Gunilla Pratt has become accustomed to waking up at her house in Temecula only to discover yet another abandoned animal in her yard. “People will just leave them,” she says. “I’ll get up and be, like, Oh, wow, this chicken is new, or this dog is new.” Currently, she has around 30 chickens and 11 dogs. “They’ll either be tied to my gate or thrown over the fence. It’s a little dangerous, because dogs and chickens can be territorial — a new dog or new chicken gets put in the yard, and the others might attack it.” Often, it’s the commotion of such a battle that calls her attention to the new arrival. Once, she woke to discover that the new animal was a horse.
Pratt has loved horses since before she can remember. “I collected every horse statue, book, and toy that had anything to do with a horse. I even pretended to be horse-galloping around the house and yard making neigh noises.” She was ten years old and living in East County, “where there were more open fields than houses,” when a neighbor brought in 50 wild Welsh ponies he had rounded up in Harbison Canyon. His intention was to train and sell them, but it wasn’t long before the price of their feed became too much to bear, and the hungry animals began eating farmers’ crops; the owner realized he’d have to sell them off sooner than expected. Pratt was 13 when she raised enough money delivering newspapers to buy one of those ponies for $100.
“I have always had a horse in my life since then,” she says. Her first rescue, of two injured racehorses, was in 2000. “They both healed well and turned out to be great horses. I still have them.” During the Witch Creek fires in 2007, when many homes and barns were destroyed, Pratt rescued three more horses. A few years after that, she rescued a group of injured thoroughbreds, sight unseen, after someone notified her that the “young, perfectly fine” horses were up for auction. “I gave the guy $1800 for the five of them, a little more than he would get at slaughter.” The thoroughbreds were in bad shape, but with care, they were fully healed a year later. Pratt found homes for three of them and kept two. After that, she continued to take in unwanted horses. Now, between her home in Rancho Santa Fe and the 80-acre property in Temecula, she cares for 24 horses.
Pratt’s injured or elderly horses reside in Temecula, where they are turned to pasture to live their lives out in peace. She doesn’t fault the unknown person who left a horse at her door. “Obviously, this is someone who loved their animal enough to leave it here — you can make pretty good money on a slaughter; they pay by the pound. We all know who the kill buyers are.”
The last American slaughterhouse for horses was closed in 2007. The “kill buyers” to which Pratt refers are middlemen for slaughterhouses located in Mexico and Canada. According to the Humane Society, approximately 100,000 American horses are slaughtered each year for human consumption abroad, and 92 percent of those horses are “in good condition and able to live out a productive life.”
Horse rescuers prefer to catch the horses at auction, before they get in the hands of a slaughterhouse middleman.
“I try not to promote buying directly from kill pens,” says president of FalconRidge Equine Rescue, Nicki Branch. “If you save a horse from a kill pen for $500, that kill dealer now has an extra $400 in his pocket, and he’s just going to buy more horses and ship them to slaughter. That’s like saving one but killing three more. It’s a double-edged sword, because you see this horse you really want to save, and it tugs at your emotional heartstrings. I don’t do it a lot, but I have done it before.”
FalconRidge is a nonprofit dedicated to equine rescue, rehabilitation, and adoption. Branch finds homes for an average of 50 horses a year.
“In 15 years, I’ve probably adopted out around 600 and networked thousands,” she says. “Networked” means rather than taking a horse into her stables in Valley Center, Branch gathers photos and stats about the animal and broadcasts the information on rescue network pages such as the Equine Rescue Network Facebook page, which has well over 200,000 followers.
In 2015, Branch took in 36 horses and adopted out 37. “It’s always very even — if I take in 50, I’ll adopt out 49.” In recent years, the need for horse rescues has been increasing. “When the economy tanked in 2008, it got really bad,” Branch recalls. “People were losing their jobs, losing their homes. If you lose your home and have to move into an apartment, you can always take your dog or cat to the local shelter or pound and surrender it. But if you own a horse, you cannot do that. They don’t take horses. They want the owner to sell it or get rid of it, whatever. Horses are a unique situation — it’s a large animal, it takes a lot to feed, and owners can’t turn them in anywhere. So, people started leaving them. They might move out and leave the horses there, or drive the horses somewhere and turn them loose in a field.”
