Since 1994, Ron and Lorelei Pulliam have dedicated their lives to the wellbeing of at-risk children and the rescue of abused, neglected or homeless farm animals. Together, they operate Gallastar Equine Center in Esmont, a place for therapeutic horseback riding that has specialized in serving children who are victims of sexual abuse, or who have cognitive and emotional difficulties. The couple also runs an animal sanctuary, Ranger’s Refuge, that houses over 200 farm animals.
The couple have discovered that at-risk children and abused animals have a lot in common.
“Every animal at Gallastar has a unique story,” Ron Pulliam said. “A story of being forgotten, neglected, abused or left for dead. And yet, through the effort of people who care, these animals beat the odds and survived. They were able to trust again. That’s what we aim to do here; making sure that children who are dealing with traumas of their own, learn how to build relationships again. The animals here help us in that mission.”
Both Ron and Lorelei have an academic background. He is a licensed therapist with a focus on children and families, and she is a board-certified behavioral analyst, a special education teacher at Albemarle County Public Schools and a certified therapeutic riding instructor. Two years ago, they moved their operation from Afton to Esmont, a small community in southern Albemarle County near Scottsville. On October 19, the Pulliams are inviting the community to an open house to meet their neighbors and show everyone what the farm has to offer.
Visitors to Gallastar, located on 68 acres of rolling hills and meadows just off Route 6, are greeted by four huge Italian Sheep Dogs. They’re gentle, curious creatures, but they have an important role to play in making sure the farm is operational and secure.
“When we were still in Afton, a few of our pigs were killed by bears and coyotes,” Lorelei Pulliam said. “To keep our animals safe, we slept outside for a full year, making sure no bear or coyote made it onto our property. That was obviously not sustainable. The dogs now keep our animals safe, patrol the property and sleep with the animals during the night. They’re gentle, but fiercely protective. When push comes to shove, they mean business.”
Under the dogs’ watchful eyes, the farm is home to 140 pigs, 14 goats, 18 horses, barn cats, bunnies, a vocal parrot and a turkey.
“And they all have names,” Ron Pulliam said. “We know all their names, but more importantly, all the animals know their names as well.”
It was in Colorado a few decades ago that Lorelei Pulliam saw first-hand how at-risk children were able to connect with animals -- in that case horses -- and slowly, but surely, come out of their shell. It was the connection of caring for another living being that resonated with children who were abused, had attachment issues or had a developmental disadvantage.
Not long after, Gallastar Equine Center was the first in the nation to establish a meaningful collaboration between the mental health community and therapeutic riding in what is now called equine assisted psychotherapy. The therapy Ron and Lorelei offer is both research and evidence based.
“As therapists, we do the things we would normally do in an office,” Ron Pulliam said. “Our office happens to be 68 acres of land, filled with rescued animals.”
The couple, who celebrates their 25th wedding anniversary this year, welcomes around thirty children on a yearly basis for therapeutic riding lessons, at no charge. Since the experiences of the horses and the children are similar in many ways, children are able to establish a trusting relationship with the animals.
By taking riding lessons, the young riders benefit from improved self-esteem and confidence, increased self-awareness and an increased sense of control. And in the process, they develop a true sense of empathy for their equine partner; an animal that experienced the same trials in life as they did.
“All the animals on the farm, including the horses, were badly treated by the adults who cared for them,” Ron said. “The same goes for the children. We teach them that not all adults are wired like that. The abused animals have found new purpose because they are cared for and loved, and so can the children who visit us. Their interactions with the horses only emphasize that. It really resonates with the children.”
On top of that, the children who visit Gallastar are also exposed to the loving relationship Ron and Lorelei have. The way they interact with each other sets a new bar for kids in what positive adult interactions can look like.
“It’s very well possible that for many children, especially those who were sexually abused, Ron is the first man they know that treats them well,” Lorelei said. “When we interact with each other, we show them what a respectful relationship between a man and a women looks like.”
By modeling their interactions between themselves and the children, Ron and Lorelei teach by example.
“It’s called corrective experience,” Ron said.
Coordinating the therapeutic riding lessons, caring for the animals and upkeep of the farm is more than a fulltime job. Ron and Lorelei get help from a handful of volunteers, but mostly do it themselves. Since they are a non-profit, Gallastar Equine Center relies mostly on donations to keep the lights on and animals fed. Donors also have the option to sponsor a specific animal. Donors who do, receive regular updates on how the animal is doing.
“It’s hard work,” Ron said of taking care of the animals, the land and several structures on the property. “Let’s put it his way; Lorelei and I have late dinners, to say the least.”
Nancy Philpy, a Richmond-based volunteer for Gallastar, who has been working with the Pulliams for the past three years, said she has never met more generous and kind people than Ron and Lorelei.
“Everything they do comes from their hearts. They don’t charge a dime for the therapeutic riding lessons, help hundreds of rescued animals and put themselves in tough positions to make it all work. They are simply amazing people,” Philpy said.
According to the volunteer, who mostly does PR work and community outreach, the pair is always looking for more volunteers and donors to keep Gallastar up and running.
Ranger’s Refuge, the animal sanctuary, is named after the very first pig that Ron and Lorelei adopted in 2004. Last spring, after being with them for many years, Ranger passed away.
Ron told stories of many of their rescued animals during a recent tour of the property. There’s Poncho and Rex for instance, two of their horses.
“I was able to save them from slaughter,” Ron said. “I was on the phone trying to save them when they were already on the slaughter truck. I could hear the sounds of hooves and the other horses. It was horrible. Luckily, I negotiated their release successfully. They now have a good life and help with the riding lessons.”
There’s the goats at the sanctuary that were saved from a property in Staunton. They were left to freeze to death outside in the bitter cold. Ron and Lorelei intervened and were able to save them. Many of the pigs on their property reside in a meadow called Hog Heaven. And always, the Italian Sheep Dogs are there to protect the animals at every turn.
With over 200 animals, Gallastar is at full capacity. The Pulliams will never turn down an animal in need, it’s simply not in their DNA, but they have made it their mission to find forever homes for any new animals that make it to Ranger’s Refuge.
By being caring adults to both children and animals, Ron and Lorelei consider themselves the embodiment of hope. Hope for at-risk children who will learn that there are adults out there that can be kind, respectful and loving. And the animals at the sanctuary are living proof of that outlook on life, a message that resonates with the children.
The open house at Gallastar Equine Center and Ranger’s Refuge, located at 3309 Irish Road in Esmont, will be held October 19 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visitors can tour the sanctuary, visit with the rescued animals, enjoy some vegan food and participate in a silent auction and a used horse equipment sale.