In early March, when states across the country began encountering their first cases of what was then referred to as the novel coronavirus, Rocking Horse Ranch was facing a different kind of mysterious illness. Within 48 hours, it had killed two horses. Less than two weeks later, a third died.

Three months later, the therapeutic riding program, like many nonprofits, is trying to navigate the road to recovery. While there are no clear answers as to what happened, there is a plan to ride again before fall.

“Our loving horses are missing our riders and their families,” a statement on the organization’s website reads.

Many of the approximately 150 riders the program serves through equine-assisted therapy have medical conditions that make them at-risk for contracting COVID-19. Few, if any, have set foot on the ranch since early March when the virus was first reported in North Carolina.

On March 6, Greenville Mobile Equine Services received a call that Cody, one of nine horses at the ranch, was down. The condition of the 18-year-old horse declined quickly, and the decision was made to euthanize him. But shortly after the veterinarian had left, a second horse began exhibiting similar symptoms.

Veterinarian Linda Balot was on call that night. She made the decision to send Beau directly to the School of Veterinary Medicine at N.C. State University, where he later died.

Horses have been known to contract coronavirus, Balot said, but the equine virus differs from the one that affects people and is not considered a threat to humans. Equine coronavirus is associated with gastrointestinal symptoms rather than respiratory distress.

When Beau and Cisco, the ranch’s third horse to die, were tested for coronavirus, the results were negative. The deaths of all three horses remain a mystery. Necropsies performed at the vet school on Beau and Cisco have produced little information on what may have killed them.

“Sometimes, you do a lot of testing and you come up negative,” Balot said. “This is unfortunately what pretty much happened with all the tests we were running.”

Balot, who has been practicing as a large-animal vet in eastern North Carolina for more than two decades, said she has never seen a case like this.

“It’s been very frustrating,” she said. “Everybody wants answers. You want to be able to point your finger and say ‘This was the problem,’ so this way you won’t have it again.

“Everything’s been cleaned, sanitized. We’re trying to do everything possible to make sure this doesn’t ever happen again.”

Although one additional horse on the property, leased for use in therapeutic riding, became ill and recovered, the remainder of the herd showed no symptoms. Still, Rocking Horse Ranch tested the horses’ hay and feed and changed their food source.

“They did everything they possibly could to get answers,” Balot said. “Anything that was recommended to them, they did.”

Agricultural Extension agents have examined the pastures to look for potential toxins. Executive Director Wanda Montano said the ranch is preparing the pastures for a chemical burn, plowing and replanting before the horses are allowed to return to graze there.

For Montano, the effort to break ground and plant something new is both literal and figurative. A Charlotte native and East Carolina University graduate, she had never set foot on the almost 30-year-old ranch before her interview. She has no horsemanship experience.

The fourth generation in her family to work at a textile mill, Montano folded blankets in the summer to help pay for her college. Her father, a warehouse manager, coached recreation league basketball and Little League at night and on weekends.

“I grew up watching my father give back to the church, to the community in some way,” Montano said. “That’s really who I am. I like to have an impact on people.”

A former social worker, Montano has three decades of management experience as well as a background in nonprofit boards. She serves on the ECU Board of Visitors and chairs the Health and Human Performance Advancement Council.

“They rewrote the job description when they hired me to make it more business focused, more fundraising, more community outreach, knowing that I could hire the right staff to run the barn,” Montano said. “I have horses to manage and a barn, but at the end of the day, it is a business. It has to be run as a business.”

Like nonprofits across the country, Rocking Horse Ranch is feeling the financial effects of pandemic-related closures. The cancellation of riding lessons and other programs has left the organization with no income since March. In addition, its largest fundraiser of the year, the Derby Dash Bash, was canceled due to the postponement of the Kentucky Derby. Last year’s event raised more than $60,000.

This year, with the Kentucky Derby slated for Labor Day weekend, Rocking Horse Ranch decided not to host a fundraiser. Instead, a different event is being planned for mid-November.

For now, Montano is focusing her attention on preparing the pastures and building up the herd. Following the horses’ deaths, three leased horses were moved from the facility, leaving the organization with one third the number of working horses it once had. In addition, staff changes have left Rocking Horse Ranch with no one to lead its interactive vaulting program.

Montano is looking to build back the herd; she believes six to eight horses are needed to run the program. She and her staff are working with Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International to determine safety procedures for reopening.

When riders return in late summer, one of their earliest lessons is likely to touch on grief. Cody is buried on the property. Cremated remains of Beau and Cisco are preserved in wooden boxes adored with commemorative quotes.

The horses’ photos remain on display in the lobby, along with notes of sympathy from students who heard about their deaths.

“Some of our riders who knew Cody, who knew Beau and Cisco, they need to have some way to come back to the property, I think, once we reopen and go through that (grieving) process,” Montano said. “Right now the only way they’ve been able to reach closure is to write the notes that they’ve sent that we’ve posted.

“So many of our riders have special needs, so for them grief and closure processes are more critical. Especially those on the autism spectrum, it’s just more difficult for them to process,” she said. “I do think the horses in the barn have been grieving as well because they don’t know where their friends went either.”

Montano is spending time getting to know the ranch’s three working horses: Lexi, Happy and Midnight. She plans to take riding lessons so she can better understand what students are experiencing.

“I was ready for another challenge because I don’t feel like I’m ready to retire,” said Montano, who will turn 68 in July. “I have so much still to do.

“My 37-year-old daughter said to me, ‘Mom you like to fix things. Go fix it,’’’ she said, laughing. “I want to get it fixed and I’m going to. I’m absolutely convinced I can make this a better place for our riders, for our volunteers for our staff.”

Rocking Horse Ranch, 1721 Blue Banks Farm Road, is closed for therapeutic riding until later this summer, but it is open by appointment for visits with horses and staff. Call 752-0153. For more information, visit rhrnc.com.

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com or call 329-9578.