Welcome To Our World

I’m going to take you to a very special place.
Three miles up a wooded canyon sandwiched between the hills that define the western edge of Silicon Valley and the cold foggy winds of the Pacific Ocean lies a little horse ranch.

Thirteen acres of hilly land sprinkled with horses who needed a second chance. Some because of lameness or lack of talent, some maimed, old or skittish. There’s also a bunch of friendly barn cats, two snuggly hounds and you can always hear the incessent bleating of two obnoxious pygmy goats.

The smallish sanded riding arena lies closest to the canyon road, ringed with purple daisies that bloom year round in the coastal fog. Across the street is a mysterious, gnarled giant cypress tree in shades of blue, green and black. It’s it’s thick, sturdy boughs beg to be climbed and often there is a child in the crotch of it’s first branch, lounging and watching the rest of the ranch.

Behind the arena is a tomato red barn with paddocks that open on either side. It’s the hub of the action as it usually houses the most recent rescues as well as the horses who cannot, for various reasons, live in the pasture with other horses. It’s a noisy barn built recently out of aluminum pipe and tacked with thin wood. The horses bang the pipes and the metal feeders demanding a treat, or a pat or in arguing with each other. But in spite of it’s loudness, it’s bright and airy inside and the lack of seasonal weather near the coast means that simple shelter from the elements is more important that insulation.

Between the arena and the barn is an untended vegatable garden that is haphazzardly planted with carrots, herbs and struggling tomatoes. The kids and the goats, the gophers and the deer all take liberally from the garden. The lawn is peppered with bare spots from grazing horses and hoof prints. As well as soccer balls and hula hoops left out by the children. But surrounding the lawn is a layer of bright orange and yellow calendula flowers, fragrant lavender bushes and hardy purple salvias. In the winter, it’s crisscrossed with drainage ditches to channel the rain runoff from the hillsides.

The pasture is at the back of the property. It’s too hilly for the older horses, but a gang of young and hearty horses enjoy thier own steep and verdant world on the hill. During the day, they like to stand where they can see all of the activity at the barn. But after dark they head for the meadow that lies deep in the pasture. Sometimes at dusk, they thunder along the side and sometimes over the biggest hill, just for the excitement of it. It never ceases to stop my heart. The image of horses galloping not to or from anything or anyone, but just for the sheer joy of being built to run, is something that strikes hard at the soul of every American who ventures Westward.

The ranch has been described as “story book” “cute” and lovely. But mostly how it’s described by the people who visit is: Magic.
I think they might be right.

Things are not always as they seem (or should be). A success story.

Last October, we were helping fund raise for the Jane Goodall Foundation.  Dr. Jane was coming to our ranch to do a trail ride in the woods.  Her supporters were paying a fortune to go with her.  We were to provide the horses and the supervision.  I was a nervous wreck.  The last time I was that nervous, I was supposed to meet the great Willie Shoemaker at the airport for an event.  The kids, the volunteers and I worked for months to make sure that the ranch was ship-shape and that the horses looked their best.

On the morning of the day of the event, our neighbor brought down one of the horses from his pasture, to the paddock right next door.  We knew that he had three horses and that they were in a large pasture that had been seeded with good oat and rye grass.  We couldn’t see his pasture very well from our ranch.  Our neighbor is a local business owner who doesn’t live on the property, but keeps his toys such as his boats, motorcycles and fancy cars there.  We hardly had any interaction with him.

Well, back to the horse.  This poor animal, I’ll let the photos speak (see photos before and after).  To make it worse, a friend of mine had sold the guy the horse years ago for his daughter, so I (kinda) knew the animal and I certainly knew and thought the world of his previous owner.

I panicked.  This animal, in his new pen adjacent to our ranch, would be in full view of the Jane Goodall party, and he was at death’s door.  I wanted to call the SPCA, the police, SOMEONE.  I called my friend who had sold this guy the horse.  I wanted her to come with her trailer and rescue him – NOW.  Certainly she owed her old horse as much? Instead, she told me what a nice guy the owner was and that I should just call him or go and get the horse myself.  Okay, so this was the biggest afternoon of my entire career.  Dr. Jane Goodall and a cadre of her biggest supporters were due to arrive in a couple of hours and I was supposed to clean up this mess, caused by people who can’t manage to take care of their own animals!  I was hyperventilating and imagining what a cruel, awful person our neighbor must be.  To let this sweet animal starve to death while he polishes his fancy motorcycles and boats.

But I let reason and hope get the better of me, and I found the number for the guy’s business and I just called.  He was indeed a nice guy.  Didn’t know squat about horses and looked up to check on his three and found that one “had dropped a lot of weight”, so he had his guy go up and bring him down into the barn to feed him up.  I told him that he needed to let me help him with the horse and that I would probably have to bring him into my barn.  He gave me the code to his automatic gate and told me to put anything I needed on his account at the local feed store.

We brought him into the barn and fed him 2 or 3 handfuls of wet feed every 90 minutes round the clock for 3 days. We wormed him when he was strong enough and increased his feed intake steadily. We treated his brittle skin with salves and blanketed him with the softest blankets we could find.   He put on weight quickly and seemed to appreciate all our efforts.  The day we turned him out into the arena and he rolled and got up bucking, we all laughed until our faces hurt.

The story ends well. King has terrible teeth and my miracle dentist, Ben Koertje did the best he could but informed us that we would have to soak his food for the rest of his life.  He was standing shin deep in good grass in his pasture, but couldn’t chew or digest the food he was eating.  His owner was not hoarding or purposely starving the horse.  He believed that the horse was doing as well as the other two older horses who were thriving on the pasture grass. Yes, the owner should have checked on the horses more.  But he had invested in good pasture, good fencing and relied on advice from horsey friends as to when to worm and vaccinate. He had simply forgotten about the animals after providing acres of grass and adequate shelter and water.

What looked like a terrible case of abuse was more complicated than met the eye.  Had I acted on my first impulse and called animal control, I would have alienated a neighbor and lost track of the horse.

In closing, it’s important to me to mention that this neighbor beats a path to my door with a check whenever I give him a bill for his horse’s care.  He has donated hay to our ranch and always has a smile and a wave when he drives in.  Whenever I see him at a restaurant, he sends over a drink or dessert to our table (he’s in the food service business).  We have Thoroughbred’s from the track and fancy retired dressage and polo horses that came from some extremely wealthy barns.  They were donated and we never heard from their owners again.  We try to send updates, but often get no response. We send donation requests and are met with radio silence except for the occasional call requesting a home for another one of their horses.

Things are not always as they seem.  When it comes to suspected animal neglect or abuse, be mindful, be thoughtful, but do something.

Oh, and by the way, Dr. Jane Goodall is as amazing as you could ever imagine.  Wow.