Grace Hardy recalls seeing pastures near her Winston-Salem home when she was little, filled with horses frolicking and grazing peacefully. She longed to meet and get to know them.

“We’d give treats to the horses, and I started riding when I was 8,” says the now-16-year-old.

When Grace was 12, she joined HERO, the Horse Education and Rescue Organization based in Winston-Salem, to help give equines a better life. Volunteers like Grace help the horses. Others go on to foster or adopt them.

Grace’s current horses are the father-daughter pair, Hamlet and Cressida, which are Shakespearean names. Hamlet was in rough shape when he arrived at HERO. His ribs stuck out and he looked pitiful, but with the help of a vet, good food, and loving care, Hamlet is now in the clear.

Samantha Hardy, Grace’s mother and the foster and adoption coordinator for HERO, has been with the organization nearly 12 years.

“I’m a volunteer with HERO and a member of the board of directors,” she says. “I am not a horse person; HERO got me into it.”

Since 2007, HERO has worked with neighbors, law enforcement, and animal control to find and rescue horses from abusive, neglectful, and harmful situations across the state. The HERO horses are spread among barns and stables in the Triad.

At any given time, HERO houses a handful to a dozen horses in the quarantine and foster barns. Samantha says there are six horses up for adoption, six on permanent foster, and two not quite ready for adoption yet. The youngest is 5; the oldest is 30.

HERO president Michelle Bednar says the food, lodging, medications, vet bills, etc., are funded through fundraisers, donations, wills, charities, HERO’s Facebook page, or horse shows. The organization had a show scheduled for April 25, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Kelly Emerson, the barn manager and trainer, was one of HERO’s founders in 2007. She says that HERO often gets horses that have been malnourished or mistreated, and that educating humans on the treatment of equines is the organization’s focus.

She points to three horses — sister-brother pair Scarlett and Rhett, and their mother, Ruby — who were running loose in Stokes County. The sickly-looking horses had broken out of a fence and were looking for grass. HERO took them in and rehabilitated them; they’re in better shape now, she says, and Ruby has been renamed Merida.

Bednar, who has worked with HERO for seven years, says she was put on her cousin’s horse when she was five.

“And we went from there,” she says. “He was a black pony named Blackie, and I knew from that moment that horses were for me.”

Bednar says that most of the horses they rescue are facing their last chance; if HERO doesn’t help them, they often end up in kill pens and are shipped out of the country to slaughterhouses. Because of this, HERO is always looking for more volunteers to groom, walk, feed, and socialize the horses. They’re especially looking for volunteers Grace’s age.

“She’s a beautiful young lady with a lot of potential,” says Bednar about Grace. “She has a natural gift with horses.”

Grace has thought about a future with horses.

“I don’t think I’ll keep at it as job,” she says, “but I’ll keep it as a hobby for the rest of my life.”

It’s obvious that the volunteers and board members can’t do this work by themselves. And it’s important work, if you think about it.

“It means something to see the transformation of a horse,” says Emerson. “I consider myself successful when that takes place.”

She tries to look at horses clinically, but she admits that she sometimes gets a bit attached. She looks at Scarlett, Rhett, and Merida as a major win.

“We can debate all day whether animals have souls,” she says. “But they’re God’s creatures. So I try to help them.”

For more information on the organization or explore ways to get involved, visit

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