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Peotone man turns farm into horse rescue, community service

PEOTONE – Abandoning a horse is easier than one might think, according to Tony Pecho of Peotone.

Pecho, founder of the Illinois Horse Rescue Association of Will County, said he’s rescued them everywhere from gravel roads in Cook County’s forest preserves to rural Will County to along rivers or tied to a farmer’s fencepost. He has even rescued one from inside a flooded kitchen.

“I’ve heard stories of people going on trail rides and coming back to find two horses inside their trailer,” Pecho said.

Recently, in just two days, according to Gina Pecho, Tony’s wife and rescue administrator, volunteers rescued 21 animals: two llamas, two mules, four horses, 11 miniature horses (most have lice) and underweight ponies, one underweight miniature donkey and one peacock, who will only eat puffed Cheetos. Many “have leg problems” and are “loaded with worms.”

Pecho said he also is seeing quite a few owner relinquishments and not just because of the slow economy. Unexpected death, as in the case of “hobby” farmers, can suddenly leave horses without owners.

“When a man with three horses and a couple of donkeys dies,” Pecho said, “what’s his widow supposed to do with them?”

Pecho, who grew up in Tinley Park with a mother that raised Morgan horses, founded the nonprofit Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County five years ago for two reasons.

The first was to provide food, shelter and veterinary care for the horses while seeking suitable new homes for them.

The second was to offer educational and therapeutic programs to special needs children and veterans, as well as volunteer opportunities, especially to at-risk youth needing some community service hours. Those kids quickly learn, Pecho said, that horse rescue is hard.

“Bailing hay and shoveling stalls is not like volunteering at a hospital and pointing to the cafeteria,” Pecho said.

When Pecho bought the 10-acre farm, he had planned to renovate the house and barn and raise horses “like my mother did.” But then he received a call from a school that worked with autistic children. They wanted to bring students to the farm. Pecha agreed and he’s glad he did.

“They wanted to come back the next day,” Pecho said. “Right then, I knew there was a need for a horse rescue.”

Kathryn Dolezal, community support services case manager for Cornerstone Services in Joliet, said Ann Ojo, director of community support services at Cornerstone, encourages programs that take the clients outside.

Under Pecho’s patient guidance, Dolezal said, clients emptied water buckets, moved mulch with wheelbarrows, painted a fence, “picked up the poop, held guinea pigs and ‘got a kick’ out of the little goat that followed them around like a puppy.” One client has trouble interacting with people but grew visibly excited when he saw “cats running around.”

“It was like finding gold,” Dolezal said. “A lot of [clients] will never have a job, so we rely on places like this. It teaches them a good work ethic, that their hard work goes to caring for the animals and saving their lives, something that’s beyond getting a paycheck.”

Because Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County receives no federal or state funds, paying the bills and maintaining some 40 horses is challenging, despite an abundance of volunteers. Pecho appreciates large and small donations; every bag of grain is appreciated, he said.

“One girl raised $1,500 for us by giving up her birthday presents,” Pecho said. “Another child does a lemonade stand for us every spring.”

Still, even though volunteers have offered to install fences, Pecho needs money to buy materials. His vehicles are “getting old.” Gifts of hay are nice but when people take that same amount of money and buy gas cards, he’s able to allocate that to diesel fuel and bale even more hay.

“This economy has turned us into beggars,” Pecho said. “We need corporate sponsors that believe in what we’re doing.”

This also is why a “Miracles Happen” sign adorns one fence and a cross fashioned from old barn timbers greets guests coming up Pecho’s drive. It’s also why Pecho accepts animals other than horses into his rescue, he said.

“We’ve got sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, ducks, obviously cats and dogs, hedgehogs and a few ferrets,” Pecho said.

Horses often arrive emaciated, chemically burned or unable to stand because of compound leg fractures. Sometimes, Pecho said, horses are found lying at roadsides, barely alive. Newly rescued horses go to a quarantine barn four miles away for assessment.

No horse is adopted before “being vetted,” Pecho said. Very aggressive horses and severely disabled horses may be put down for quality of life or safety reasons.

“You can amputate the leg on a dog and put it on a cart with wheels,” Pecho said, “but you can’t do that with a horse.”

Great adoption rates means horses “get adopted pretty quick,” but Pecha always does property checks to ensure compatibility between horses and owners.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Man this dog is hyper,’ ” Pecho said, “but if the horse is hyper, you’re not going to like it.”

More information

According to its website, Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County will gladly accept the following vehicles, regardless of condition or location:

• Airplanes and helicopters
• Boats
• Cars
• Farm equipment
• Horse trailers
• Motorcycles and mopeds
• RVs and campers
• Semi-tractors
• SUVs and trucks

Call 877-721-7387 or email to schedule a convenient pickup and receive donation confirmation.

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