Throughout history, the horse has been a symbol of nobility and power in myth and literature. Today horses are still bred for racing, “the sport of kings.” Historically the horse was a big part of life for the common folk as a beast of burden, as well. Until widespread use of the internal combustion engine in the last 100 years, war horses, firehouse horses, buggy horses and farm horses were ubiquitous.
For the people running Sunrise Horse Rescue in Calistoga, however, every horse has value that goes beyond their usefulness as workers or emblems of wealth and power. While one of their 24 rescued horses, Richie, is a 15-year-old thoroughbred with seven first-place finishes and $35,000 in winnings, others, like Thunder, an affectionate appaloosa, are blind.
A relationship with a horse provides “community members of all ages with life-enhancing skills and experiences derived from horsemanship,” the group’s website explains.
Since its founding in 2007, the nonprofit organization has been offering a “forever home” to horses that have been abused, neglected or abandoned. The group provides food, veterinary care, shelter, training, and lots of love.
As part of their mission to bring people and horses together, last week six young adults from Enchanted Hills Camp, an equestrian camp for San Francisco’s Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired located on Mt. Veeder in Napa, visited the Sunrise stables at Tamber Bey Vineyards in Calistoga to meet a few of the rescue group’s 24 horses, two of which – Thunder and Ranger – are blind.
For about 90 minutes, Lindsay Merget, SHR managing director, gave the campers, several of whom had no previous experience with horses, a primer on equine diet, “horse language,” and grooming.
Depending on its condition, a horse may require a specific diet and medication. Merget passed around buckets of different types of feed, including pellets, grass-hay and alfalfa hay for the visitors to feel and smell.
Jessica Marenoff, a sighted employee at Enchanted Hills, said one of the feeds smelled like “granola bar.”
“I’d be tempted to eat it, if I didn’t know what it was,” she said.
The visitors also paired up to learn about using a halter to communicate with a horse. In the wild, Merget explained, horses communicate using different levels of physical actions: the swish of a tail, twitch of an ear, rub of a shoulder are all signals used by the animals at various times. These actions, Merget said, are the horses’ language.
If one action doesn’t get the message across, a horse will escalate to another level. In a case of extreme displeasure, a horse might kick.
With one visitor playing the horse and one the human leader, Merget took the campers through the different levels of swinging the halter, first gently, using the wrist, to more forceful use of the forearm.
“It was distinctly obvious,” Kimberly Nean, said of her experience as the horse. “I could feel the buckle moving.” Nean, who was visiting from Australia, was reportedly interested in starting a camp there similar to Enchanted Hills.
Once the methods of communication were established, the campers went into the pens to groom the animals. Horses groom each other as a sign of affection. Grooming also gives caretakers an opportunity to examine a horse close-up.
A quick ride in a horse trailer was on the visitors’ agenda as well, so they could experience what is a scary event, seen from a horse’s perspective. As Merget outlined in the agenda, “It goes against a horse’s instinct to climb into a big steel trap on wheels and get hauled around to unfamiliar places, but they do it because they trust us if we have developed a relationship with them the right way.”
Campers from Enchanted Hills last visited Sunrise Horse Rescue six years ago when the organization was on Lodi Lane. The rescue group has been temporarily housed at Tamber Bey since that property was sold, thanks to the generosity of the vineyard’s owners. Volunteer and board president Lisa O’Connor said the organization is searching for a permanent home.
Caring for 24 horses is an expensive undertaking – from $6,000 to $8,000 per animal per year – so the nonprofit relies heavily on donations. The group’s annual fundraiser gala, the Harvest of Hope for Horses, is Sept. 16 at Blossom Creek Farm in Calistoga. It is also a celebration of the group’s 10th anniversary.
The group’s purpose has not changed since it began, said O’Connor.
“Our mission is to provide sanctuary for horses in desperate need,” she said.