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Spa for Stressed Steeds Encourages Horseplay

Equines 'with issues' go to a rehab ranch that uses alternative therapies to raise their self-esteem. Goal for most is a return to the track or show ring.

April 13, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Life is simple at Goodenough Farms near Fillmore: the sweet smell of orange blossoms, the beauty of a rugged canyon, the murmurs of an attentive staff.

It's a place to slow down and savor the moment, especially if you're a high-performance horse a little down on your luck.

There are no pokey little ponies on the idyllic 40-acre spread described by its owners as a spa for horses.

Most are magnificent jumpers, racehorses or polo stars--super-achieving, Type-A equines that have pulled up lame, grown long in the tooth, or for reasons unknown, been plunged into a long, dark, lonely night of the soul.

There's a beautiful neurotic filly who would barely allow herself to be touched. Her owner would come up and read to her until she was told that wouldn't do the nervous nag as much good as a romp with a resident wild mustang. Now the two horses cavort in the pastures, and the filly has settled in like a city girl at summer camp.

There are the poor little rich horses, animals puzzled by the concept of hay because they've dined almost exclusively on cubes of compressed alfalfa.

And there are the show horses that have spent most of their nonworking hours languishing in stalls, losing touch with their inner ponies.

"We have a number of horses with issues," said Goodenough's owner, John Lockhart. "We really have to teach them how to be horses again."

Lockhart, a 42-year-old public relations executive, lives on the farm with his wife, Wendy, their two young daughters, a miniature mule, a llama, a few potbellied pigs and a platoon of cats and dogs.

Lockhart's three dozen charges come from all over Southern California. Some were abused animals rescued by horse lovers, and others are ancient champs living out their last years in the country.

Most are athletes that need a place to heal after faltering on the track or in the show ring. After an average stay of three months, they can hit the competition circuit again.

New arrivals are greeted with a complimentary massage. A chiropractor visits to tweak their sore backs. A dentist files their teeth to a carrot-grating sharpness. An acupuncturist sticks needles in their flanks, and a masseuse slowly traces small circles all over their bodies while whispering sweet nothings in their ears.

For about $400 a month, stressed-out steeds get everything but a fluffy terrycloth robe and chocolates on their pillows.

Lockhart still calls in the local vet for consultation, but alternative therapies are the real draw at Goodenough.

"We provide the arena for practitioners to practice their craft," he said. "But we try to make sure that the efficacy of the procedure is apparent. The results have to speak for themselves, since the horses can't."

While Goodenough is unusual in pitching itself as a spa for Old Dobbin, many places treat equine aches these days with a lot more than liniment and a blanket. At layup farms and veterinary centers, therapies that once were unorthodox have galloped into the mainstream, experts say.

Four years ago, the 6,100 veterinarians in the American Assn. of Equine Practitioners were surveyed about their use of nontraditional treatments. More than 40% occasionally recommended chiropractors, and 37% steered clients toward acupuncture, according to Sally Baker, a spokeswoman for the Lexington, Ky.-based group.

"These certainly are legitimate modalities when they're done by someone trained in how to do them," Baker said. "I'm sure that 20 years ago you wouldn't have seen as many of these things, but they've bled from human medicine over into the animal world."

The effectiveness of some therapies, though, is an open question, with experts pointing out that promising new treatments in the horse world come as thick and fast as bettors at the $2 window.

"Some work, some are completely bogus and others have a lot to do with who's applying them," said Dr. Gregory Ferraro, director of the Center for Equine Health at the UC Davis veterinary school.

One recent afternoon at Goodenough, a skittish thoroughbred named Victoria drooped in relaxation as Laura Stinchfield massaged her. Victoria was listless. She had been mysteriously losing weight for a couple of weeks, and now she was 60 to 70 pounds down.

Stinchfield, an "animal communicator" who says she can listen in on the thoughts of horses, cats and dogs, spoke of doleful vibes she was picking up from Victoria.

"She's just so sad," said Stinchfield as she practiced a caressing massage technique called Tellington touch. "She says she's depressed and she doesn't know why. It's not like she's mad at anybody or angry about something. It's an internal thing."

After an additional 40 minutes of massage and mental probing, Stinchfield had a stabbing pain in her ear and thought she might have homed in on Victoria's secret. "Could she have an ear infection? I'm not sure if it's her or me, but sometimes I pick these things up."

Lockhart said he'd give Victoria antibiotics after clearing it with the farm's vet.

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