It’s 7 a.m. on a crisp January morning at Hiatt Equestrian Rescue and Recreation in Bigfork. The sun has yet to consider rising, leaving one to maneuver the early hours with senses other than sight.
Aromas of alfalfa and grain occasionally waft by and the silence is interrupted by endearing sentiments doled out by Johnna Hiatt: “You look so pretty this morning” and “be nice, you have to share.”
In the darkness, if one didn’t know they were surrounded by rescued horses, they may assume Hiatt was speaking to her own children instead of animals. But to Hiatt, animals and family are one in the same and the horses lucky enough to land at her rescue ranch find not only a refuge, but also a home.
Hiatt Equestrian Rescue and Recreation, or H.E.R.R., founded by Hiatt and her daughter Rose in 2010 and true to its acronym, is comprised of all women employees. The nonprofit serves as a sanctuary for horses in need.
“H.E.R.R. is about compassion and it’s about mercy,” Hiatt said.
The property is now home to 44 horses and counting — that number aligns with a sign mounted in Hiatt’s barn that declares “Horses are like potato chips, you can’t just have one.”
Hiatt was inspired to launch H.E.R.R. after her daughter was diagnosed with autism and she turned to equine therapy, which she said was “life-altering” for both Rose and herself.
“I wanted to give back because horses helped my daughter find balance,” Hiatt said. “I genuinely think the horses make us all better people.”
The horses at H.E.R.R. come from many situations, ranging from abusive former owners to elderly folks who can no longer care for them.
According to Hiatt, the majority of the horses come in with physical or psychological problems. For instance, one named Shiloh came to them with a missing left eye and eight others came in with damaged mouths and teeth — ailments that require Hiatt to soak their food prior to giving it to them.
Hiatt and her team work to meet the needs of every horse that comes to them. Some require special diets that include mushrooms and fenugreek, others receive small doses of CBD oil that calm them and alleviate pain, and some even have regular chiropractic appointments.
The operations are entirely funded by Hiatt, who owns a travel business on the side.
Most recently, Hiatt accepted a group of nine wild baby mustangs that were days away from being slaughtered — a fate deemed inevitable because their parents were also slaughtered and thus they couldn’t survive without them.
Within hours of finding out about the mustangs by way of a phone call, Hiatt was looking for additional fencing and structures to add to her property to accommodate them.
“Imagine going through what these little ones did,” Hiatt said, her voice cracking slightly. “They’ve lost their families, their homes. We didn’t know what to do but we knew we had to get them here and show them that someone can love them.”
As the trailer pulled up and the nine weary babies were unloaded into their new pasture, Hiatt said a hush washed over the rest of the farm.
“It’s like the other horses were mourning for them,” Hiatt said.
Hiatt plans to tame the mustang foals in the coming months and said she may consider adopting them out down the road, but only after the prospective families have been evaluated extensively.
As for the future of H.E.R.R., Hiatt hopes to add more team members and volunteers to the small four-person crew. But finding hard-working individuals who share the current members’ passion for horses is difficult.
“It’s a hard job, which means you have to really love what you do,” said Tracy Moore, who started with H.E.R.R. last summer. “Every one of us loves these animals enough to do just about anything for them.”
Hiatt also said H.E.R.R. will focus more on the recreating part of the organization in the coming years and wants to team up with organizations such as VALOR equine therapy, a Columbia Falls-based nonprofit that focuses on equine therapy for first-responders and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Horses have so much healing power,” Hiatt said. “We want to make sure the people who can benefit from their spirits and personalities are able to do that.”
Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org