more and more folks will come visit and tell their friends. Remember, we never set out to be the biggest horse Rescue in our local area, only to be the best. Our adoption process is rather lengthy and we do all of the proper checks on any potential adopter, this ensures that our horses never end up in a neglect situation again.
Naples Noteworthy: Do you need volunteers?
Tina Garrett: We are always looking for new volunteers and we never turn anyone away. If you have a love of animals and you don’t mind getting dirty and smelling like horses, South West Florida Horse Rescue is the place for you. On a serious note, even if you do not want to volunteer and deal directly with the horses, we have several opportunities for you to help out in other ways. We are always looking for creative fundraising ideas and we welcome anyone who would like to host a fundraiser for our organization. We also offer projects for the younger folks to get involved as well as senior citizens. We treat our volunteers with respect and we are truly grateful to them for giving of their time to help make life a little better for our four-legged residents.
Naples Noteworthy: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced running your company?
Tina Garrett: I would have to say that the biggest challenge, both in the past and the present, is funding. As a non-profit charitable organization, there is often the misconception that we have funding coming in on a regular basis from state and government agencies. This is not the case and any/all funding we receive is through our own acts. We do not have a staff of employees to delegate projects to; we are a volunteer-based organization and this enables us to put all funds toward the equines currently in our care, and the many construction projects that are needed to continue to build our facility from the ground up. The term Chief Cook and Bottle Washer applies to us in the aspect of being in charge of practically everything within our organization. We wear many hats.
One thing that is often overlooked in the world of rescue is, losing one’s self. It can happen to any of us in this field and it quite often does over time. I would consider this a challenge we all face daily. When you run an organization that requires you to care for and be responsible for living beings, it is easy to get ‘lost in it’ and let it consume you. Matt and I are always struggling with this and we are working on trying to take a little time out for ‘us’ while making sure our Rescue is running like a well oiled machine.
Naples Noteworthy: What is a typical day like for you?
Tina Garrett: A typical day here at South West Florida Horse Rescue starts as soon as it is daylight out and ends well after the sun goes down. All of our equines are fed three times per day.Morning chores consist of hauling hay down to each horse and soaking T&A pellets for the ones who have problems chewing regular hay. Next is mixing feed/supplements/medications for each equine and soaking feed for the ones who have problems chewing. After this, all fly mask, fly sheets and wraps are put on for their day out in the elements. Once all are fed, fly sprayed and dressed, the chore of stall clean up begins. We usually have volunteers arriving around 8-9am and they help considerably with clean up as well as mucking paddocks and cleaning water troughs. Many folks have referred to our facility and ‘running a tight ship’, I suppose this is true to a degree. We are very proud of our facility and the horses who reside here so yes, we run a tight ship when it comes to the appearance of both our equines and our property. At lunchtime, all horses get their lunch hay, soaked T & A pellets for the ones who have problems chewing. In the evening, all equines get the same schedule as with morning feeding and at this time all fly mask, sheets, wraps are removed for cleaning and to hang out to dry for morning. All are fly sprayed to ward off the mosquitos that come out at dark and once all cleaning is done, it is time to prep for morning. This is a typical day, not to mention farrier day, vet day or bran mash day and de-worming. It is not an easy job and many do not understand how we do what we do, day in and day out but I can assure you, when you are exhausted at the end of the day, all you have to do is take a look around at all of the happy and content babies that are alive and well ‘because’ of all that you do and the exhaustion subsides.
Naples Noteworthy: How are you able to rehabilitate horses that come to you in such terrible shape? What procedures to you use? Have any animals died?
Tina Garrett: The first thing we do with any of our new intakes is, call our Veterinarian. We rely fully on his/her expert opinion and to assist us on the best possible diet for each of their, very individual, needs. I would have to say a fair amount of some good old fashioned common sense is key to helping these horses recover from a not so pleasant past. For example, when we get an equine in who is severely emaciated, we start them out very slowly on soaked Beet Pulp to get their compromised digestive system accustomed to eating again and felling full without the fear of colic. They are turned out on lush grass to also assist in helping them to get back to a normal eating pattern. Once we have tested for sand belly and worm infestation, we can address each of these issues as they arise. When we feel the horse is improving, we introduce good quality hay and later we add a small amount of quality grain. This is all done in baby steps; it took them no time at all to drop 100’s of pounds but putting that weight/muscle back on is a whole different ball game. Eventually, they will be on their road to a 100% recovery and honestly, they will surprise you at the sheer will to live that these magnificent animals possess. There is, often times, a lot that goes into the first several days of rescue. Many times they will need their teeth floated by a professional Equine Dentist due to severe neglect at the hands of a previous owner. Some require medication to address health problems that were overlooked by a previous owner.
Since rescuing our very first equine back in January of 2010, we have not lost any that we have taken in, with the exception of a senior gelding we were assisting the owner with who developed liver failure and had to be euthanized. And a mare we were called about but were not able to save due to the owner not reaching out for help in time and the cancer on her face had spread and nothing could be done to save her. We have several senior horses who are considered sanctuary horses due to medical issues preventing them from being adopted. In January of 2016, we had to have one of our senior horses euthanized due to failing health and we lost a mare that same year to a deadly lightening strike.
Naples Noteworthy: What is your philosophy of life? How are you able to keep a positive attitude when you see the neglect that these animals have suffered?
