The Saint of Saratoga

A person’s love of horses manifests itself in many ways – from reading about them in books to having the pleasure of merely petting them in their stall to grooming them, and finally to riding them professionally at a racetrack and over fences, or simply through the fields for a leisurely morning gallop.

But the love of anything or anyone is exhibited in various degrees of passion. When it comes to horses, Valerie Buck wasn’t content in just riding them professionally, and she exercised some of the most talented Thoroughbreds in the country for some of the sport’s most legendary trainers. Unable to ride any longer due to a series of injuries and being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she turned her passion in another direction and founded ACTT Naturally, which has become virtually a one-woman show that keeps expanding and touching so many lives – both horses and humans.

Buck’s very being revolved around horses from the time she was 8 years old. They have occupied a major part of her heart and soul, and a great deal of the joy she experienced in life was due to horses, which became her support system when times were rough. Now, it is time to give something back to them. And what she is giving back is beyond measure.

If you are familiar with Saratoga WarHorse and their amazing results with veterans returning from war, it is Buck who has been supplying them with the horses who have turned around so many lives afflicted with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

(My column of Dec. 2, 2013 tells the story of Saratoga WarHorse)

But that is only a small fraction of Buck’s remarkable contributions to horses and humanity. Her energy and devotion to her cause is limitless and she is constantly expanding her horizons. And she does it all off her 6 1/2-acre farm in Washington County, N.Y., not far from the Vermont border, where she resides with her two goats, a pig, eight horses, eight dogs and seven cats, which she cares for herself. Although she has access to several other neighboring farms, she desperately needs to grow in order to care for as many animals as possible, and also to help women who are victims of domestic violence and other forms of abuse and soldiers returning with PTSD through the use equine assisted therapy.

“I got involved in Saratoga WarHorse and I love what it does for the horses in making the transition from racing to their new lives in a nurturing atmosphere and putting purpose to what we do with them,” Buck said. “I don’t train them to be show horses for dressage or to do any specific tasks. It’s more getting their minds turned around and getting them to trust people and be a partner. I’ve had people contacting me now for horses, because when they leave here they’re calm and have a safe attitude.

“What we’re doing now is we have a program helping women who are victims of domestic violence as well as veterans with PTSD. My goal is to buy enough acreage next to me and put in an indoor arena and build cabins as retreats for women to come here for equine assisted therapy. I want to help them with their struggle. Watching what we’re doing with the veterans at Saratoga WarHorse in turning their lives around is amazing. These are people who are deeply wounded inside. How many years has it been that they’ve been carrying all this inside them? We’ve changed their lives. And a lot of the women who come home from Iraq and Afghanistan are pretty messed up as well.”

“Valerie is largely responsible for the success of Saratoga WarHorse,” said Marilyn Lane, director of Thoroughbred relations for Saratoga WarHorse. “It’s one thing to make reliable, trustworthy, affectionate partners of the cooler breeds and quite another to do it with off the track Thoroughbreds. I’ve never seen a better hand with the latter. Valerie has furnished the horses to Saratoga WarHorse from day one and they are wonderful, engaging, curious, and gentle. She brings healthy, happy horses to every class and they are always eager to work. The veterans sense the horse’s willingness and well-being and they are further rewarded by Valerie’s deep and caring soul.

“One of the joys of watching Valerie build her organization is seeing the backstretch community rally around her. It’s all so nice. I believe she will carry both horses and people to a better place.”

To be frank, there is so much to cover regarding this remarkable person it’s difficult to know where to begin and how to put it all together. First and foremost is circling July 29 on your calendar if you’re in the Saratoga area.

Buck has received so much support from racing people, from top trainers and owners, but in order to fulfill her dreams and expand her farm and ultimately help more people and more horses, she is holding a fundraiser, called “If Wishes Were horses,” July 29 from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Oliva Vineyards, 2074 State Road 4, Fort Edward, N.Y. Tickets are $35 at OlivaVineyards.com or 570 578-6377 or $40 at the door. The vineyard is approximately a 25-minute drive from Saratoga.

New York racing fixture Richard Migliore will emcee the event, and Buck has received a tentative ‘yes’ from her old boss, D. Wayne Lukas, to speak, as will New York Thoroughbred Breeders executive director Jeff Cannizzo. Auction items include halters of Invasor, Ashado, and Bernardini, a tour of the stable area at Darley, box seats for five at the races, a foursome at Saratoga National Golf Club, a group of five at Saratoga Golf and Polo Club, and lots of local fare, such as a local bike shop donating a bike tuneup, tickets to the rodeo, and a facial at a salon in Schuylerville, just to name a few. There also will be local food and beer and local wine tasting.

