Nancy Turner was driving when she remembered: the national contest she had entered was about to announce results.
She pulled into a nearby parking lot, where she read the good news from her cellphone: her Hastings-based shelter This Old Horse had just won a total of $16,000 from two awards from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"I was shocked," she said. "It's so delightful. Sixteen-thousand dollars. That doesn't happen every day."
About 120 shelters across the country entered the ASPCA contest, which divided them into three divisions based on each organization's budget, capacity for horses and the number of adoptions facilitated in 2017. From late April to the end of June, winners were judged on the number of adoptions they secured, funds raised, overall adoption campaign and most compelling adoption video. Earlier this month, ASPCA selected This Old Horse as the first-place winner in its division of medium-sized horse shelters, awarding it $15,000. The shelter also placed second for most compelling adoption video, bringing in $1,000.
Founded by Turner in 2012 with a dozen horses and a handful of volunteers, This Old Horse now draws about 300 volunteers per month and cares for about 200 horses.
The award money will go directly into the general operating budget, which is normally supplied by grants, sponsorships and donations, Turner said. Operating costs at the Hastings barn run about $20,000 per month.
Because of its combination of helping retired racehorses and rescues, This Old Horse is one of the only shelters of its kind across the country, Turner said. While most official horse shelters primarily assist with adoptions, Turner founded hers with the goal of housing retired racehorses that have conditions preventing them from being ridden again or training for new jobs, such as therapeutic riding or competing in jumping or polo events.
Many of these horses retire at 5 or 6 years old and live to be about 25 to 30, Turner said.
Without a place to go, unrideable racehorses often are sold to be slaughtered in Canada or Mexico - which have horse meat processing plants, unlike the United States.
And because horses are instinctively prey animals who run from harm, Turner said, there aren't as many humane options for slaughter as there are for animals that can be trained to stand still, like cows.
"There's a pretty bleak future for unwanted horses out there," she said. "This is kind of the niche we tried to fill."
'We were giddy'
Because the shelter focuses on caring for retired racehorses through the end of their life - rather than finding new homes for them - Turner wasn't expecting much when she entered the contest.
She said she had previously entered the annual contest three times without hearing back.
But they applied again anyway, she said, primarily for networking reasons.
"It was like, even if we don't get this contest, at least we want (ASPCA) to have heard of us and our name to be out there," she said.
She and a committee of volunteers shot a video on her cellphone in order to be eligible for the competition.
This year, she said, This Old Horse happened to have events lined up during the two-month period ASPCA was examining for fundraising and adoption efforts.
"We hit at the perfect time," she said.
In May and June, the shelter raised $53,000 in its annual 5K, opened a new shelter for wild stallions in Goodhue, ran a booth at the Minnesota Horse Council Expo and had some particularly high-traffic Facebook posts and news articles, Turner said.
They also had 12 adoptions in those two months, which was unusually high, Turner said. The shelter usually facilitates about 20 adoptions annually.
Unlike in previous years, she started getting calls from contest officials asking detailed questions about her work and offering positive feedback on the video.
"So of course, I go to the committee," she said. "We were giddy. 'She liked it! She liked our video!'"
Dr. Emily Weiss, vice president of ASPCA Equine Welfare, said she thought the video stood out for its focus on animals with special needs, and that This Old Horse won its division based on its increased number of adoptions.
"This year, we challenged groups to focus their efforts on adoption and we were blown away by the incredible progress (This Old Horse) made towards finding homes for the horses in their care," she said in an email.
Since its founding in 2012, the shelter has drawn over 1,800 volunteers with roles varying from helping out once a year at the 5K to feeding the horses weekly. Those on the leadership team volunteer nearly 40 hours a week, Turner said.
"It's just astonishing," Turner said of the organization's growth. "We just have followed our horses ... I know that sounds corny, but it's really true. Our community has expanded."
Most volunteers live in Hastings, Turner said, with others driving in from within a 30-minute radius, like Roseville, Farmington and Inver Grove Heights.
Since no experience is required to volunteer, about 10 part-time staffers help lead the feeding shifts, which can be complicated.
Many volunteer for the feeds as a family, Turner said.
"We have a lot parents that say, 'I can't get my kid to talk to me for three hours about anything, but if there's a horse involved, then we have something to talk about on the way there and on the way home,'" she said.
About 100 horses are fostered by volunteers, who pay a monthly fee to host the animals and remain part of This Old Horse's network.
"If people foster for us, they become part of us, not instead of us," Turner said.
"We're always in the picture, we're checking in on them ... continuing to be part of the program. It's like getting married, gaining a son and not losing a daughter."
Turner's growing base of volunteers and connections allowed her to expand the shelter's services, like a miniature horse therapy program and the new shelter for stallions. At the request of barn owners, she has gradually added sites in Cannon Falls, Inver Grove Heights and Stillwater.
"It started as a community, not a place," she said. "I think it's unlimited ... It's like, what can the community do?"