Helping unwanted horses find homes is a passion for Jim Rhodes, who knows what it’s like to be rejected.
As an infant in New Jersey, the president and managing director of Equine Rescue of Aiken was put up for adoption because he was the son of a man who wasn't his birth mother's husband.
"He (the husband) was in Korea," Rhodes said, "and he came back right before I was born. He said, 'I want to save my family, but I can't raise another man's child,' so Catholic Social Services stepped in and I went to an orphanage."
After he was grown, Rhodes met his birth mother and three of her other five children. But the identity of his biological father remains a mystery because Rhodes' biological mother told him she didn't remember the man's real name.
All Rhodes knows is that his birth father was from Texas and was known as “Cowboy.”
“They’re not bad people,” said Rhodes, 62, of his birth mother and his half-siblings. “But I’m very thankful that I was given up for adoption. I was raised in a military family, and I got to see the world and different cultures. We were in Ethiopia, we were in Turkey, we were in Japan, and we were in Germany and all over Europe.”
In addition, the man and woman who raised Rhodes – James Joseph Rhodes, who was a sergeant major in the U.S. Army, and Eileen Armstrong Rhodes – were “very unique and loving people,” Rhodes remembered.
Eileen taught him the importance of being kind to others and compassionate.
“When we were in Turkey, we heard a knock on our door one day, and there was a mother there with a child in her arms,” Rhodes said. “The (infant’s) umbilical cord had been cut with a pair of rusty scissors, and the baby had lockjaw. My mother paid for that woman and her child to go to the hospital.”
James, meanwhile, encouraged Rhodes’ enthusiasm for horses.
“For some reason, I have always had an interest in horses, and he made provisions for me to be around them,” Rhodes said.
Since 2006, Equine Rescue of Aiken, which also is known as Aiken Equine Rescue, has placed more than 1,000 horses in its care into forever homes.
Many of them were thoroughbreds that needed somewhere to go after they finished their racing careers.
“This is not a job, it’s a passion,” Rhodes said. “It’s a sunup to sundown thing, and I’ve found out that the more I give, the more I get back. It’s a fantastic way of life.”
At any given time, 65 to 70 horses usually are living at Equine Rescue of Aiken’s 90-acre farm on Glenwood Drive.
Looking after them is a large group of dedicated volunteers.
“I talk to every single one of our horses, and you know what, I think they understand me,” Rhodes said. “I ask them if they have any problems or issues, and I tell them to hang on because we are going to find them a home.”
And when that happens, it provides Rhodes with a satisfaction that fills his heart.
“We’re kind of like an orphanage, and that makes me feel like my life has come full circle,” he said.
When Rhodes was young, horses provided him with a recreational outlet and companionship.
“In Turkey, the trashman would come down our street every day,” he said. “There were two horses pulling his wagon, and one horse was tied to the back.”
During the trashman’s lunch break at the bottom of a hill, Rhodes would spend time with the horses.
“I loved on them,” he said.
Later, when Rhodes was a teenager, his father was stationed in the Augusta area.
“He would drop me off at the Fort Gordon riding stables in the morning,” Rhodes said. “I would saddle up 30 horses just to be able to ride one myself, and I would take out military dependents on a guided tour if they wanted one.”
Later, after James died at the age of 51, another man took Rhodes under his wing and got him interested in quarter horse racing.
“I would help groom and feed the horses,” Rhodes said. “You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but I was an exercise rider. I was 6-foot-3 back then and weighed 155 pounds, and I would break the horses out of the starting gate.”
But when it was time to choose a career, Rhodes decided it wouldn’t be in the equine industry.
He attended the Georgia Institute of Technology, or Georgia Tech, and studied electrical engineering.
That led to jobs with the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, Owens Corning and Georgia Power at Plant Vogtle.
On the side, Rhodes, who had a farm in Burke County, Georgia, purchased and resold horses.
“We would buy them rough, clean them up and put nice saddles on them,” Rhodes said. “I had two daughters who were fantastic horsewomen, and they could make a bad horse look good. I might make $500 on one horse and lose $500 on another, but it was fun and it paid the farm bills.”
Rhodes also started a horse auction company that held two sales each year.
“There was one in the spring and one in the fall, and they would bring in anywhere from $500,000 to $750,000 over three days,” Rhodes said. “Sometimes, we would have six auctioneers going at the same time.”
When he was 50, Rhodes left his job with Georgia Power. His first marriage ended and a midlife crisis began.
“Georgia Power is a great company, and they are part of the reason I am who I am today, both financially and in my ability to manage people and deal with different personalities,” Rhodes said. “But I was not a good employee when we mutually agreed that I would be leaving. There was all the stress and responsibility of the nuclear industry, and being freshly divorced compounded everything.”
Rhodes eventually wound up living in Aiken, where he had worked while commuting from Georgia to his former job at Owens Corning.
Also, through his involvement with horses, Rhodes had gotten to know Aiken through members of the city’s large carriage-driving community.
“I opened a feed store and worked at it for six or seven months before I decided it wasn’t what I really wanted to do,” said Rhodes, who rented a one-bedroom cottage on Coker Springs Road.
Then he spent seven weeks traveling around the country, hauling horses and mules in a trailer that he owned.
“I slept in barns, I slept in the trailer, and I used showers at truck stops,” Rhodes said. “I would drive 300 miles just to make $50. I left Aiken with $5,000 in cash and a credit card that didn’t have any debt on it. When I finally made it back, I had $5,000 in my pocket and no debt on my credit card.”
But Rhodes had no job and no real plan.
“I said, ‘I better find something to do,’” he remembered.
It was around 2006, and Equine Rescue of Aiken was in its infancy. The founders were Richard Furlaud, a pharmaceutical executive who also was the chairman of American Express, and his wife, Isabel.
Isabel asked Rhodes if he would manage the Equine Rescue of Aiken.
Several years later, Rhodes took over the operation of the facility from the Furlauds. He became the managing director and president of the nonprofit.
With Rhodes holding the reins, Equine Rescue of Aiken expanded the scope of its programs and the number of horses it assisted.
When Aiken resident Anne Campbell asked for the community’s help in establishing a satellite facility for Saratoga WarHorse locally, Rhodes offered Equine Rescue of Aiken’s farm as a home.
Military veterans with emotional issues regularly visit there now to interact and bond with former thoroughbred racehorses.
Rhodes and Equine Rescue of Aiken also got involved in disaster relief efforts.
Their efforts, so far, Rhodes said, have provided $400,000 in supplies for animals – mainly horses and other livestock – to areas affected by catastrophic events such as hurricanes.
In addition, Rhodes has made Equine Rescue of Aiken a place where juvenile offenders can perform community service.
“The work is hard, but we are right there with them,” Rhodes said. “We try to make it enjoyable for them, and we talk to them about life.”
Earlier this year, Rhodes and his second wife, Debbie, teamed up with Donna Hasty to take charge of Molly’s Militia.
Founded in 1999 by Elaine van der Linden, Molly’s Militia rescues unwanted dogs and cats.
The nonprofit’s volunteers provide foster homes, where the animals are prepared for adoption.
Rhodes also is a shareholder in the Aiken Training Track, a member of its board of directors and the chairman of the facility's Building and Grounds Committee.
“I was humbled by it because I’m just doing something that you’re supposed to be doing in your life anyway,” Rhodes said. “It’s the way I was raised. I think helping people and helping animals is what we were put on the earth to do. Our tagline at Equine Rescue of Aiken is people helping horses and horses helping people.”
Dede Biles is the Aiken County government, business and horse industry reporter for the Aiken Standard. Follow her on Twitter @DBethBiles