Located in Phoenix at 15220 N. 27th St. is Happy Hooves, a tranquil farm sanctuary that you’d never guess is located within a major city. Adopted/saved from around the country, Happy Hooves herd is full of mini horses, mini donkeys, alpacas, mini cows and more. They’re there to provide animal assisted therapy and activities for anyone in need.
Recently, we did a Q&A with Jesse Pekarek, founder of Happy Hooves.
Q: How did the idea for this nonprofit come about? Where does your passion stem from?
A: “The idea of Happy Hooves started out as a hobby, I never expected myself to be doing this. If you asked me 10 years ago, I would’ve never thought it would be a possibility.”
Before moving to Arizona, Pekarek grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota and always dreamed of having a horse of his own. It wasn’t until about eight years ago when he was on a vacation in New Orleans with his husband that he thought this could become a reality.
“Of all places, it was on Bourbon Street. This gentleman had a miniature horse that I was absolutely drawn to so, of course, we approached him. Next thing you know he was asking if we’d watch his horse, so he could go to the store to get more carrots for people to feed him. His name was Peter, but I called him Pickles. After he came back (to get Peter) around 30 to 45 minutes later, I was so blown away by the incredible personality and sweet temperament that these miniature horses had. From that point forward, I decided that when we got back to Phoenix, I wanted to pursue and do more research on the possibility of having miniature horses.”
After doing some research, they purchased a bigger property. Starting as a hobby, Pekarek was inspired by interacting and networking with different people. He met people doing therapy with their miniature horses, going to nursing homes, hospitals, etc.
“It was one of those fascinating things for me, I thought, ‘oh my gosh, this seems to be an incredible way to use these beautiful animals that are such a joy to be around.’ So, once we expanded from two horses, to four miniature horses and two miniature donkeys, I took a shift in my life from my last nonprofit and I thought this was my midlife epiphany. Not a crisis, an epiphany. It was time to embark on a new adventure with miniature horses… and that’s how Happy Hooves started.”
Q: Since beginning Happy Hooves in 2019, how has your nonprofit evolved with your mission statement?
A: “I’m a believer that everything is a good idea until it’s not. I enjoy exploring with the mindset of giving yourself the freedom to play, allowing yourself to get off the straight and narrow path of where your mind thinks your life is supposed to go. When we’re kids we are told to set these goals, don’t get distracted, be laser focused and work hard to pursue that success. For me, allowing myself to take the blinders off my eyes, means not having to run so fast and hard, slow down and enjoy the entire view. You have to take those blinders off because sometimes the things in our periphery are exactly what we are meant to see. If we stay too focused, life becomes too serious with goals and expectations, pressures and usually we become too hard on ourselves in the process, snuffing out our own joy.
“With Happy Hooves, I’ve allowed myself the opportunity to evaluate, explore, process and consider everything… What started out as taking the animals to nursing homes and memory care centers has expanded to so much more. I let my personality guide it… whatever my heart is feeling at the time, whether that’s adopting a miniature cow, an alpaca or a 1,900-pound Belgian. It’s only a bad idea if I give myself the chance and it doesn’t happen to work out where I might have intended. But, I take that as a lesson, learn and adjust from it, all while enjoying the experience.”
Giving himself so much freedom has allowed Pekarek to create this nonprofit that’s unique and off the beaten path. There isn’t anything like it, because everything that he does comes directly from his heart. With a broad mission statement, he allows himself to expand without feeling backed into a corner with limitations.
“The initial thought process started out as directing those services towards memory care, but with having the blinders off, we’ve adapted and expanded to adults with cognitive and physical disabilities. To kids on the spectrum, people suffering with grief from losing a loved one, people suffering from trauma and PTSD to therapists coming here with their clients, and many other people who just had a bad day at work and need a place to get away and distress. By developing this new community farm and building a guesthouse that can be rented daily, we provide people with access to our sanctuary to help alleviate their stress. Our broad mission statement allows that flexibility. We don’t need all the answers from the beginning and have to know where this might end.”
Q: What have been your biggest challenges with the nonprofit?
A: “Some of the biggest challenges is that there’s never enough hours in the day, trying to balance everything time wise and balance everything financially.”
Pekarek has worked in real estate for the last 20 years. It’s been a challenge finding the time to do it all. He struggled with taking this incredible career within real estate and shifting more of his time into this “labor of love,” that has an entirely different passion and purpose.
“I don’t want to say time has been a limiting factor. We all have the same 24 hours in a day.” Pekarek said. “But we all have an unknown amount of time left, and I now prioritize where and how I want to spend this limited time. It’s reminding myself that it’s about enjoying the journey, not just reaching your destination.
