When Mike O’Brien, of Marlinton, met his wife, Vonnie, in the 1970s, he was introduced to the world of draft horses. Vonnie’s dad, “Doc” Myers, who owned a pharmacy in Marlinton, had a herd of draft horses on his farm at the edge of town. O’Brien wasn’t prepared the first time he was on the farm and Myers had him help lead a horse to a field.
“I asked for the lead, and he had a piece of baler twine, and he said, ‘wrap that around him, he won’t know the difference,’” Mike recalled, laughing. “I’ve got tennis shoes on. It’s a dirt road and I’m going down this road with this big clopping thing behind me, using a piece of baler twine. I said, ‘this is nuts.’”
It was a strange introduction to the horse business, but it didn’t deter Mike. When Myers passed away, Mike and Vonnie inherited the farm and seven draft horses, which they cared for as the horses aged.
“I believe all but one got hit by lightning, but most of them lived to thirty-five,” O’Brien said. “I got down to one horse and he’s still up there. I call him Knucklehead, but his name is Firecracker. He was born on the fourth of July, and he’s thirty-two.”
Not wanting Knucklehead to be alone, Mike went to Vonnie and said it was time to get some more horses. He did some research online and found an organization called Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Mt. Airy, Maryland. The couple made a trip to Maryland and went through the long adoption process to bring home several rescue horses.
“We went up there to get two horses,” Mike said. “I picked fifteen and Vonnie said, ‘I think you better cut that list down a little.’ So I cut it down to five. One horse I picked out died. He got colic, so I said ‘pick me out another one.’ A week before they came up, they said, would you like another one?’ I said, ‘that would give me seven, that’s what I started with, so sure, bring it.’”
All the horses from Gentle Giants are rescued from kill buyers or are surrendered pets. Most of the time, the horses are in bad shape and have medical conditions.
Joining Firecracker at the O’Brien Farm are Waldo, Sweets, Caroline, Luke, Samwise and Nemo.
Waldo was a pet for two young girls and when they got older and he got bigger, he was surrendered. Last year, Waldo had cancer in his eye and veterinarians Julie Gibson and Peyton Mann gave him a new lease on life by removing his left eye.
“It was something else for that crazy thing,” Mike said. “He wouldn’t keep a bandage on for nothing. He’d rub it off and finally after two months in the barnyard and in the barn, he finally healed up. He even got an infection. We had to go through that for a couple weeks, but he looks good now. He’s healed up fine.”
Waldo is cautious now that he has lost an eye, but he is still rambunctious and very friendly.
Sweets is a Percheron-Appaloosa mix from Texas and is the only remaining girl in the herd.
Samwise is a Clydesdale who likes his privacy and Nemo is a shy Belgian with a deformed left hoof, but with medicine and supplements, he’s a happy boy.
Unfortunately, there are times when Mike has to make the tough decision to put the horses down due to their medical issues. Luke, a Belgian, suffered from a neurological disease and when he could no longer gain weight, he had to be put down.
Caroline was a Belgian carriage horse in New York City.
“She got up here and just fell in love with this grass,” Mike said. “You know she’d never seen it. All she did was roll around and she eventually twisted her gut and I had to put her down.”
The remaining five horses are living their best lives in the vast field and cozy barn on the O’Brien Farm. They have found a safe retirement home where they can enjoy the peace in the mountains of West Virginia.
Mike started his collaboration with Gentle Giants three years ago and said he will continue to take rescued horses as long as he is able to care for them.
It’s obvious the horses have a special place in his heart as he visits with them in the barn. Waldo comes forward for nose scratches and shows off how he rolled in the mud earlier, while the others wait their turn to get a pat or to nip at Mike when he’s not looking.
“[Knucklehead] is a character,” he said. “If you’re not watching and you’ve got your back to him, he likes to pinch. It’s not a bite. He just loves to hear me scream. I’ll turn around and he’s just standing there watching me. Knucklehead is the last of the originals. He was born here.”
What a great place to spend your life.