“We have flyers posted all around downtown Saratoga and Trish McLaughlin (Kiaran McLaughlin’s assistant and sister-in-law) has our flyer posted on the front of her golf cart and she’s running people over and making them buy tickets. Marilyn Lane has written an article in Saratoga Today. Fran LaBelle has written a press release, and we have a feature in the Saratoga Special, and I’ll be on the OTB channel for a live interview. Trish has sold a lot of tickets and we’re getting a lot of response so far. The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association will be represented as will Saratoga WarHorse.

“The biggest problem is that it’s a 25-minute drive from Saratoga, but it’s at a vineyard and that’s the draw, and there are no vineyards in Saratoga. We’re going to have wine tasting from five different vineyards. We’re going to put a round corral up and I’ll be doing a demonstration with my horse on natural horsemanship and explain why what I’m doing is a little bit different than what anyone else is doing and how it has a more lasting effect in getting a horse’s mind turned around. It results in better communication and better partnership. I hope we raise a lot of money, but it’s also going to get us on the map.”

Throughout her life, Buck’s main goal has been to give horses and other animals care and nurturing and to take care of people, especially women who have suffered mental and physical trauma.

“From 11 years old on I was on my own a lot after my parents split up," Buck said.."A lot of people have helped. Betty Moran took me under her wing when I needed it. I watch people who struggle and it’s important to me to help them, and I have a huge heart for the animals. I built everything on my little 6 1/2-acre farm. I have a hand on every board and every nail and every piece of roofing on my barn. I built it by myself and I earned the money by body-clipping horses down in Florida in the winter.

“I was the kid that dragged every poor animal home that wandered off of its property, asking to keep it -- orphaned kittens in my closet, raising squirrels and robins that fell out of their nests. Helping the dogs and horses that I work with to have a second chance in life is not so much a choice, but where my life is meant to be.”

Buck started on the racetrack in 1983 at Keystone Racetrack, then went to Monmouth Park and wanted to gallop horses, and Gary Contessa put her up on a few. She was given some wise advice from someone who told her she was better off going to the farm to learn how to break babies and build up her strength that way. Kiaran McLaughlin was running the Lukas string at Monmouth at the time and Buck asked if he could help her get a job on Lukas’s farm and training center in California. When she went to see McLaughlin the following day he said they wanted her to come out there as soon as she could. The next day the 19-year-old Buck got in her truck and drove from New Jersey to California with her dog; sort of a Travels With Charley adventure. It was there she learned a great deal about horsemanship from Randy Bradshaw, a longtime Lukas assistant and successful trainer himself.

Buck would go on to work for Lukas on and off for 10 years. The day she was hired, Lukas also hired a young assistant named Todd Pletcher. She eventually went to Kentucky and hooked up with Leroy Jolley, then worked with Bill Mott for a summer, and after that, Richard Mandella for a couple of years in California. Galloping horses for Pletcher, she got on such stars as Belmont Stakes winner Rags to Riches, Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, Fleet Indian, Octave, and Wait a While. And she galloped Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic for Lukas.

“I think of the millions of dollars of horseflesh I’ve sat on,” Buck said. “But that being said, my heart is with the ones everybody has forgotten; that nobody cares about anymore, because they have a heart and a soul. I do pit bull rescue, too. I bring pit bulls up from New York City’s Animal Care Control and I rehabilitate them and find new homes for them.

“I don’t want to get into the negative aspect of what happens to many of these horses, but I just want to do what I can to help. I can’t take all of them, but I support Old Friends and I’ve been volunteering at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation for years. I support everything I can because we all have to do a little something. When we work with horses all the time we take for granted what they give us. It’s really eye opening to get letters from women telling me how their lives have been changed by what we do here. It’s the same with the veterans. It’s just amazing.”

After so many years in the saddle, it finally began to wear her out, especially having to cope with M.S. and a number of injuries sustained on the racetrack.

“I was diagnosed with MS in 2003 or 2004,” Buck said. “It freaked me out and I went and talked with Kiaran (who also suffers from MS) and he’s been a huge support for me over the years, especially when things have gotten rough with the MS. Trish helps me out a lot, too, and having Todd and Wayne and Billy in my corner means a lot to me.

“I was getting so burned out; just the grind of the racetrack seven days a week. I broke my neck in the fall of 2009, so I wasn’t working. I took my horse down to the (Pat) Parelli Ranch in Florida and completely changed everything I did – with horses and people.  I had to go back to the track the following spring and really got depressed from it; being forced to make the horses do things when I knew there was a better way. You just don’t have the time at the track; that’s the biggest problem. I worked for another 1 1/2 years and then I broke my ankle and said enough is enough. I was getting too old and too beat up and was sick of traveling.”

