It all started, of course, with a horse.
Nitro came to Deanna Mancuso’s family through her grandfather, William Ehlers. During the Korean Conflict, Ehlers cared for the horses who moved artillery. When he came home from the war, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and found comfort in riding horses.
Her grandfather moved from California to New York when Mancuso was 11, and he would take her horseback riding. Eight months later, Ehlers was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He bought his granddaughter a horse to remember him by, and they named the horse Nitro.
Nitro had been abused and traumatized before coming to Mancuso. As a result, he bit, he kicked, and the horse’s trainers told Mancuso’s parents to just get rid of him. Ehlers said no; with love and care, the family helped Nitro to overcome his past abuses.
Mancuso never lost her love for horses, and eventually owned her own stable. Over time, she realized there was a need for a sanctuary for abused and neglected horses. Reflecting on her experience with Nitro’s transformation, Mancuso opened Lucky Orphans Horse Rescue (LOHR) in 2008.
“We only take the worst of the worst,” Mancuso says, “and we rehabilitate them.” Fifty horses now have a permanent home on LOHR’s 42 acres in Dover Plains. “A lot of it is trust, which is why this is a sanctuary,” she explains. “We let them figure out what they want to do.”
The horses’ experiences in learning to trust are great lessons for humans who have PTSD, depression, or mental health issues, or who are on the autism spectrum, Mancuso realized. Now, some of the horses at LOHR participate in equine-assisted psychotherapy.
“My grandpa said, ‘Horses bring peace,’” Mancuso says. And she’s seen that first-hand at LOHR. “Horses ‘pick’ their humans,” she adds. “It’s a hundred percent body language. They can scan you quickly and determine where you stand with them.”
In addition to therapy, the sanctuary holds a 4-H program, an after-school program, a summer camp, Saturday morning Pony Pals, and other events. It is fully accredited and regularly inspected — and a whole lot of fun.
And Nitro? He was a favorite at Lucky Orphans, and lived to celebrate the sanctuary’s 10-year anniversary before passing away in September at age 32 — a long life for a horse with a rough start.