Branch estimates that between feed, medical check-ups, boarding, and hoof care, it could cost anywhere from $250 to $450 a month to keep a horse. “Like a nice car payment, but it lasts forever,” she says. (Pratt’s estimate is even higher, ranging from $500 to $700 per month.) One contributing factor to the increase in horse-abandonment cases is the animals’ extended longevity. “In the old days, 20 years was considered old, but now with better veterinary care and nutrition, horses are living well into their 30s, and you’ll see horses live to 35 or even 39,” says Branch. One of Pratt’s horses just passed away at 36.
Currently at FalconRidge is a horse named Ghost that was abandoned in Imperial Beach. Branch recalls, “A woman called and said, ‘This horse is on our property.’ Someone had just unloaded him and turned him loose near her house. He was thin when he came in, and there was a lameness issue.” Ghost — named for his white coloring — has ringbone, or osteoarthritis of the pastern joint, which is in the ankle area. “They abandoned him because they couldn’t sell him.”
When asked why most people abandon their horses, Branch is quick to respond with a long list of reasons: divorce, cancer, illness, injury (the person, not the horse: “back surgery, neck surgery, and the doctor tells them they can no longer ride”), kid goes off to college. A handful of these circumstances sounded familiar to me. My brother-in-law — a recent divorcée who was just laid off and whose two daughters are in their first years of college — is in the process of selling his home and barn in Massachusetts, and struggling to figure out what to do with the four horses his daughters and ex had once begged him to bring into the family, a family that is now no longer one unit but four individuals, none of whom is currently capable of housing the animals.
Branch hears stories like this all the time, but occasionally a horse comes to her in what she describes as a “very unique situation.” For example, she once took in a horse from Riverside that had killed its owner. “It wasn’t his fault: he bucked, and the owner had fallen over and got his spurs hung up in the horse’s reins, and the horse panicked and bolted. The widow didn’t know what to do with this horse that had now killed her husband.” Branch ended up placing that horse with the dean of a South Bay community college.
“I’ve taken horses from an FBI case. One day I came home from work to listen to my messages, and somebody’s calling me from the FBI. I’m, like, ‘Oh, God, what did I do?’ She said they had a case: there was a federal crime, and the person had owned five horses, and the FBI seized their property, and then [the criminals] were incarcerated. Normally, when the FBI gets property they auction it off, but these were live animals, so they found me. I got all five horses from the FBI. It took a lot of paperwork.”
In another government-involved situation Branch relays, “Someone had been caught illegally smuggling people on horseback across the border, and officials seized both the people and the horses.” Border agents contacted Branch, who ended up saving all four of the horses.
Many horses that come to Branch were not abandoned but taken from their owners due to abuse or neglect. “Hoarding is another issue,” she says. “Some people hoard horses — they just keep them and barely feed them, and they get all skinny and develop mental diseases.”
One of the horses she currently has came from a hoarder in Anza, who kept 45 horses, some of which were seized by the county’s Department of Animal Services. On Super Bowl Sunday, the day before I first spoke with her, Branch received two reports in connection with the county and San Diego Humane Society, one regarding a horse that appeared to be starving, and another “with really long feet.” Hooves have to be trimmed like human nails, and when they get too long, they can begin to cause problems for the animal. Thus “long feet” is a sign of neglect.
“Normally, the [officers] will go out and educate the owners,” Branch explains. “If they see a person purposely starving a horse, or if it’s on death’s door, they’ll seize it right away. But sometimes people simply don’t know [how to properly care for their animals], and the officer’s job is to educate the people and give them 30 days.” Branch estimates that half of the horses she takes in are from animal-control cases and the other half are from private owners surrendering their horses.
Perhaps the most frustrating situation for Branch is when a person abandons a horse because it is no longer rideable, most often due to arthritis in a knee or foot, as with Ghost.
“If a horse goes lame, the owner will get rid of it. It’s disheartening, but they feel their horse should be rideable. They treat it like it’s a car or something, not a living creature. But horses are pets, too, just like your dog or cat.”
Branch tries not to take in “sanctuary-type” horses, as her primary mission is to find a home for each animal that passes through FalconRidge.
“If a horse is emaciated and a county or Humane Society officer texts me a picture from the field, I’ll tell them to bring it. I’m a mother. I want to feed it up. Like Ghostie — he was an emergency situation, obviously abandoned, not rideable, not super adoptable,” but she couldn’t say no. “We need more sanctuaries for older horses. I try to promote that you keep your horse for life.”
