By Erika Webb
Over the river and just a short distance through the woods, a holiday happening just may edge out grandmother's house.
The second annual Winter Festival will be at JM Horse Rescue on Forrest Drive in DeLand from 9 a.m. until dusk on Dec. 15 and 16. Owners Missy Seaver and John Hollingsworth thought a holiday carnival might be a good way to raise money for the neglected and starving horses they take in and nurse back to health. Last year they found out the effort had the potential to benefit people in the community as well.
Their end-of-the-year fundraiser includes pony rides; a bounce house; refreshments; bake sales; a petting zoo with calves, baby goats, miniature goats and donkeys; a live band; and Santa Claus. Parents are invited to take their own pictures of their children with Santa, free of charge.
Well-known, local horseman Ronnie Ford will give riding and horsemanship demonstrations from 10 a.m. to noon and 2-4 p.m. both days.
"There will be all kinds of vendors and jewelry sales, things for people to browse through and maybe do some Christmas shopping," Ms. Seaver said. "I try not to gear just to horse people. There's something for everyone."
The multi-purposed fundraiser was hugely successful last year, drawing more than 500 people, Ms. Seaver said.
She expects many more people to attend this year.
"I'm actually a little nervous," she said.
Most of the festival activities are free. Ms. Seaver said JM is only charging for pony rides, food and the bounce house. She said donations will be accepted, but are not necessary.
Last year's event yielded a profit of $800. Ms. Seaver said proceeds aren't just used at JM. She and Mr. Hollingsworth help other rescues, too.
"We go spend time at other rescues and take things they need," she said. "When we have an abundance, we share."
She said there will be a box at the festival for toys to be donated to the Sorosis Club of Orange City, which works to "promote the welfare of children and youth in the home and the community." Each year the group sponsors Operation Santa which provides assistance with food and toys to families in need during the holidays.
"We put so much money into this (festival) from our own pockets," Ms. Seaver said. "But I have to tell you, it's so worth it. When the children come out and pet a baby cow, it makes my day."
Ms. Seaver is realistic and practical. She knows events like this one won't save all of the horses she would like to rescue. For her, it's about raising awareness and giving something to the community.
"I want the everyday horse owner that's struggling not to wait until that horse is so bad off it's too late, putting that horse through unnecessary ... I can't even think of the word because it gives me goose bumps. It saddens me," she said.
She said she understands people have to put food on the table first but she said an hour of time donated to helping the animals can go a long way toward making a difference.
Ms. Seaver and Mr. Hollingsworth have taken in and saved close to 30 horses over the past four years, keeping only four of the animals. The key to success in rescue, she said, is not to collect them, but to find good homes for them.
"They all go to homes. I do not keep. I do not hoard," she said. "If I was to keep every horse that came through here, I wouldn't be able to take any more. I don't want to be a rescue in need of rescue."
The rescue effort started with a horse named Jill.
"She's an older girl, a Tennessee Walker," Ms. Seaver said. "She was very thin and her previous owner just couldn't take care of her anymore."
Ms. Seaver and Mr. Hollingsworth took her home then went in search of another horse so Jill wouldn't be alone.
"We went to horse rescues. We'd never been to one before," Ms. Seaver said.
The couple didn't like what they saw as they searched. She said they didn't find a horse that day but they decided to open JM Horse Rescue.
"It wasn't that they were doing a bad job. We just didn't realize there were so many starving horses," she said.
Ms. Seaver and Mr. Hollingsworth were called upon to rescue Charity, the once-proud thoroughbred who had competed in many races, and had been left to starve. Ms. Seaver said their hearts "literally broke" at the horse's condition. She was emaciated and near death. Her dead foal lay beside her in the stall.
"We named her Charity because, at that moment, it was she who needed it most," Ms. Seaver said.
It was only when the horse exited the trailer at their home that Ms. Seaver began to have some hope the animal would survive.
"I could tell from the spark in her eye, and if she wasn't willing to give up, then neither were we," she said.
Today, Charity is restored to health and spends her days happily grazing in a pasture at the ranch.
"We promised her the day we got her that she'd never have to worry again," Ms. Seaver said. "This is just our home. This is not some grand ranch. This is just our home and we do what we can do."
For more information about JM Horse Rescue and the festival, visit jmhorserescue.com or find them on Facebook.