“Another major challenge was losing my brother. Having my brother who was my best friend and mentor pass away in January of 2022, really made me realize that you don’t know how much time you have left. You need to appreciate each day and value each day, because you don’t know when it’s going to be your last. I know it’s such a cliche that we hear over and over again, but it didn’t hit me like it has when I actually lost someone so important in my life. Everything changes.”
His brother had battled brain cancer for three years, and a heart attack suddenly took his life. He never got to say goodbye, and it made him reevaluate everything in his life. If it isn’t bringing you passion or purpose, it shouldn’t take your time.
Q: What have been some of your greatest successes?
A: “The greatest success for me is the little things I get to consistently see here. It’s not the success of throwing an amazing gala that fulfills me, it’s the outcome that people have when they experience this sanctuary. It reinforces to me that my idea of this place being a place of release, a place of peace, especially in the past three years with mental health issues…is working. This is a place for people to come to and experience that break of stress. To leave feeling happy, refreshed, fulfilled and sometimes a little inspired by it… it reinforces to me that this is exactly what people need right now.”
Q: In your opinion, why is the human-animal bond so important and beneficial?
A: “It’s not only the bond that is incredibly important, but also the fact that these animals mirror our behavior… It helps you moderate/regulate your own behavior and emotions. Sometimes we just want someone to listen, without being reinforced or told what to do. Here, in our sanctuary, we’re always talking to these animals, sharing emotions, feelings and stories, and I truly believe they have this intuition in them, horses especially, and that they understand… It's pretty remarkable to see that connection. It helps you self reflect and tune out social media, where there’s such an envy mindset. Being around these animals forces you to be present and tune the rest of the world out while looking inward to what makes you happy.”
Q: What are your goals for Happy Hooves?
A: The main thing Pekarek is hoping to do is continue to make the nonprofit more sustainable. With their guesthouse and experiences being the main ways to fund the nonprofit, by grousing he would be able to get back into rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming more animals. Beyond that, he’d like to create more Happy Hooves sites, where there’s the therapy component of it as well as the entertainment portion of it. He wants to give people the chance to connect with his herd in more intimate experiences than you’d get at a corporate attraction.
Q: Are there any particular moments/memories that have stuck with you throughout the years?
A: “Nothing makes me feel more fulfilled and rewarded from this labor of love than seeing the expression on the visitors/guests faces. It makes me see the difference that we, not just me, but all of the volunteers behind this, are making for others. I feel this sanctuary can be a benefit to anyone who is wanting to take a chance and open their mind and heart up.”
Although not every animal on the farm is a rescue, each has their own story.
“It’s exciting for me to see, for example, the two miniature cows that have gone from completely unhandled and wild, to now, two and a half years later, being one of the highlights of people’s experiences here. I mean, they get to cuddle with cows! That, I think, is one of my biggest joys. Getting to see these animals learn to relax and trust humans because some of them were abused or have never been around or handled by people… Georgia, one of my rescues that we brought in about a year and a half ago, was skin and bones and horrifically abused. Basically, I had my heartstrings tugged, being told that she was 10 months pregnant and was going to be sent to slaughter. I was happy to rescue her, but had no idea nor was I informed on how horrifically traumatized she was. To go from not even being able to hardly look at this horse, to after a year and a half doing round pen exercises where she will now come to me. We have our own little communication… I feel that this was another lesson that I’m meant to be taught. There’s a reason why I have her, despite the fact that she was well above my experience level. I am meant to have this horse… each of these animals teach us something and it’s up to us to decide if we’re going to take the time to pause, stop, listen, and learn.”
Q: How has Happy Hooves helped build you into who you are today?
A: “Happy Hooves has brought me back to my roots. It’s brought me back to a part of me I forgot I loved. I’ve given myself permission to not follow someone else’s guidebook or playbook on how to “win at life.” No one can tell you how to be happy and no one can tell you what success looks like because they’re not you. Happy Hooves has allowed me to help others in the community by using what I know and what I love.”
Q: What advice would you give to the readers?
A: “Give yourself permission to try new things. When our time comes, I don’t want to be resentful and regretful for not living my full life. Do what you love and figure out ways to monetize it. It doesn't have to be just one thing. You can have multiple passions going on and multiple opportunities to explore at the same time. Ask a lot of questions. You learn a lot more from listening than speaking.
“Celebrate when things work out, and celebrate when they don’t. Just because things didn’t turn out as we may have hoped, doesn’t mean they didn’t turn out the way they were meant to.
“And, one last piece of advice, given to me from my brother Scot, ‘Make each and every day count, you don’t know when it will be your last!’”
For more information on Happy Hooves or to book an experience or stay, visit their website.
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