Giving Horses a Second Chance at McQueen Farm
How a couple with little equine knowledge became heroes for animals in need
By Adam Rosen
On a cloudless, late-summer day in rural Chuckey, Tennessee, a stately Tennessee Walker named Jackson gazes out of his paddock, taking in his surroundings.
Where his fence ends, a perfectly mowed lawn unfurls down a long, gentle slope. In the distance, the Blue Ridge Mountains rise dramatically from the Cherokee National Forest.
Jackson is an on-again, off-again guest at McQueen Farm. This is his second stay at the 33-acre property; he first arrived a few years ago, emaciated and with telltale signs of abuse. He had been living outdoors in a tiny lot for about 10 years, with “no shelter, no tree, no nothing,” says June McQueen. June, 62, owns the farm with her husband, George, 66. After the two took over Jackson’s care, he became healthy enough to be placed with a new owner.
In his new home, however, he had “the complete opposite” problem: too much space. Given free rein to eat all the grass he had once been denied, he eventually developed founder, a painful hoof condition. So, he was brought back to McQueen Farm.
Jackson will probably spend the rest of his years with the McQueens. Due to no fault of his own, he’s high maintenance. “Placing him will be very difficult because it has to be somebody willing to keep him up,” June says with a shrug. It’s just the way it is; most people don’t have the time, interest, or resources to care for an animal like Jackson. But June and George aren’t like most people.
RELENTLESS PASSION AND COMPASSION
The McQueens got married in 1995, and in the 24 years since, they’ve rehabilitated more than 30 animals, George estimates. At their previous 10-acre property in nearby Watauga, “we had everything rescued there, from peacocks to turkeys to goats¬ [to] you-just-about-name-it. I used to affectionately refer to the place as McQueen Zoo.”
While there are no turkeys or peacocks at the current property, there are hogs, dogs, and chickens. And, of course, plenty of horses—12 to be exact.
Running such an operation is a lifelong dream fulfilled for June, and an unexpected—albeit a deeply rewarding—experience for George.
June’s father was in the Navy, and his career led the family to travel throughout her childhood. She was born in Cuba and graduated high school in Venezuela. “Horses were always my love,” June says, but growing up in cities, she had little contact with them.
George was raised in the small town of Butler, a little over an hour away from the farm. A retired lieutenant commander in the Navy Dental Corps, he occasionally supervises surgery at a dental clinic for low-income people and helps out at a local practice, but most of his time is spent at the farm.
When the two met, June was president of the nearby Carter County Humane Society. Despite her work with animals and interest in animal advocacy, though, “I knew zero about horses,” she says. Over the years, “it was a learn-as-you-go process. Everything I wanted to do, I studied it.”
Whatever little experience June had, George had even less. He calls himself more of a “supporter” than anything else.
And his support has been indispensable. The McQueens have earned a reputation as a local refuge for animals in need and June has come to be known for her compassionate, comprehensive approach to rehab and training.
Most of the McQueens’ animals arrive at the farm one of two ways: June and George come across them in a distressed state and purchase them from their owner, or someone who’s looking to rehome an animal is referred to the McQueens. Triple R Bar Horse Rescue, a regional nonprofit, has sent several horses to the McQueens for assessment and training, but the couple has also been directly approached by owners.
Linda Harrison from Johnson City is one of those owners. Last year, she and her husband were looking for a new home for their Palomino, Tango. The retired couple was finding it increasingly difficult to care for him.
They wanted to make sure Tango would go to safe, loving home and knew they’d have to be cautious. According to Linda, it’s not uncommon for people in the area to offer to take in horses, only for them to wind up in a slaughterhouse.
Linda did some research and visited McQueen Farm with Tango. It didn’t take long for her to see this could be a happy new home for him. June “just impressed me—her personality, her knowledge, and the things that she was doing there, and how hard she works at everything,” Linda says. “When she gets an animal that needs care, she’s 100—more than 100—percent on it.”
Melissa Gaddy had a similar experience. In 2017, the Piney Flats resident was looking for someone to break her Palomino quarter horse, Daisy, when June McQueen’s name came up at work.
“June came up here and looked at Daisy and said, ‘Yeah, I think I can do some work with her,’” recalls Melissa. After spending two months at McQueen Farm, the once easily spooked horse came back desensitized to loud noises and ready to ride.
“[June] went way above and beyond helping me and Daisy,” Melissa says.
LIKE A GOOD NEIGHBOR
Apart from their rehab and training work, the McQueens have gotten involved with their local community in various ways. At their previous property, they worked with physical therapists to bring children with emotional and physical disabilities out to the farm for rides, a treatment known as hippotherapy.
“We had one young boy who came in there that had never made a sound,” George recalls. “After being in that therapy […] he started saying words. And his mother just couldn’t believe it.”
The McQueens’ operations are almost entirely self-funded. To help offset some of their expenses, they have a bed and breakfast on their property, offer horse boarding services, and host corporate events and small weddings on their farm.
The McQueens claim they are taking in fewer animals these days and are somewhat retired—at least, as much as one can be retired when one maintains 33 acres of land, cares for over 25 animals, manages a guesthouse, and supports an event space. Oh, and June and George are in the process of building out an obstacle arena for the horses, too.
While the McQueens pour their hearts into the animals that come their way, not every rescue has a perfect ending. June and George have had to make the hard decision to humanely euthanize some horses. But in most cases, they’re able to give the animals a fresh start.
“You can’t keep them all forever,” June says. “You get them healthy, you get them out, and hope it all works well, which it usually does. When they finally get a [forever] home, you know they’re safe. And there’s nothing like it.”
Adam Rosen is a writer and book editor in Asheville, North Carolina.