It’s because of horses like Ghost that Branch works to promote the idea of horses as companion animals. In other words, as pets instead of simply working animals. “Horses are healing; they make you feel better,” she says. Branch wants the world to understand that even horses that are unrideable have value. She mentions an organization called Pegasus Rising in Escondido, where unrideable horses are helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. “The veterans go there and spend time with the horses, on the ground, petting and being with them, standing beside them,” she says.
“When you talk about companion horses, some are companions for other horses,” says Gary Adler, who runs Pegasus Rising. He explains that horses are pack animals. Unlike dogs, which are also pack animals, horses are primarily livestock, kept in a barn or stable. Therefore (with the exception of miniature ponies that can more easily be kept in the house), they are not physically able to attach to a family in the same way as a dog. But they still require companionship in order to remain healthy and happy. This is one of the reasons that Branch will not place a horse with anyone who does not already have at least one horse.
Adler agrees with Branch that horses make good companions for humans as well, particularly those with post-traumatic stress.
“Horses are prey animals, and they choose flight over fight 99 out of 100 times,” he says. “People who have been involved in a trauma, or witnessed trauma, have the same [heightened senses] and triggers of smell, sound, and movement. A lot of folks, especially military folks, push away all human contact and love. Combat veterans can feel subhuman, like the walking dead in a way, because of the trauma that they’ve participated in or witnessed. So, by feeding, engaging in a loving, nurturing act such as grooming, touching, connecting — they are able to feel those nerve endings.”
People who visit Pegasus Rising (which is a free service) are encouraged to bond with a single horse from among the 14 Polish Arabian horses that Pegasus Rising’s founders rescued from a situation of extreme neglect.
“Each veteran usually relates to a horse that resembles them and their personality. Usually, they’ll say, ‘This horse reminds me of me,’” Adler says.
Learning to connect with a horse can also build self-empowerment.
“They learn how to handle a 1000-pound animal without using force. It’s always a soft hand. You establish yourself as the leader with the horse, but never by aggression — aggression means predator to a horse. It’s about staying in the now, being in the moment. A lot of our folks feel like they have no future, or they think a lot about the past: those images, smells, seeing and hearing all those ugly things we civilians are so blessed not to know about. It’s almost a meditative thing, to share the space and enjoy a pack of animals, and not be in your own head.”
After grooming and connecting with a horse, the human faces a challenge, and that’s “to walk away and have the horse follow them to a point. That feeling of a large horse following you without any rope, that bonding, it can be very powerful for people.”
Pegasus Rising does not take in new horses but serves as an example for Branch as to why no horse should ever be discarded. Each horse that Branch places comes with a four-page adoption contract that ensures lifelong protection for the animal. Volunteers (including veterinarians, chiropractors, and equine massage therapists) help Branch prepare horses for adoptability.
“We teach them good ground manners, and also socialize the horses by putting them in an arena and letting four of them run together at a time. It’s mainly mental, physical, and social rehabilitation facilities here.”
Gunilla Pratt is just as selective when it comes to assisting in finding a new home for an abandoned horse. She tends to keep all the horses she fosters.
“I’m always looking for homes for these horses,” she says of her team, the youngest of which is 5 years old, the oldest 30. “My problem is I get too attached. That’s why I have 24. I’ve placed 3, but if I don’t know the people, I don’t place them. They have to be a friend, so I can go visit the horse.”
Pratt counts herself fortunate to be in a position to help.
“My husband is a surgeon — he makes good money, and I don’t buy jewelry.” As for anyone considering adopting a horse, she has this advice to give: “Make sure you’ve got enough money in the savings account to cover it when things go bad. You don’t get a horse unless you think you can take care of it for life. It’s an animal, not a material thing, and people need to remember that. You’re not going to get rid of your kid if you lose your job. You don’t discard Grandma and Grandpa because they have medical bills.”
As for people leaving unwanted animals in her yard, Pratt tells me this past month she set up video cameras. Since the cameras went up, no new chickens, dogs, or horses have appeared. Though this seems to have solved her problem of being a dumping ground for unwanted animals, it doesn’t leave her completely relaxed. “Sometimes, I’ll think, Well, where’s that animal going to be dumped now?”