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Horsing around is a way of life for two sisters in De Pere

Sisters Lauren Underhill and Alissa Van Wassenhoven own and operate Whistler's Run & Rescue

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December 27, 2023

DE PERE – When Lauren Underhill sold CorLife, LLC – her medical equipment supply business in De Pere – in 2022 to open a horse stable, she admits some people thought she was crazy.

With no experience taking care of animals full-time, let alone horses, Underhill – who has a master’s degree in occupational therapy – said what she lacked in knowledge in the beginning, she made up for in passion.

“We bought the farm, knowing absolutely nothing about horses or boarding,” she said. “We truly looked at it as an adventure, and something we thought we would try and figure out as we went.”

Underhill – who owns and operates Whistler’s Run & Rescue in De Pere with her sister Alissa Van Wassenhoven – said she has had a passion for animals her entire life.

“I am an advocate of animal rescue and support various animal rescues and other organizations throughout the U.S.,” she said.

Van Wassenhoven said her journey was similar to her sister’s.

With a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a master’s degree in community counseling psychology with a childhood and adolescence emphasis from Marquette, Van Wassenhoven worked as a counselor and a psychology instructor at Western Technical College in La Crosse for the past 20 years.

“About two years ago, my sister and I thought about what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives,” she said. “Growing up, we always had a dog, but our love and desire to be near animals was nowhere near fulfilled with just the one pet.”

Starting Whistler’s, Van Wassenhoven said, is the manifestation of that childhood dream.

“Every day, we can’t believe how fortunate we are, and we feel we are living a dream come true,” she said.

Both residents of De Pere at the time, Underhill said when she and her sister saw the property that is now home to Whistler’s Run & Rescue was for sale, “we knew it was perfect for our mission.”

“(The property) had the space and presence to be taken seriously amongst a competitive horse world,” she said.

The farm’s namesake – a Newfoundlander named Whistler – believes he is the mascot of the farm. Submitted Photo

Van Wassenhoven said the farm was “breathtaking, and we knew amazing things could happen with this space.”
“There was so much growth potential,” she said.

As life-long animal lovers, Van Wassenhoven said part of what fuels their passion for what they do is sharing it with the Northeast Wisconsin community.

“We would have done anything to have had access to something like Whistler’s Run (when we were kids),” she said. “That’s been a big piece of the motivation for how we run things at our farm – our desire to open it to the public as much as possible.” 

To go from basically zero experience with horses and farm animals to owning a 42-acre farm with dozens of horses and farm animals depending upon them for their comfort and care, Van Wassenhoven said, was quite the leap.

“We frequently remark to one another we are so glad we are in our early 40s,” she said. “We know that in our 20s, in our 30s, we would’ve been too full of self-doubt, and too permeable to the naysayers to have mustered up the confidence to do something like this. So many people told us we were going to get in over our heads, we did not know enough of what we were doing or we would make a mistake.”

Van Wassenhoven said both coming from “successful, fulfilling careers” allowed them both to come into this venture with a dual perspective.

“We are new at this, but we are not stupid,” she said. “We don’t have experience, but we are capable of learning. We are not experts, but we know how to access those who are.”

Above all else, Van Wassenhoven said, if there’s one thing they have learned from business and education – “we knew we could trust ourselves to do a great job.”

“There will always be naysayers, Debbie downers,” she said. “But we are glad we have the experience and years behind us not to have let those voices intimidate us out of this dream.”

Offering full-service equestrian boarding, Underhill said Whistler’s welcomes all breeds.

Facility amenities include a 25-acre riding trail, indoor and outdoor arenas, rubber stall mats, 12 pastures, 11 dry lots, automatic waterers, an onsite laundry room, indoor and outdoor washing stalls, two tack rooms, 19 indoor stalls, industrial indoor fans during warm months and heated barn and floors during cold months.

“We offer one, all-inclusive indoor boarding service for a monthly fee of $650 or an outdoor board option for $300,” Underhill said.

Underhill said the farm’s namesake – one of her Newfoundland dogs – sums up the focus of the farm.

“He has the sweetest, most happy-go-lucky personality – his glass is always half full,” she said. “That’s how we approach life at Whistler’s.”

In addition to horses and Underhill’s pup, Whistler, the farm is home to goats, pigs, donkeys, cats, sheep, cows and more dogs.

& Rescue
Though the original focus of Whistler’s was horses and horse boarding services, Van Wassenhoven said that quickly evolved.

“We love horses, but we love all sentient beings, and we knew it was only so long before we would fill up with every kind of hoof and snout imaginable,” she said.

Shortly after opening the stable to boarding, the sisters added an animal rescue branch to the business.

Whistler’s Run & Rescue is located on 42 acres at 5678 Morrison Road in DePere – which owners Lauren Underhill and Alissa Van Wassenhoven said offers the animals a natural herd experience and “pasture paradise.” Submitted Photo

“We were quickly introduced to the realm of rescue, and it was a direction we felt called in,” she said.

