By Dennis Yusko
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.
As the temperature sank to 15 degrees Wednesday at Long Shadows Farm in Washington County, Valerie Buck warmed up with Whiskey and Budder inside a massive indoor arena.
Buck, 49, has loved horses since she received a pony for Christmas when she was 12. She became an exercise rider and worked for some of horse racing’s biggest trainers. She met Whiskey and Budder at racetracks while on the job.
Buck stopped riding in 2009 due to serious injuries from falls. She became convinced of the emotional healing power of horses while volunteering as equine manager at Saratoga WarHorse. The acclaimed program in Wilton is dedicated to helping wounded veterans and military service members through interactions with horses.
Buck left the organization in September to concentrate on trying to help traumatized women. The organization she founded, Aftercare Continued Thoroughbred Training, or ACTT Naturally, connects retired thoroughbreds with women who are struggling with loss or pain. Buck recently leased stalls for six horses she cares for at her friends’ 165-acre farm, located just outside the village of Cambridge, and started holding day-long healing sessions.
“People kept asking if there was a program for women,” said Buck, rubbing Whiskey on the neck. “We ended up here.”
The confidential sessions mix sometimes intense discussions with horse whispering. They are limited to a handful of pre-approved women.
The first sessions were supervised by Buck and certified equine coach Cindy Aldrich of Springfield, Vt. A woman whose son died of a heroin overdose, domestic abuse victims and others attended. There are two sessions scheduled for January. One has filled up.
While Buck manages the horses, Aldrich leads discussions around the cavernous arena, which has an all-dirt floor. Horses demand honesty and can feel when their human handlers aren’t sincere, Aldrich said.
“Horses are like a giant feedback machine,” she said. “They are non-judgmental. They just want your honesty. It’s an amazing gift for healing.”
Buck cares for 12 retired horses, including six at her home. As a professional, she rode Budder, who was once a belligerent and competitive colt named Three Lions, for trainer Todd Pletcher. Budder is now a friendly 11-year-old.
Buck met Whiskey on the backstretch of Saratoga Race Course several years ago. She’s not certain of the horse’s age. The horsewoman makes money through pet-sitting and other personal projects, but hopes to one day be able to offer weekly women’s workshops.
“My heart has always been with the horses that nobody remembers, that need a voice,” she said.
ACTT depends entirely on donations. The effort is available to women at no cost, though it accepts donations. Buck recently received a sizeable donation toward operations to help her with renting space at the farm from her friends Paul and Arlene Lotterus of Lake George.
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She’s also holding a major fundraiser Saturday at the Parting Glass in Saratoga Springs.
Buck broke vertebrae in her back and suffered a punctured lung and other injuries in a fall at Monmouth Park in 1997. In 2009, a horse she mounted at Saratoga Race Course fell near Union Avenue, causing her to hit her head. She broke her neck and underwent surgery. Buck said horses taught her emotional fitness and how to live in the moment. Leading them requires discipline, not dithering. That’s empowering because it encourages people to stand up for themselves in a positive way, she said.
“I’ve had my share of ups and downs in life,” Buck said. “As I learned how much the horses were doing for me, I wanted to do that for others.”