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Olson: The Horse Rescuer

Two things haven’t changed about Michelle Kilcullen since we were classmates at Lake Park High School in Roselle: She’s bold and she loves horses.

She started taking riding lessons when she was in the sixth grade, once she was able to save up enough money to pay for them herself.

“[Horses] were just my thing, I guess,” she said, “and when I started babysitting I was able to start paying for my own lessons.”

For a time, Kilcullen was a professional horse trainer who went to multiple horse shows and also gave riding lessons, she says. Today, she keeps her own horses on a five-acre farmette outside Kirkland where she lives with her husband, Vince, and their three children, Nikki, 14, Ty, 12, and Brooke, 10, who attend Hiawatha schools.

Until this week, there were three horses on the property. But while she was on her lunch break Monday, Michelle came across an ad for a horse for sale in Minnesota that showed obvious signs of neglect. The horse looked thin, the owner said in the ad he had a bad back. The horse had a thick coat of brown “winter hair” – a natural defense against the cold.

“Even through that thick winter hair you could see ribs, hip bones, notches on his back of his vertebrae, sunken face, that was evident just in the picture,” Michelle said. 

Michelle tried to find someone in the area who might be willing to take the horse, but within about two hours she’d made up her mind: She would take the next day off work, drive to Minnesota and bring that horse back with her.

“You can tell when there’s somebody whose horse needs to go away from them,” Michelle said. “From the picture you could tell just how bad this horse was, in a picture they never look as bad as they are.”

Vince was able to get the day off as well, and together they made the five-hour drive towing a small horse trailer she borrowed from a friend, Mary Jo Downen. The owner didn’t leave work to meet them, but allowed them to come onto the property to get the horse, she said.

“Once you get on site and can see him it’s worse because they look worse in person,” Michelle said. “It’s like a skeleton that you hung a cowhide over walking over to greet you.”

The horse looked sullen. When he saw Michelle and Vince approaching, he managed only a few tentative steps forward. He had only a small shed for shelter, and Michelle said there was no evidence he had food or water available, although it looked like someone had sprinkled some grain in the pasture before their arrival.

“I believe he was standing in that shed pretty much waiting to die,” Michelle said.  “Just walking from the pasture to the driveway was … all he could take. He collapsed.

“It took a lot to get him back up. Luckily he realized we were there to help him.”

They paid $100 for the horse and left quickly.

The drive home took 6½ hours, and it was tense, as they worried the horse wouldn’t survive the trip. They put wraps on his legs, covered him in blankets to keep him warm and made frequent stops to give him more water and make sure he had enough hay.

The horse did survive. Michelle was able to find and contact the horse’s previous owner, who told her that the horse was a 12-year-old Arabian. The Kilcullens have named him “Milo” and have already begun the process of nursing him back to health.

This isn’t the first horse rescue project Michelle and her family have undertaken. They usually end in her finding the rehabilitated horses a new home.

“I try to home them with people that I know, or kids that are in 4-H that have interest in the horse’s well-being who might not be able to afford a horse, but probably live on a farm,” she said.

The animals can live for 30 years or more with proper care and feeding, so Milo should have some good years ahead of him. But it will be a while before Milo is fit for a new home, Michelle said. He needs to gain weight, get acclimated to a normal diet, have his teeth examined and put on a de-worming program before he can even be trained to hold a saddle and rider.

In the meantime, Milo will be staying in Kirkland with the Kilcullens and their three other horses, Dylan, a 17-year-old brown and white painted horse, Ozark, a 3-year-old brown-and-white painted, and Calvin, a 20-year-old black “appendix,” which is what they call cross between a quarterhorse and a thoroughbred.

Luckily for horses in Northern Illinois, there are locally based organizations that care about the welfare of horses. The Woodstock-based Hooved Animal Humane Society ( and Hooved Animal Rescue and Protection Society ( in Barrington Hills both work to protect and rescue horses, including those in our area. In other areas, people like Michelle often have to take it upon themselves to rescue animals they feel are endangered.

“Stuff like this, really it gets me,” Michelle said. “I don’t like to see people harm anybody, but kids and animals especially.

“Animals can’t go anywhere for help.”

High hopes for ’14: I had the privilege this week of speaking to the Kishwaukee Kiwanis Club about some of the top stories of 2013 and what’s ahead in 2014.

It seems to me that the year ahead is filled with promise, in no small part because of all the new people who have taken on new leadership roles recently. In 2013, John Rey was elected mayor of DeKalb; Douglas Baker was hired as the 12th president at Northern Illinois University, and voters elected several new faces to local boards and councils.

Just this week, Anne Marie Gaura took over as the new city manager in DeKalb.

At the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner on Thursday at the new Faranda’s Banquet Hall (which looks great, by the way) some speakers had similar thoughts.

Mike Larson made note of it as well. Larson is a past Chamber board chairman who was inducted into the chamber’s hall of fame Thursday along with Michael Embrey, Carme Gregory, Tom Smith, and the late Bob Brown Sr.

“ We’re right on the verge of starting a new era,” Larson said. “So let’s go after it in 2014.”

Chamber Executive Director Matt Duffy also mentioned the possibilities of the year ahead in his remarks.

“ This is a time of change and I’m excited about what we can achieve,” he told the crowd.

Many of us are looking forward to new and interesting times. We’ve got most of a new year ahead of us. Let’s all try to make the most of it.

• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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