Heather Whitley knows the power of horses for a wounded spirit, and now through Rusted Roof Barn she’s seeking to heal their wounds too.
You can’t tell by looking at it, but down a winding road and just inside the gates of Oak Mountain State Park is a place where magic happens. To the naked eye it just looks like an old barn with a rusted roof, but this is a place that heals, a place that gives second chances.
About a decade ago, Heather Whitley began boarding her horse at the Oak Mountain Boarding Stables. She grew up riding horses, though she says it’s more accurate to say she grew up being thrown from horses. (It started with cracking two vertebrae and a rib as a kid and moved on to a dislocated jaw and broken teeth.) Maybe it’s something inside her that just inspires a fiery spirit, or it could be that friends, spying a horse that seems a little crazy, would say, “Hey, Heather, ride THIS one!”
At any rate, Heather had chosen to board her horse at the Oak Mountain stables because of its proximity to her family’s home in Homewood. She could be at the stable, saddled up and riding within 15 to 20 minutes. She and her husband owned a business in Homewood, but come evenings, with her children tucked safely at home, she could steal away for a bit and ride.
Then, seven years ago, she lost her husband unexpectedly and could not stand to keep their business open, where they had worked side by side. It was too painful without him there. So, she went to the barn.
“This was a way to get away from all the bad stuff,” she says. So she rode. She saddled up and let the slow canter of time do its work. After a while, her husband’s good friend grew to become more than just a friend, and eventually he followed her out to the barn. He had never ridden before. “I guess he figured if he wanted to see me, he better come out here,” she says with a smile that makes her eyes sparkle.
In time, they married, merging her two kids with his son from a previous marriage, and, of course, her horse. Through it all, she drove to Oak Mountain State Park and rode. Then she learned that the neighboring barn—a trail barn, where the general public can pay to ride—was going to close. She watched it disappear, the horses gone, leaving nothing but the empty stalls where once there had been so much life.
She lamented the loss of a place where people who didn’t own a horse had the opportunity to spend time communing with nature, atop a horse. Perhaps she knew what riding can do for a wounded spirit, and she wanted to give some of that back.
One day, she just decided that SHE could do it. SHE could manage the trail barn that was just sitting there, rusting. With the encouragement of her friend, Amy Taylor, who also boarded her horse at the Oak Mountain Boarding Stables, she decided to do it. Heather would become the owner/operator, and Amy, the certified instructor, would be able to give riding lessons. Heather went home and announced her plan to her husband, Scott, who had no experience in running a barn, but nonetheless said sure. Next, Heather had to convince Oak Mountain State Park.
She would need horses, and she proposed filling the empty stalls with horses that needed help.
“Well, if we’re gonna redo this,” she thought, “we might as well give a horse a second chance.’” Oak Mountain loved the idea and said yes.
That’s what most of the horses here are: rescues. These are horses that were starved or abused or otherwise mistreated and put up for sale. Heather and Amy would see ads online and just go see them. Sometimes owners told them straight up that if they didn’t buy the horse, it was going to be sold for meat.
Along the way, The Rusted Barn has become a family affair. Scott left his previous career, and Heather’s daughter, Amelia, a 17-year-old senior at Homewood High School, saddles horses and mends fences in her spare time.
There have been a few surprises, too. Around two years ago, at 46, Heather was convinced she was going into menopause. It turned out to be a baby: Ella, whom they refer to as a barn baby because she spends so much time here.
Heather’s oldest, Ethan, is taking a break from college to decide what he really wants to be, and in the meantime, has become their manny, giving Heather and Scott enough time and flexibility to truly get The Rusted Roof Barn off the ground.
The stalls are filled with beautiful, strong horses, poking their heads out and snorting occasionally, as if they’re interjecting to the conversation regarding how they got here.
Looking at a “before” picture of an Arabian horse named Charisma you’ll see ribs you could count and a prominent spine. Today, he’s much more rounded, though Heather says he still has a way to go. He’s curious and is happy to have his face stroked.
A brindled mare named Clementine has become Heather’s favorite. When she first brought Clementine home, Scott couldn’t get near her. “Scott couldn’t even touch her, even if he had all the food because the man before had beat her,” Heather says. “You can look at her and see the sadness in her eyes. I can identify with it. Everybody has to heal at their own rate.”
Heather says she gave her time and patience. “I just let her be a horse for a little while. She got the routine. She saw horses coming and going and being ridden, and she figured it out.” Clementine has come so far, she’s even become a search and rescue horse.
Heather has 20 horses now, each with his or her own story. Sometimes they are weary of her when she first meets them. Other times, they seem to know she’s going to save them.
Mason, who was previously penned in a tiny stall and hardly had any room to move around, didn’t need any convincing when Heather showed up. “I had to get out of his way,” she says.
“He jumped on my trailer so fast because he was like, ‘Get me out of here!’ He was like, ‘Anywhere has to be better than where I’m at.’”
Mason, Charisma, Clementine and the others are all doing well now and are either being ridden for trail rides or lessons or are still in training. Earning their keep is a necessity, as taking care of horses is expensive. Heather can’t keep any horse here who isn’t adding to the operation. But that does not mean her horses are forced to be ridden. Far from it.
Heather has only had two horses who didn’t work out. One just didn’t like trail riding. He didn’t like different people getting on him all the time. “You could tell this didn’t make him happy,” Heather says. She didn’t think it was fair to make him do something he just couldn’t learn to like. So, she found him a home with a little girl who rides him as a show horse. And he’s winning.
Another horse just did not like to be ridden at all. But he had long hair and liked being groomed, so she found a children’s camp for him where the children can brush him and braid his mane. And he’s happy.
Heather is currently working on two beautiful blond Haflingers named Buttercup and Butterscotch, and she is not entirely convinced they both are going to make it. They are physically healthy now, but Buttercup bears emotional scars. “Somebody down the line did something just really awful to her,” Heather says. “She isn’t totally ready to forgive. Horses, typically, will forgive you. If you give them enough time, they will forgive you. They won’t forget. She has not totally forgiven.”
But she IS improving. Buttercup actually lets Heather touch her now. Before, she could not stand it and would freeze like a statue.
Above all, Heather understands the importance of patience. “It’s not a race. The goal here is to rehab them the best we can so that they’re not a danger to somebody, and they have a good life.” And she understands them too. “I think because I came from where I wanted to be free from pain, I give them time. And then, of course, I have a fabulous husband who lets me do this crazy stuff.”