Growing up in Fern Creek, Kentucky, she said she was “this passionate horse girl who was just absolutely delirious about horses.”
Soon that delirium led to pleas for divine intervention.
“I remember when I was just 5 ½, I would kneel on my bed in front of a picture of Jesus on the wall above the headboard and I’d pray and pray,” Dot Morgan said with a faint smile as she savored the memory. “I’d pray, ‘I want a pony, Jesus. Please bring me a pony. Please!’”
That nightly ritual – heartfelt and sweet – eventually brought reward.
“One day Mom and Dad brought home this sorrel and white pony mare who had been foundered,” she said. “I called her Posie and the serious foot injury she had made her safe in the beginning for a 5 ½ year old because she could barely walk.
“I remember my parents treating her feet and she eventually came through the foundering incident and I’d ride her bareback all the time after that.
“I’d try to get on her backwards and she’d buck me off every time. I remember her running me under the clothesline multiple times and rubbing me off on trees, too. That’s where I learned to ride and boy, did we have a good time.”
Talk about a little girl’s prayers being answered:
As she got older, Dot got another pony, then another and eventually she became a multi-talented horsewoman with a degree in agriculture from the University of Kentucky.
She’s been married 47 years to Charley Morgan – the well-respected standardbred trainer and former driver from Miami County – and during that time she’s been involved in almost every area of equine performance and care. For years she also was the director of the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association.
Over the past 26 years she’s been given over 6,500 former race horses, both standardbreds and thoroughbreds, that she’s rehabbed when necessary, retrained and then re-homed through New Vocations, the adoption program she now runs with her daughters, Anna Ford and Winnie Nemeth.
It is the largest race horse adoption program in the nation.
And that means, thanks to Dot, so many other people’s prayers for a horse have been answered.
More importantly she has saved the lives of many of those four-legged athletes who likely would have faced deadly consequences once they left the race track.
Who says Santa Claus is a portly old fellow with white whiskers, a red suit and a round belly that shakes “like a bowlful of jelly?”
In this case, the giver of gifts is a small, thin woman with a bit of a Kentucky accent and a big heart who lives not at the North Pole, but just south of Laura on a picturesque farm with 32 acres of rolling hills and plenty of fenced pasture.
Instead of Donner and Blitzen and the rest pulling her along, she’s felt the tug of horses her entire lifetime.
“I was born with that,” she said as we sat in a backroom of her farm house late one afternoon a few days ago. “I just love the essence of horses.
“There is no fragrance sweeter to me than burying my nose in the neck of a horse that has been turned out. That might sound interesting, but horses that live outside, like they’re supposed to, have a fragrance, an aroma, that’s just heavenly. Horses that live in barns all the time and get bathed don’t have it.
“I remember as a youth growing up, just burying my face in my pony’s neck and inhaling and telling him everything that bothered me and crying and finally I felt better.”
It is that love of horses that drew her to various jobs around the shedrows of the race track and it’s why she eventually was troubled by a guy she often saw doing his dark business there.
“There was this dealer, his name was also Charlie, and he’d come over every so often and go through the barns looking for cheap horses,” she said. “I asked him one time, ‘Are all those horses you’re taking out of here broken down?’
“He said, ‘No, not usually. They’re just crazy. They’re so crazy that when I’m hauling them off to sales, half of them will be on the floor and the other half will be walking right on top of them.
“’Who would want a crazy horse like that? They’re nuts!’
“Well, I knew they were not nuts.
“And I knew he wasn’t really a horseman, just a dealer looking to make money. He’d throw horses in a big stock trailer. They’d never been hauled that way before and they’d get scared. They’re used to having a padded floor with sawdust and now they’d slip on the urine and the blood and the mud on the metal floor. They couldn’t get up and they were terrified. It was a horrible scenario.”
And that wasn’t the worst of it.
“He was taking them to what people called junk sales,” she said. “He’d just unload the horses as fast as he could and they’d often be bought by guys who took them – without giving them food and water – to the killers, the slaughter houses, that back then weren’t just in Mexico and Canada, but right here in the States. too.”
And what happened at the abattoirs – the polished up word for slaughterhouses – was often “beyond brutal” Dot admitted.
Back then, she said some 500,000 horses a year in this country were going to slaughterhouses. In 2007, horse slaughter was banned in the U.S. though it still thrives in Canada and Mexico, which produces the meat that ends up on dinner tables in Europe and Asia.
The numbers have declined in recent years. According to the Equine Welfare Alliance, 114,000 American horses were sent to slaughter in 2016 and 20 percent were thoroughbreds. It figures that standardbreds made up a substantial proportion, as well.
Last year the numbers dropped to around 100,000.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 92.3 percent of the horses sent to slaughter are healthy and could have completed a normal lifetime.
When the numbers were still around a half-million, Dot was also a 4-H advisor in Miami County.
“I knew I had kids who could ride those horses, even the thoroughbreds,” she said. “I said ‘I can’t let this keep happening.’ That’s what led me to start doing what I’m doing now.”
In a grass roots, one-woman venture, she began to take unwanted standardbreds from the race tracks and retrain them to do something else – trail ride, dressage, jumping, endurance, polo, barrel race, pleasure ride – before selling them at no profit to people she had vetted.
“Back then there wasn’t social media, so I got word out by putting up posters around the track,” she said. “It was aimed at the horsemen and said something like, ‘Don’t let your horses go to the killers. I’ll find them a good home.’”
For generations race horse owners and trainers had seen no purpose for their animals after their racing careers ended. She set out to change minds and said people listened to her because she was one of them:
“They all knew me. I could talk the talk and walk the walk.”
