OLD LYME, Conn. (AP) — Mary Jean Vasiloff of McCulloch Farm decided on her life's work when she was a child. At age 9, she announced to her parents that she planned to breed horses.
As Morgan horses roamed near the barn one early autumn morning recently, she reflected on a long career implementing her childhood plans.
"The relationship I have with them is what I enjoy," Vasiloff, 82, said of the horses. "They greet you lovingly."
This year, as tree leaves begin to brighten to reds and yellows, she said the farm will gradually change as more horses on the farm will be boarders rather than horses that Vasiloff has bred. The farm will host what may be its last open barn over Columbus Day weekend.
A combination of factors, including financial difficulties from the recession and a dwindling market for the horses she breeds, have made it difficult to continue breeding Morgans, she said. The market has become divided between people acquiring high-end breeds overseas or rescued horses, according to Vasiloff.
"There's no market for well-bred pleasure horses," she said.
McCulloch Farm first began breeding horses in 1945. Vasiloff's family purchased the land at 100 Whippoorwill Road in the 1920s to host a summer camp for out-of-town youths. Her father, a neurophysiologist, designed bunk houses on the land and engineered a dam on the lake. The family uncovered on the property a stone marking the mileage to New London as well as rum containers from the Prohibition era, Vasiloff said.
After the camp closed, her mother purchased animals, from milking cows and beef cattle to flocks of sheep, and transformed the 600-acre land into a farm. During World War II, she also created victory gardens to help with the war effort.
Vasiloff and her sister and two brothers helped out as farm hands.
"We worked very hard," she said.
Vasiloff learned about breeding horses over the years with the help of an expert. In her career breeding Morgan horses on the farm, Vasiloff also served as director of the American Morgan Horse Association, wrote articles on caring for horses and wrote a book, "Alone With Your Horse."
Vasiloff will continue teaching others about horses. She said caring for horses is a great responsibility.
"I just try to educate, educate and educate," she said.
She teaches a group of teenagers who volunteer at the farm about the horses and spends hours reviewing the parts of the horse - from their teeth to their legs.
Morgan horses are intelligent and quick to learn, she said.
"They're quite talented animals," she said
American settlers used Morgans to drive wagons across the country. While other states claim the breed, Vasiloff said the horse originated in Connecticut.
Vasiloff sold five Morgans last year. She will continue to sell horses and take care of the horses staying on her farm.
"If I can't breed them, at least I can help them get good homes," she said.