MOUNT AIRY, Md. (AP) — Athena, a pony, stood in the back of her stall trembling and refusing all human touch.

"My daughter went into her stall one day and just sat on a bucket reading a book. She didn't approach Athena but wanted to see if Athena would come to her," recalled Melanie Biemiller, executive director of the Maryland Horse Rescue.

The freckled-face pony was curious but cautious.

"She would sniff and then back up," said Biemiller. "My daughter decided to reach up gently and try to touch her, and she busted through the stall doors and tore up her legs. She was that terrified of human touch."

Athena is one of the many horses that have come to the Maryland Horse Rescue in Mount Airy, which was formerly known as HorseNet. The organization rescues, rehabilitates and rehomes abused and abandoned horses, specializing in elderly and blind horses. And in a story very typical of the horses there, Athena, who was taken in by the rescue six years ago, came from a hoarding and starvation situation with 40-some horses removed.

"We were (initially) unable to make much breakthrough with her," said Biemiller. "She did become more comfortable around us, but she just didn't want you to touch her. She was beyond what we could do for her."

But the rescue was not giving up on Athena. That's when one of their volunteers stepped in.

"This lady just had a soft spot in her heart, and she paid to send Athena away for specialized training for six months," said Biemiller.

It worked. Athena came back "a more confident, though still shy, little pony," said Biemiller.

And one who would eventually find a home and a family of her own.

The Johanson family began volunteering at the rescue the first of the year. They had just moved from Gaithersburg to the area and 12-year-old daughter Charlotte was struggling with the changes of a new home and new school.

"I really felt like playing to Charlotte's passion for horses would be good for her," said Sarah Johanson, her mother.

Then they took their involvement with the horses one step further. The family decided to adopt Athena and another pony. Since then, Charlotte and Athena have developed quite the bond.

"They found each other when they both needed each other the most," said Johanson. And the frightened pony who would panic at human touch now not only lets Charlotte feed her by hand but the two are also taking riding lessons.

"So often horses are used and then cast aside when they are no longer useful due to lameness, blindness or a diagnosis of a difficult condition," said Johanson. "These animals deserve a life of respect, safety and peace just like all other creatures. It is so gratifying to be a part of that."

Since its beginning in 2000 the Maryland Horse Rescue has found homes for more than 100 horses. Currently, they have 37 horses, including ridable and nonridable/companion horses.

"We accept horses in any condition," said Biemiller. Even with the possibility that they may be forever residents. In fact, the motto of the rescue is No Horse Left Behind.

The nonprofit organization is completely run by volunteers and operates solely on donations.

"Our volunteers range from 5 to 75 years old," said Biemiller. And the rescue is always looking for new volunteers, she added. And donations.

"We rely strictly on the generosity of the community," said Biemiller. "We are not sponsored by any business or the government or any foundations or anything like that."

And while there are indeed some forever residents, other horses can be adopted or fostered. For those that foster horses on a permanent basis, said Beimiller, the expenses related to the care of the foster horses are tax deductible.

There is also the sponsorship program. For a monthly fee "someone who really wants a horse and can't have one, can sponsor one," said Biemiller. The program allows for visits with the horse and may even include hands-on experience with the rescue's education and training coordinator, according to Biemiller.

Biemiller is passionate about her work but wishes it wasn't necessary. "My ideal number to have here honestly would be zero. That people would take care of their animals and do right by them," she said.

Instead she is committed to doing all she can for those horses that are old or blind or mistreated or just no longer wanted. In fact, the rescue has a whole herd of blind horses, including a former Amish buggy horse.

Vision problems are common in horses, according to Biemiller, often requiring the removal of the eyeball to eliminate serious pain. "Most people would put them down because they are considered useless. They are not," she said. "Here we can offer them a life of dignity and unconditional love."

The rescue is a no-kill shelter, only euthanizing a horse when there is suffering and no hope for recovery. In those situations, said Biemiller, a veterinarian evaluates the horse and confirms when euthanasia is best. "Those are the hardest days," said Biemiller.

The care of the horses can be challenging, especially financially. "The number constantly changes, but I would say for us to comfortably operate with just the basics, such as rent, insurance, food, medications, vet care and farrier work, we need to bring in about $150,000 a year. We bring in less than half of that."

And given that the rescue has special needs horses, more money is spent on such items as specialized chopped forage.

"Some of these horses can't eat long stem hay, so we have to buy the bagged forage. It's $20 a bag. We pay about $525 a week just in grain and forage," she said. Volunteers will often donate food or other supplies. And an equine dentist and equine ophthalmologist have also donated their services.

Despite the challenges though Biemiller says it is well worth it.

"I love these animals," she said. "They absolutely amaze me."

Animals like Helen, a sweetly cantankerous one-eyed donkey who spent much of her life pulling a fruit and vegetable cart in Baltimore City.

"We like to joke that if Helen was human she would be an 80-year-old woman who smokes cigars and drinks bourbon, and cusses like a sailor," laughed Biemiller. People wondered why we spent so much money on trying to cure Helen's eye and then the eye removal," continued Biemiller. "Why? Because she deserves a life. She's Helen. She's fabulous. And she's worth everything we can do."

Said Kylie Ayers, who has volunteered at the rescue for nearly three years, "This is a special place."

Ayers, now 18, lost her grandfather at the age of 12. "He was like a father to me," she said.

Soon after she became anxious and depressed.

"I struggled," she said. "I would stay in bed all the time and didn't want to do anything. I would cry at everything."

She began working at the rescue at the suggestion of the therapist she was seeing at the time.

"I just love being around the horses," she said, adding that she finds comfort and solace among them and is inspired by them as well. "Most of these horses come from abusive situations where they weren't fed, didn't have water, no shelter. Yet they are so forgiving. It's just a lot of love."

Athena's new family, the Johansons, couldn't agree more.

"These beautiful creatures do so much for people," said Sarah Johanson. "We owe them in return."

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Information from: Carroll County Times , http://www.carrollcountytimes.com/