By PHYL NEWBECK
As a small child growing up in the city of Rome, N.Y., Ginny Iverson’s first word was “horse.”
Though she and her vocabulary grew, her equine focus has remained throughout her life.
Now the executive director and head trainer of After the Track in Hinesburg, she retrains retired thoroughbreds to keep them from the slaughterhouse.
Iverson, 67, moved to Vermont after college and worked as a special education teacher and then at the University of Vermont’s Center on Disability and Inclusion. Following her dream to own horses, she purchased Hallelujah, I Finally Got a Horse (Hal for short) and Tequila, and started a side business training horses on the Hinesburg land where she has lived since 1987.
Initially, Iverson bred and trained her own horses but as she became aware of what was going on in the thoroughbred industry, she said she felt compelled to change her focus.
Iverson explained that between 25,000 and 30,000 thoroughbreds are born every year for the sole purpose of racing. Only a third make it to the track and just a small fraction of those are successful.
By the age of 6, horses retire from racing but they live well into their 30s. Iverson discovered a number of organizations dedicated to helping retired thoroughbreds find life after racing and vowed to do the same.
In 2007, Iverson bought her first thoroughbred from Suffolk Downs and the next year she got another, and then another. In 2013, After the Track became a certified nonprofit.
Today, Iverson cares for four retired racehorses. Another dozen have been adopted after being retrained. She also boards a number of horses to help cover the nonprofit’s costs.
As part of her mission, Iverson also runs an internship program for students who want to learn more about the animals. Interns include pre-veterinary students looking for experience with large animals as well as business majors who are interested in learning about management practices. “The heart and soul of this holistic program is to train the thoroughbreds to be pleasure, sport or therapy horses,” she said.
A few years ago, Iverson learned about the Saratoga WarHorse Program – a two-day intensive curriculum for veterans. Consulting with the South Burlington Vet Center, Iverson decided to create her own veterans’ program, opting to make hers long-term and designed for locals. In January, she debuted an eight-week course for six veterans.
“Every week I would set up activities to promote trust, confidence, communication and social skills and to decrease social isolation,” she said. “That included instruction and hands-on time with the horses.”
After eight weeks, the veterans didn’t want to leave so she continued the program on a drop-in basis throughout the summer. In October, she began a new 12-week course and some of the current veterans are serving as mentors for newer ones.
Iverson’s lifelong love of horses has not diminished. “It’s almost indescribable,” she said. “It’s such a two-way street. It’s wonderful to have that relationship with an animal where there is trust, respect and mutual learning.”
Iverson noted that most of her interns have had experience with horses but many of the veterans have not. “The learning is remarkable,” she said. “That lets me stay in touch with my teaching career. It’s fun for me because that’s something I’m passionate about, but the horses are the core of the program and make it what it is. Every horse is an individual and if you understand who they are, the training process is a joy.”