A palomino named Trigger
Dot figures her mom had an affinity for the movie the Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland’s character.
“She was Dorothy Gale, so then I was named Dorothy Gail (Hoagland),” she laughed.
But instead of little Toto as her sidekick, she’s always sought the companionship of a pony or a horse.
She said her dad, a hardware salesman, raised standardbred yearlings on the side and sold them in nearby Louisville: “He made enough to put all four of his kids in college.”
She remembered when she was about 10, going with him to a horse auction where attention eventually turned to a palomino pony.
“I loved Roy Rogers and Trigger – he was a palomino – so l I got my heart set on that one,” she said. “But the bidding got up to $150, then $160, and I was crying.
“It was higher than I knew my dad would go and I suddenly started yelling out, ‘Mister, you don’t want that pony! See that spot on his shoulder? You don’t want him!’”
As she was telling the story, the emotion began to well up in her and her eyes glistened:
“Finally, the auctioneer stopped the sales and said to my dad, ‘Mister, if you’ll buy that pony for the little girl, we’ll stop it right here.’ It was at $175 and my dad did buy him.
“I loved that pony. I called him Trigger and in the summer I’d climb out my window at night, get on him and ride to my girlfriend’s house. We’d just ride up and down the road and we had a blast.”
“Later on, before Trigger died, both of my own girls won trophies on him.”
As a teenager Dot got job at Louisville Downs working as a groom for an old trainer, Ora Dunkin, who taught her some of the rudiments of the business. Eventually she was taking classes at UK and working summers at the track office
When she got a job collecting the urine and saliva samples of the winning horses, she met Charley Morgan, who had a lot of winners back then.
He was from near Casstown and came from quite a storied standardbred family. But while she enjoyed talking to him, Dot said she tried to stick to a rule she’d made:
“I had already told myself I was never dating any of the race track guys. None! Zip!
“I was not going to be a gypsy and move track to track. There are people who follow the drivers. They want to marry one, that’s what they’re after. We call it white pants fever because all the drivers wear white pants.
“The rodeo guys call it buckle bunny fever. It’s the same thing.
“I wanted none of that. One day I wanted to live on a farm, raise my kids there and have as family together.
“But Charley was interested in the things I had to say and I was interested in what he said. He had some of the same dreams as me.”
They married in 1971 and for three years lived outside Philadelphia because the racing money was better out East. Finally, they moved back to Miami County, found the farm and began a family.
As her husband raised horses and went off racing — he still has a few young horses and runs the Blooded Horse Sales out of Lexington each year – she managed their farm.
Once their two girls began to grow up, she launched New Vocations.
In 2012, the U.S. Harness Writers Association gave her its prestigious Unsung Hero award for her tireless efforts.
The start of New Vocations
“Nearly 27 years ago when we started this, nobody thought about using race horses for something else,” Dot said. “They thought they were too hyperactive, too high maintenance, so they discarded them, turned their heads and walked away.
“We played to people’s intellect, not their emotions. We didn’t try to shame anybody. We wanted to show them that these horses, these athletes, had so much more to offer.”
Race horses often are retired by the time they are six or seven, but horses trained for things like jumping, dressage, trail riding and therapy can continue to work long after.
By herself in the beginning, Dot was retraining 40 horses a year. Then a thoroughbred owner suggested she turn the organization into a charity: She would get a lot more horses that way because owners could make their donated animals tax deductible.
By 1998 – as a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) – New Vocations saw its intakes jump dramatically and soon Dot’s two daughters, both accomplished horsewomen themselves, were helping their mom. Anna runs the thoroughbred side now and Winnie, the standardbreds.
New Vocations now gets horses – 75 percent are thoroughbreds, 25 percent, standardbreds — from 40 tracks nationwide, including all of Ohio’s ovals.
The animals are retrained at three different facilities in Ohio – in Xenia, Medina and Laurelville – as well as at a place near Saratoga in New York, a site in Pennsylvania and at Mereworth Farm in Lexington, which serves as the base of New Vocations thoroughbred operation.
She said 350 to 400 of their horses are now adopted each year.
These days Dot handles administrative duties, raises funds and produces the New Vocations newsletter,.
She said sound horses are trained for an average of 2 ½ months and shown on her organization’s website. In fact, there is a Christmas Sale on now and adoption fees are cut in half until the end of the year.
She said while they get 800 to 900 people a year who want to adopt a horse, 200 to 300 often are turned down:
“We have to make sure they have enough experience to handle off-the-track horses. They are like Corvettes. These aren’t horses for beginners.“
Adopters sign contracts on what the horse will be used for and New Vocations monitors each adoption for a year.
If placements don’t work out – “people often oversell themselves on what they know,” Dot said — New Vocations takes the horses back and finds them as new place.
And when the fit is right — and there have been thousands of them — the stories Dot gets back on thriving horses are wonderful
She shared one that really struck a chord with her. It involved a standardbred named Stud’s Hooligan.
“He was a four-year-old when he came to us,” she said. “He was sound, he just wasn’t fast and wasn’t going to make it as a race horse.
“Amanda Munson, that’s her married name now, came over and adopted him and he became a super horse for her back when she was finishing high school and college. She trail rode him a lot, taught him to jump and dressage. They nicknamed him Strider and now he must be about 22 or so.
“Amanda lives in New Carlisle and has three children now. They all can ride him and her six-year-old son showed him last year.
“He’s a horse who’s now giving a second generation of children a lot of enjoyment. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what I envisioned.”
All these years later, Dot Morgan’s prayers still are being answered.