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Sunrise Horse Rescue’s campaign for a 'forever' sanctuary in the Napa Valley

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Sunrise Horse Rescue's dream of a permanent Napa Valley sanctuary gains momentum

Lindsay Merget, managing director of Sunrise Horse Rescue, with retired racehorse Richie,describes the property the nonprofit is attempting to buy for the horse sanctuary. Richie listens with rapt attention. 

Sunrise Horse Rescue is riding hard on its fundraising campaign to meet the financial goals necessary to bring its herd of 23 horses to a new home. It's not an easy challenge, according to Lindsay Merget, managing director. But the organization’s campaign is making substantial progress.

They have found "the perfect site" for Sunrise Horse Rescue, Merget said, to fulfill its purpose of rescuing abused and neglected horses in Napa County. 

“We’ve raised almost $700,000,” she said last Wednesday, standing beside Richie – a retired thoroughbred at their temporary site Tamber Bey's Sundance Ranch on Tubbs Lane. “And we’ve successfully reached the goal of meeting the $500,000 matching grant.” But the campaign is far from over, and the need for a permanent facility for the horses remains crucial.

The proposed site is nearby on Tubbs Lane, Merget said, and as she described the site’s attributes, she was simultaneously stroking Richie’s brown mane.

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Taj at Sunrise Horse Rescue

Taj is a 20-year-old Arabian who is well trained and very well mannered. Taj found his way to Sunrise when his previous owner was not able to care for him and he became very under weight. 

The site is 32 acres of mostly flat land, usable for pasture, with a barn, power, water, septic system and living quarters already in place. Merget said that’s enough land for the Sunrise herd to roam and graze happily and over time for the organization to build an arena and facilities to host clinics and community outreach programs.

The central location of the property is also perfect for Sunrise’s 150 volunteers. A crew of 45 active volunteers rotates through a schedule to help with the daily activities of feeding and caring for the animals. Consequently, the new location would continue to be very accessible to the communities of the valley. "Plus, there’s room for expansion that will allow the organization to rescue more horses and host more community outreach groups," Merget said.

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Lindsay Merget and Lisa O'Connor at Sunrise Horse Rescue

Lindsay Merget and Lisa O'Connor standing in front of Taj's paddock, told the story of Tex, a horse once owned by a rancher who had many horses. The owner called up Sunrise Horse Rescue when he realized his horse didn't deserve to be put down.

But though the organization has reached its first milestone of completing the $500,000 matching grant it’s only one element in a process to purchase the property, according to founding member Lisa O'Connor.

“We are making substantial progress,” Merget said. “We have community programs planned which we know will benefit the Napa Valley. But first we must solidify the sanctuary for our horses. And that's our goal now.“

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Building a health program for retired horses

According to Lindsay Merget, it costs between $6,000 and $8,000 a year to care for each rescued horse, including feed, vet care, medical supplements and board. Vet care alone for an aging horse increases over time too, and each horse has specific dietary needs. Sunrise Horse Rescue cares for its horses’ veterinary needs using only the “best practices” standards. It pays off in the growing longevity of each horse’s lifespan.

If the group can raise close to the full purchase price (currently listed at $2.5 million) it feels it can possibly negotiate a lower price, eliminating the monthly payments and allowing the group to more closely focus on the needs of the herd. And those needs are significant and consistent.

Merget said it costs between $6,000 and $8,000 a year to care for each rescued horse, including feed, vet care, medical supplements and board. Vet care alone for an aging horse increases over time, too, and each horse has specific dietary needs. Sunrise Horse Rescue, Merget said, cares for its horses’ veterinary needs using only the “best practices” standards. It pays off in the growing longevity of each horse’s lifespan.

For instance, Richie is 15 years old. It used to be that the average lifespan of such horses would seldom reach 20 years of age. In fact, according to the organization’s website, 186 horses died in racing related accidents in 2012 alone, while 24 thoroughbreds die every single week on race tracks throughout the United States. But Richie was fortunate. He was rescued after fracturing his fetlock (ankle). 

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A menu for every horse

On the board at Sunrise Horse Rescue, each horse has a customized dietary menu. The affection for the horses sometimes is expressed on the board even after a horse has passed on. 

Richie will never race again and can never be ridden, but he still has many years of quality life left. “He’s sweet and gentle,” Merget said. “But he does want to keep your attention.”

The reality of life for aging horses is the overwhelming motivation that drives Merget, O’Conner and many others at Sunrise Horse Rescue to build and maintain the horse sanctuary. And it’s a reality that is steeped in a tradition of public attitudes about horses that the organization is trying to  change.

“Most people consider horses to be simply livestock,” said O’Connor. “People often believe that horses are somehow disposable; that they only have value if they can pay for themselves through their work. But we see, every day, that the so-called ‘value’ of horses is far greater than their designation as livestock, and that this greater value continues long past their commercial designation.”

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Supplement mixing pails at Sunrise Horse Rescue

With a herd of 23 horses, Sunrise Horse Rescue mixes feed and supplements that are specific to the needs of each animal.

Horses are complex creatures, Merget said. They have a power to help humans heal illnesses such as depression, PTSD, and other maladies. Consequently, Sunrise offers natural horsemanship training classes, group educational experiences, and many different volunteer opportunities that connect individuals with that power. “Sunrise Horse Rescue is a place where people and horses can connect on a deeper level and build relationships based on mutual respect, trust and compassion.”

Then O’Connor and Merget, standing in a small shed where the health supplements for the horses are stored, told a story about how those traditional attitudes are changing. They told the story of Tex, a horse once owned by a rancher who had many horses. The owner had that traditional, commercial attitude about the disposability of his livestock until, one day, he called up Sunrise Horse Rescue.

“He said that there was something special about Tex,” O’Conner said. “Tex was a Quarter Horse gelding, a ranch, calf roping and rodeo horse. Tex had seen it all.” But to Tex's owner it didn’t seem right that Tex should be put down and sold to slaughter. “He still had a good many years left to offer,” O’Conner continued. “So they approached us. They wanted Tex to have a quiet place for his retirement. And so we took Tex in, and he became bonded to Cinder. He was a favorite here.”

Both Tex and Cinder have since passed on, but to O’Conner it seemed like this was a turning point to explain how Sunrise was overcoming the traditional “livestock” perspective on horses.

For more information on Sunrise Horse Rescue, or to make a donation, go to SunriseHorseRescue.org.

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Reporter

Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.