Tina Garrett: My philosophy of life is really quite simple, To Thine Own Self Be True. I think if we all practiced this, the world would be a very different place to live in. Be true to what you say and do in life. It is very easy to do, you just have to believe in yourself and the power that you have to change something that you are passionate about. My passion is horses and I will live the rest of my days making a difference in as many lives as I can.
Keeping a positive attitude is somewhat of a character trait for me. I am naturally a positive person and I steer clear of negative or toxic situations by choice. I can’t say that I have not bitten my tongue nearly clean off when faced with a human who has caused so much suffering to animals. I do, however, know how to put on a happy face and get the horse to safety while never instigating an argument with the owner. Another way to look at it is, the rescued equine is not dwelling in the past after he/she is rescued, so why would I. My dear friend recently said to me, “The past isn’t a hitching post, just a stop on the road. You are evidence of that.” I should probably add, it helps to keep positive people in your life and in your circle of sanity.
Naples Noteworthy: Where do you see yourself in ten years, and what will you be doing?
Tina Garrett: Well, I definitely see myself right here at South West Florida Horse Rescue but I see lots of wonderful changes to the facility. We purchased this 40 acre property via a Grant in 2014. The property was a foreclosure and was bought by an investor who did some upgrades to the home but nothing to the property or existing pole barns. The property was home to Prestwick Golf Course for many years prior to going into foreclosure and the back 20 acres was used as a Paint Ball park for several years. When we closed on the property, our first mission was to bush hog the front 20 acres and get it prepared for fencing. Keep in mind, there was no fencing on the property prior to our organization buying it, nor had it ever housed equines. Severely overgrown with grass, weeds, brush and pepper trees, it took us several weeks to get that cleared and disposed of. Next was the fencing and later the barns. The back 20 acres has not been touched since our purchase and the old Paint Ball park with several forts and obstacles (boats, culverts, tires, tires and more tires) is slowly rotting away. Our dream is to one day have the funds to remove and dispose of all the debris and start clearing and putting in fencing to accommodate a special area for our sanctuary equines to live out their days while continuing our rescue efforts on the front 20 acres. Will this all happen in the next 10 years? I have no idea but if you base it off of our amazing progress within just the past 3 1/2 years, it is certainly possible.
Naples Noteworthy: Do you love all animals or is there something in particular about horses that is your passion?
Tina Garrett: Since a very young girl, I have always had a strong love of all animals. My Grandmother, God rest her sweet soul, use to tell this one particular story to all her friends. She told of a very little Tina who went with her into town to do the weekly shopping. While in one store, she turned around and I was gone. She searched all over the store for me when the cashier noticed the desperate search, she informed Mom that a little girl with long brown hair bought some of these Andi’s candies and left the store with them. Mom goes rushing out the front door to find me dragging a huge dog down the sidewalk, begging her to let us take him home with us. I had used all the money I had to buy him some Andi’s candies, lol, because he looked hungry. I have memories of sitting on Santa’s lap, year after year, pleading for him to bring me a pony. He always would tell me he couldn’t possibly fit a pony in his sleigh; silly Santa, just hook him to the sleigh and he will help pull it to my house. LOL. Yes, I certainly do love all of God’s creatures and I would have one of each, if I could, but I will just continue to save horses and that will be enough for me.
Naples Noteworthy: If you had to pick one or two people who have been influential in your life, who would they be and why?
Tina Garrett: Well, definitely my Grandmother, she is who I know is watching over me to this day. She taught me to always be kind and to treat others the way I would like to be treated. She taught me to always be honest and fair and to remember to thank the good Lord, every single day for giving me another day. I know that I got my giving heart from her and I try every day to always be the woman she would be proud of.
Naples Noteworthy: Are the people in you life–family, friends—supportive of your company?
Tina Garrett: Yes, my family and friends are very supportive of our organization, they worry about me a lot and wish that I had more time to enjoy other things in life beside just rescue but all in all, they support me and my decisions while always being there for me if I ever start to bend. (I will never break, only bend)
My number one support system is my partner in this crazy world of horse Rescue. He started this venture with me back in 2010 and maybe he didn’t know what he was getting into or why my friends referred to me as ‘the crazy horse lady’ but he has been right by my side for every step of the way. I would not be where I am today without him by my side and this rescue would not be as solid if not for his many talents.
Naples Noteworthy:Where can people donate funds for South West Florida Horse Rescue, Inc.?
Tina Garrett: Folks can donate a number of ways, send check payable to South West Florida Horse Rescue to, 14811 State Road 31, Punta Gorda, FL. 33982. Send through PayPal to, email@example.com. Make a credit card payment by phone at our local feed store, Futral’s Feed Store, Dave Moody owner, 239-334-3431. Make a credit card payment by phone at our hay distributor, Marylou’s Feed and Western Wear, Marylou or Mandi, 239-731-0001.
Naples Noteworthy: If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
Tina Garrett: If I could change one thing in the world, it would be, to change the laws governing punishment of animal abusers. If there were stiffer penalties and harsher punishment for convicted animal abusers, the number of cruelty cases would drop significantly. With the way it stands, the repercussions are so minimal with a misdemeanor charge and a slap on the wrist, that is not enough to deter the cold-hearted of the world from continuing their barbaric acts of cruelty. Put these monsters away, for a very long time, and enforce hefty fines to hit them where it hurts, in the pocketbook. Animals do not have a voice, they are the helpless and sadly, they are the ones who need our voice more than ever before. So many things in the world today are beyond incomprehensible and the ways of the past are vanishing away, only to be taken over by hatred and division. If I could change one thing, yes, it would be something that would benefit the voiceless.