It was at the Parelli Ranch -- a trip her father paid for as a birthday present -- that Buck’s life with horses would undergo a dramatic change. She was introduced to the Parelli method of natural horsemanship through former NYRA starter Bob Duncan. She began studying it carefully by watching the DVDs. She since has been to two extended classes at their facilities in both Florida and Colorado with her own off-track Thoroughbred “Budder,” aka Three Lions, a $270,000 Keeneland yearling purchase she galloped for Pletcher. She discovered that this method of horsemanship gave her the tools to help Thoroughbreds in getting their minds turned around and learn to become a safe, compliant partner.  

That led to Buck founding ACTT Naturally, a non-profit organization dedicated to rehabilitating retired Thoroughbreds and putting them up for adoption, whether for riding, therapy, or simple companionship. Soon, she was supplying horses to Saratoga WarHorse, which has had an amazing effect on veterans with PTSD, literally giving them hope and a future by unleashing the demons that had built up inside them.

“Through my 28 years working as an exercise rider and assistant trainer, my love, compassion, and understanding of the Thoroughbred grew, and as I took a horse or two here and there after their career had ended I started to feel a need to do more,” Buck said. “While I had the privilege of riding horses like “Rags” I have always had a soft spot for those who didn't compete well on the track. ACTT Naturally began after I tried to work with the TRF, Old Friends, Rerun, etc, but none of them felt like the right fit for what I wanted to do. So with a little help I have formed this organization to get the Thoroughbreds on to new opportunities.

“Our event will hopefully help us get the financial support we need to get things moving forward.” (Those wishing to donate can go to www.acttnaturally.org and tickets for the event can be purchased at www.olivavineyards.com

Buck bought her farm in Washington County in 2006 and began by clearing the forest and cutting down trees. All she had to start with were two stalls and she wrapped a barn around the two stalls and then put an addition to the back of the barn.

“I have access to 100 acres of land and trails behind my farm and I also have a couple of fields my neighbors across the street, dairy farmers, don’t use and they give to me,” Buck said. “I can’t afford to pay them and they can’t farm it and they’d rather see it be used. In return I keep them supplied with eggs from my chickens.”

And the work continues. “I pounded a post into the ground and hung up an electric fence and put a solar power charger in, so I’ve got horses tucked in all around me,” Buck said. “I want to buy the acreage next door to build a facility for my program where we can help women because it’s important to me. The proceeds will go to expand the farm. I only got my 501C3 (to set up a non-profit organization) last December. I have a woman who’s a psychiatric nurse practitioner that has gotten involved in helping me with the women’s program and I have another woman who’s resigning from her job and is joining forces with me. So my team is growing, but up until now I’ve been doing most everything by myself.

“Jack Wolf and Rick Violette are going help me through the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance in getting grant money. They want you to have your 501C3 for three years before they give you any money. That being said, the Thoroughbred Charities of America just gave $8,000 to Saratoga WarHorse. And they’ve only had their 501C3 since last fall, so I think I can figure out a way to get that done. We have tons and tons of support. We just need to get some money to get our legs going. Trying to do everything out of my own pocket has been hard so were reaching out to the community.”

Anyone who watches the YouTube and HRTV videos of Saratoga WarHorse in action will be amazed at the transformation in the veterans and how the horses respond to them.

“What we bring out in the horses is their natural behavior and the ability to learn to communicate with them on their level,” Buck said. “When horses go to the racetrack they live their whole life in a stall and they need to learn to be a horse again and learn their own language. That’s what happens here at my farm. We’ve been supplying horses to Saratoga WarHorse program since it started. I am honored and blessed to be a part of it.”

There is no doubt Valerie Buck is one of a kind, a savior to both horses and other animals and a humanitarian whose goal in life is to help people who have been damaged inside and abused, mainly women and the war-torn veterans, male and female, whose lives have been severely scarred. It is Buck’s burning desire to make sure those scars are not permanent. And she has the tools to mend them – her horses.

“Sharing my passion with the men and women who serve our country is truly beyond words,” she said. “The horses really enjoy their part as well. When we work with horses every day we forget how much they give to us. I really don't know where I'd be today without them.”

And there are many people who don’t know where they would be without Valerie Buck.


Valerie Buck aboard Rags to Riches (photo by Bryan Smith)


Valerie Buck on Fleet Indian (photo by Barbara Livingston)


Valerie's horses in the field -- Traffic Chef and Can She Dance (photo by Valerie Buck)


Valerie on Harlem Rocker (photo by Barbara Livingston)

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