Guilford Shrine honors Ethan Song

GUILFORD – Emily Song brushes Mooney, a 23 year old Morgan mare with a beautiful laurel coat.

Mooney, along with Darla, a 15-year-old quarter horse, was adopted by an elderly owner whose health would not allow him to take care of the horses. Song is brushing Mooney’s winter coat, which she has to do because “they don’t have enough energy to get rid of them,” according to Song’s mother, Kristin Song.

The animals are two of the five horses and two ponies who find a new chance to live at the SongStrong Shrine on Long Hill Road. But saving horses is just the start.

All but one are up for adoption and the Ethan Miller Song Foundation, with the help of Mary Santagata of North Branford, began an equine therapy program. The farm is a place of healing for horses and men.

Kristin Song of the Ethan Miller Song Foundation, right, started an equine rescue and therapy program, SongStrong Sanctuary of Guilford, led by Mary Santagata, left, founder and president of the All the King’s Horses Equine Rescue of Northford. Ethan Song was the teenager from Guilford who accidentally killed himself in 2018.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media

The program is one of the ways the Song family honors the memory of Ethan Song. Ethan, brother of Emily and Evan, son of Kristin and Mike, accidentally shot himself on January 31, 2018 in a friend’s house with a gun belonging to his friend’s father. The key to the gun lock, along with the ammunition, had been stored in a plastic box.

“A big part of it was his love for animals and fighting for those who couldn’t fight for themselves,” said Kristin Song.

Ethan’s death at age 15 led the Songs to push the General Assembly to pass Ethan’s Law, which allows gun owners to be sued for accidental death, let the owner know the gun was loaded or not, adding the responsibility of gun owners to ensure their guns are stored safely. They are now looking for a federal version of the law.

Kristin Song of the Ethan Miller Song Foundation started an equine rescue and therapy program, SongStrong Sanctuary of Guilford.  Ethan Song was the teenager from Guilford who accidentally killed himself in 2018.

Kristin Song of the Ethan Miller Song Foundation started an equine rescue and therapy program, SongStrong Sanctuary of Guilford. Ethan Song was the teenager from Guilford who accidentally killed himself in 2018.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media

Kristin Song has said that her own need for healing after Ethan’s death prompted her to found the Horse Sanctuary.

“I had to understand how I was going to live,” she said. “I wrote down 50 ways I was going to honor Ethan, and this was one of them,” she said.

Saving horses would have appealed to Ethan.

But after her trauma, Song knew she had to go further.

“It is so damaging to you, your body and your mind that it has become very important for me to introduce all equine therapy” to help others heal from post traumatic stress disorder, intellectual disabilities and d other needs, she said.

The farm at 1250 Long Hill Road was where Song had boarded two horses she owned, so when it went up for sale, she turned to Mary Santagata, a Guilford native who owns Equine rescue of all the king’s horses in North Branford. The all-volunteer organization has saved 121 horses and follows them even after their adoption, taking them back if necessary.

Kristin Song of the Ethan Miller Song Foundation, right, started an equine rescue and therapy program, SongStrong Sanctuary of Guilford.  Ethan Song was the teenager from Guilford who accidentally killed himself in 2018.

Kristin Song of the Ethan Miller Song Foundation, right, started an equine rescue and therapy program, SongStrong Sanctuary of Guilford. Ethan Song was the teenager from Guilford who accidentally killed himself in 2018.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media

But when Song called, Santagata first said no. Song’s heart sank.

“She asked me if I wanted to become a partner and have more horses,” Santagata said. “I can’t afford what we have in Northford.” But she called back, telling Song, “It’s a beautiful tribute. We will find out. It was March 2020 and the SongStrong Shrine was born, with Santagata providing the horses.

Song knew that Santagata’s reputation for caring for his horses and other animals was essential. “If I had to associate with anyone, the animals had to come first,” Song said. She would also like to hire a therapist specializing in equine therapy.

“When they come here, we immediately take a vet out,” Song said. “They do a complete, physical, blood sample.”

The women initially thought they would focus on veterans with PTSD, but decided to extend it to anyone with trauma.

“The first group was really successful,” Santagata said. “The feedback we received from parents was incredible.”

Elana Raphael-Tomkins, a social worker in Guilford, was the group therapist.

One of the teens in the first group “didn’t want to make eye contact with me,” Song said. “At the end of the day, he was running down the aisle,” greeting her enthusiastically.

Some horses have been abandoned or abused. One was an Amish cart pony that stayed tethered all day, regardless of the weather. Others were starving. “These are horses that have their own traumas and it’s good for the kids to see that,” Santagata said.

The teenagers also had to learn to gain the confidence of the horses. “They have to calm down if they want to make any progress with these horses,” Santagata said. “He won’t follow someone who is nervous.”

It’s a small operation. Much effort has gone into repairing the property, replacing fences. But horses don’t come cheap on board. Food and bedding are expensive. “We’re having a brick fundraiser,” Song said. “We felt a little hesitant to ask people for money during the pandemic.”

Santagata also works for the National Department of Agriculture and managed the large animal rehabilitation center at York Correctional Institution in East Lyme.

Bugsy, a Hackney pony, is not for adoption. “We saved him at a cattle auction,” where he could have been sold to be slaughtered as food overseas, Santagata said. “Cattle auctions are not safe places” for horses, especially older ones, she said.

The date turned out to be Ethan Song’s last birthday, January 19, 2018. So neither Santagata nor Song are ready to let him go.

“He had already been adopted and he was fired,” Santagata said. “He is between 32 and 33 years old and he deserves to live his life.”

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