Underhill said it is important for them to give rescue animals a “forever home.”

“We do not adopt out our rescues and love the fact that when they come here, this is their forever home,” she said.

The duo said they first saw a need for rescue services with draft horses.

“Draft horses are not typically the pretty fancy ones that can compete and typically have a long life of working,” she said. “They often have many medical problems, including arthritis, and need surgeries – that’s where we come in.”

Underhill said the mission of Whistler’s Run & Rescue is to “provide the best life and utmost respect for each animal” that calls the farm home – “from our boarded horses to our many other full-time residents.”

Van Wassenhoven said, “every dollar we make goes to support our rescues.”

“We (also offer) public events to allow people to experience the magic and serenity of the farm to learn about these animals and their behaviors in a way that is supported by science, and also to support our rescue mission,” she said.

Though every day is filled with hours and hours of hard work, Van Wassenhoven and Underhill said they believe the farm is where they are meant to be.

“We spend a lot of money,” Van Wassenhoven said. “I spend hours doing it every day, and I don’t make a dime, but it’s worth it.”

Van Wassenhoven said it’s difficult to put into words what the farm means to her.

“The other day, I watched the sunrise as I took care of the animals, and it doesn’t matter how many times I see it, it takes my breath away and gives me pause to be so thankful and incredulous I can live a life like this,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the animals.”

The success the pair has had with the animals, Van Wassenhoven said, continues to serve as motivation.

“A while back, I put the halter on a young horse who a couple of months ago would have charged at me,” she said. “We have built a relationship together, she trusts me, and today, she simply stood and lowered her head while I spoke sweetly to her.”

Van Wassenhoven said it’s in simple moments like that that “offer the highest reward.”

“We are stewards of these creatures, and when we stumble upon evidence we are doing right by them, there is no greater high,” she said.

A specific focus
Van Wassenhoven said when she and Underhill opened Whistler’s Run & Rescue, they were adamant about doing things a bit differently.

“We are not the typical ‘horse culture barn’ – that’s not a fit for everyone – and that is OK,” she said. “We were clear from the outset on the ways we differ specifically in how we conceptualize and treat animals. We have found that those who align with our vision are those who belong to our barn.”

This, Van Wassenhoven said, can be something as simple as leaving the windows to the stalls open for the horses to socialize to fencing in the back 25 acres and creating a natural herd experience and “pasture paradise.”

Whistler’s Run & Rescue – located at 5678 Morrison Road in DePere – has a 19-stall barn with heated floors during the cold winter months. Submitted Photo

?“We look to science for our methods,” she said. “Just because something has always been done a certain way does not mean it’s right. We have been asked before why we have made certain changes and are different from X or Y barn or trainer – our response is we measure ourselves by a different metric.”

Much of the approach they take, Van Wassenhoven said stems back to their previous careers.

“The bottom line is that all behavior has meaning, and there is no such thing as bad behavior,” she said. “There is neurology, there is pain, there is fear, there is communication… Society has made great advances in understanding these concepts with children, but we lag far behind with animals. Whistler’s aims to directly challenge that.”

Underhill said their approach recognizes the uniqueness of each animal.

“We don’t force anything on our animals and allow them to be who they choose to be every day,” she said. “They have access to acres and acres of nice green pasture to run and get up to full speed. We try to honor the way that horses and animals were intended to live.”

Van Wassenhoven said the hardest part of Whistler‘s, by far, has been the natural event of death.

“Each of our animals has a name – they have personalities, they have preferences and quirks and habits,” she said. “They are not just a number, and when they leave us, it is deeply upsetting. A year ago, we lost a beautiful young colt. It’s been a full year, but my sister and I found ourselves reminiscing about him the other day, tears in our eyes, lumps in our throats. He mattered, and he will always matter because we will always remember him and honor him with the way we treat other animals.”

On a mission
Halfway through their second year in business, the sisters said their most immediate goal with Whistler’s is the health and happiness of the animals.

“We think we do a good job of that, but we are always learning and willing to do more,” Van Wassenhoven said. “After that, we have a mission to educate the public and allow access to something we, as children, would have been so thrilled to have had access to.”

Though they have had a few bumps along the road in terms of public events, Van Wassenhoven said “we are not deterred.”

“We hope to see so many different types of people and organizations at the farm,” she said.

Looking to the future, Underhill said they hope to expand the property and “rescue many more animals.”

Anyone interested in helping out at the farm, Van Wassenhoven said, is more than welcome to lend a hand.

“We are always looking for volunteers – specifically, Sunday mornings, shoveling poop,” she said. “This sounds terrible, but it’s a great time. You work with wonderful people and will be surrounded by the cutest animals you’ve ever met.”

For more information on Whistler’s Run & Rescue, visit or check out the farm’s Facebook page.

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