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Valerie Buck and ACTT Naturally Helping Others Heal

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There is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse,” penned Robert Smith Surtees. With Valerie Buck, we can appreciate the same relationship between a woman and her horse.

Valerie understands that no one goes through this life unscathed, and so she is helping ease emotional stress and pain, one nuzzle at a time. That is, from a horse’s sweet heart, the hearts of the equines that are the integral features of Valerie’s not-for-profit program, Aftercare Continued Thoroughbred Training, or ACTT Naturally.

The Young Equestrian
Valerie grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she spent as much time in the stables as she could. Her father had a friend with an equestrian facility in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which was near her home. “I rode the train there to take riding lessons,” she noted. “I fell in love with my lesson pony and really wanted her! I was 12, and my parents told me when I got older I could have a horse. Well, I was heartbroken, of course. A week later, I went to this lady’s house to rake leaves on Christmas Eve, and she had stables. When I opened the barn door, I saw that my dad had bought that pony for me!”

Two years later, her parents divorced, and she and her older brother got lost in the wash, so to speak, and the pony was her saving grace. From this pain and heartache grew her passion for horses. It led to her working at a horse track in Pennsylvania, then California, where she learned to start riding yearlings. In the late 1980s, she worked with some of the top teams and trainers in the racing industry, including Randy Bradshaw, a horse trainer who now has a farm in Florida, and Todd Pletcher.

Career Growth
Valerie has worked for more than 28 years in the thoroughbred racing industry as an exercise rider and assistant trainer at top stables all over the country. She spent years in New York at Belmont Park and in Saratoga, where she worked with Wayne Lukas, Bill Mott and LeRoy Jolly, all members of the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame. In California, she worked for Richard Mandella, also a Hall of Famer. “The last seven or eight years of my career I worked with Todd Pletcher,” she explained.

Her personal journey wound around a wild roller-coaster-like ride in 2009, when life took her places she could not have imagined.

Prior to that, from 2006 to 2008, during the winters, when they moved the horses from New York to Florida, she worked clipping the horses’ hair down for the weather there and saved enough money to buy a farm outside Saratoga Springs. Throughout her career, she had taken horses here and there, keeping them at stables and farms near where she was working. Yet she wasn’t aware of the extent of the need for these horses to find safe places after their racing career ends and what it takes to transition them into useful careers.

In 1995, Valerie met Bob Duncan, head starter for the New York Racing Association. She became close friends with his wife, Diana Pikulski. Diana was the co-founder of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the oldest and largest thoroughbred retirement foundation in the nation, and Valerie began volunteering for them.

Then, in 2009, a series of unforeseen events befell her. She was in a car accident, withstood a bad relationship breakup and broke her neck exercising a horse at a track. While she was home that winter recovering, Bob Duncan introduced her to Parelli Natural Horsemanship; this was when she learned to be a horse whisperer and speak to them through their own language.

“When I was home recuperating, I started educating myself and watching DVDs on natural horsemanship. I used the technique on a horse that I had and was amazed at the relationship,” she smiled. “This took me to Ocala, Florida, where I participated in a course in natural horsemanship at the Parelli Ranch and it changed my life. I literally cried every day and it renewed my passion for horses. I never considered not riding again. I just needed time to heal.”

She came home, went back to work at the track and got involved with Saratoga WarHorse Foundation. She took them to her farm, where they chose a couple of horses from her herd to participate in the Saratoga WarHorse program, which provides equine therapy for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Transition and Transformation
Valerie saw the good results from veteran interaction with Saratoga WarHorse and decided to start ACTT Naturally, enabling her to help more horses and focus on helping women heal. The mission of ACTT Naturally is to transition thoroughbred race horses from racing to new, productive careers using the gentle techniques of natural horsemanship. ACTT Naturally’s programs engage the horse-human bond, facilitating mutual growth and positive transformation.

“I started ACTT Naturally in 2013. Friends helped me get 501(c)(3) status with the IRS, then the summer of 2014 I went to the Parelli Ranch in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, with my horse to a four-week course in emotional fitness between you and your horse. They drilled that into me, explaining how the horses know exactly what you’re feeling; there’s no lying to them. When you start to get upset they don’t respond. We were challenged with our horses to do some really cool stuff and it helped me. My horse can get emotional, too. I got so much out of that course. I have six certifications in Parelli Natural Horsemanship.”

She learned a lot about herself, and when she came home she knew what she wanted to do. In 2014, she started a program to help women, including female veterans struggling with PTSD and feeling vulnerable, Hearts in Harmony, which meets two to three times per month in Cambridge, New York, with as many as six women in each session.

Hearts in Harmony is geared to help women learn to grow from the horses, as she did when she was younger. They establish trust and communication between the horses and the women and veterans who learn to cope with pain, depression and other debilitating effects of PTSD. “With our off-track thoroughbreds, we build confidence, empowerment, peace of mind and joy,” she affirmed. Valerie built it upon her own feelings of abandonment when her parents split up, and she doesn’t feel like a victim anymore.

Extending Connections
When a volunteer asked if she could open a program for teenagers, she gladly accepted the challenge. “Learning with horses helps teach mutual respect, healthy boundaries and how energy affects your environment,” she smiled. As an example, she described a participant. “A girl came to the program wearing all black, her hair black and very gothic. After one day in the program with the horses, I got an email from her mom, who told me she had completely turned around, and that my horse, Budder, gave her her daughter back!” Winning horse trainer Chad Brown, a Mechanicville High School alum, is helping sponsor a program for kids from his school and Valerie is working with some younger kids from the YMCA this summer.

Along with her 14 horses, Valerie has miniature donkeys, two sheep, two goats, seven cats, chickens, turkeys, guinea hens and rabbits. She also works with Rebound Hounds from New York City and rescues dogs. So far, she has fostered and rehomed over 50 dogs.

“I’ve lived a life I have loved, filled with travel, great friends, riding horses every day and lots of adventurous things. I feel I am doing something different and meaningful. If you find something you love to do, you’ll be successful at it,” she advised. “I’ve never felt like I’ve worked a day in my life. I have to say that giving to others, whether animals or people, is such a rewarding feeling. When I get feedback from women and kids, and I follow dogs on Facebook that I have homed, my heart is rich in knowing I have left the world a better place for these animals and people than it was before they met me.”

Developing the Equine Connection
Valerie stresses that they need more funding and sponsors, and she has a five-week course she wants to develop. The fundraising covers feed, veterinary care, farrier expense and dental care for her horses. She feels that with the current environment in our country, there has never been a greater need to learn empathy, tolerance and acceptance of others.

“Horses offer an unbelievable opportunity to learn a deeper way of being in the world that allows your passion and creativity to permeate your life and joy to expand your heart. They help you find that sacred part of yourself that has always known what you need and what potential awaits you,” she expounded. “With the help of our horses, we can teach you how to become more emotionally, physically and mentally aware and help you live an authentic life by teaching the art of being that is strengthened and guided by your heart’s calling.”

Valerie firmly believes that when you honor a horse as a teacher and healer, the transformative results can be astonishing. “I get to do what I love to do. I am the luckiest person in the world. Even if it’s just a day creating good healthy experiences with other people, there isn’t anyone who has been through the program who doesn’t like it.”

For more information or to make a donation, contact Valerie Buck at 570-578-6377, or visit It is a 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit organization and donations are tax deductible. ACTT Naturally, P.O. Box 224, Greenwich, New York 12834.