HEART Equine Ambulance Accepts Challenge

Christopher Shoales and Meri Straz | © Ann Jones

The Sweely Foundation was created by Jess and Sharon Sweely to fund the family’s philanthropic interests. The Foundation provides the opportunity for each family member to actively participate in their local and extended communities. As a member of the family, Robin Sweely has always been deeply committed to the horse world and to the humane treatment of animals.

HEART Equine Ambulance, serving horses from Maine to Florida, has gratefully accepted a challenge posed by the Sweely Foundation. The Foundation, created by Jess and Sharon Sweely to fund the philanthropic interests of the Sweely family, provides the opportunity for each family member to actively participate in their local and extended communities.

As a member of the family, Robin Sweely has always been deeply committed to the horse world and to the humane treatment of animals. Through her, the Foundation purchased a new Ford F350 diesel truck and leased it to HEART Equine Ambulance for $1.00 a year, with this proviso: The Sweely Foundation will hand over the truck as a gift outright if — within the next year — HEART can raise $25,000 dedicated to its maintenance. Accepting the challenge, HEART Executive Director Jill Parsons said, “It’s a wonderful offer and a remarkable public statement of just how important HEART Equine Ambulance is to East Coast horse people.”

HEART Equine Ambulance — that’s Humane Equine Aid & Rapid Transport– has always been a labor of love. A stainless steel gooseneck horse trailer–rebuilt, air conditioned, and fully equipped with slings, sleds and emergency medical equipment–the ambulance was originally designed and developed for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Dressage rider/trainer Meri Straz, President and Operating Director of HEART, was part of the original design team and head of the Olympic ambulance crew. She knew firsthand the medical-support service the ambulance offered and the peace of mind it provided merely by its presence on the show grounds. So when the ambulance owner later decided to dismantle it, Straz stepped in and bought it. For three years she operated the ambulance herself, serving East Coast horse shows, while struggling to maintain the truck that hauled it. Remembering those difficult early years, Straz says, “Sometimes, when I was broke and determined to keep the ambulance on the road, I swear that truck took as much tender loving care as my own horses.”

In 2000, Straz teamed with Jill Parsons and Tony Hitchcock to establish HEART Equine Ambulance as a nonprofit enterprise. Among its enthusiastic supporters are Anne Kursinski, Debbie Stephens, McClain Ward, and George Morris, and now Robin Sweely. Through their efforts and the contributions of other caring horse people, HEART Equine Ambulance continually upgrades its equipment to maintain state-of-the-art service. HEART Equine Ambulance now serves at least 10 major East Coast horse shows, traveling between 15 and 20 weeks a year. In summer it is based in New York State, and serves the Devon Horse Show, the Hampton Classic, and the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, among others. From its winter base in Florida, it serves Wellington’s Winter Equestrian Festival and the Tampa series of horse show events from January to April each year.

Meri Straz | © Ann Jones

On the show grounds, HEART Equine Ambulance crews hope they’ll have nothing to do but watch. But in fact they answer several calls each year. At top shows, equine athletes and their riders are always pushing the edge. When accidents happen on course, the ambulance crew can quickly immobilize and transport an injured horse, sparing it the pain of walking off and aggravating the injury. And on the rare occasions when a horse dies on course, the ambulance provides humane and respectful transport.

Most ambulance calls, however, come from the stabling area where a colicky horse needs immediate transport. Getting a shipper to the show grounds might take hours, but the ambulance can have the horse underway to a hospital in minutes. The ambulance can, and does, make the difference between life and death. Some of HEART’s most dedicated backers are riders and owners who have known the heartbreak of losing horses at shows. Jill Parsons explains: “Having a horse in distress, from colic or injury, and help unavailable is a terrible experience, and those who’ve been through it know the value of having an ambulance on hand.”

That’s the story of Robin Sweely, who was instrumental in securing the new truck for the ambulance. She says, “I feel very strongly about it because I had a horse colic at a major horse show a few years ago. It took an hour and a half to get transportation, and he didn’t make it.” Though there’s no way of knowing whether saving that hour and a half would have saved the horse, the sad loss convinced Sweely that the equine ambulance is an invaluable service. A Grand Prix rider who spends a good deal of time traveling the show circuit with her horses, Sweely says, “Owners and trainers don’t think about it–unless they’ve been in that position–but when we’re at shows, we don’t have any way to get horses where they need to go quickly.” At Devon this year, Sweely and her trainer Olympian Debbie Stephens were pleased to have HEART Equine Ambulance on hand but recognized that it needed a new truck. Sweely turned to the family foundation created by her parents. “I wanted to help,” Sweely says, “because in my heart I felt it was so very important.”

All riders want to do their best for their horses. And now, thanks to the Sweely Foundation, they can confidently bring their horses to shows staffed by HEART Equine Ambulance and its new silver truck. They_and you_can also share in this life-saving labor of love for horses by sending a tax-deductible contribution to: HEART, PO Box 96, Northampton, MA 01060. Be sure to designate your contribution for “The New Truck.” As one contributor said: “I hope nobody ever uses the HEART Ambulance, but everybody who loves horses should support it.”

To get more information or to book the HEART Equine Ambulance, phone 413-587-3300, email [email protected], or write to the address above.

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