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Group Rides to Rescue of Seized Horses

Volunteers organize in Santa Barbara County after unhealthy equines are removed from a Santa Ynez Valley ranch.

March 07, 2004|Cynthia Daniels | Times Staff Writer

Before Santa Barbara County officials seized 167 horses from a Santa Ynez Valley ranch in September, they first had to decide what to do with them.

They knew they could capture and transport them, but then what? Who would care for them?

"The county is in no way equipped to handle" the horses, said Laura Cleaves, a senior criminal investigator for the Santa Barbara County district attorney, who led the investigation. "We don't have a stable, and animal control is not equipped to keep any number of horses.... You can't simply put all these horses together in one field."

That's where Wildhorses in Need stepped in.

"We're fattening them up, warming them up and getting them back into health," said Myrt Starr, one of the organization's volunteers.

Starr and several other concerned residents were instrumental in getting the animals moved off Buellton rancher Slick Gardner's 2,000-acre spread.

Some of the horses came from north-central Nevada, where they grazed wild on Western Shoshone homelands and faced confiscation by the government. Gardner picked them up for $1 a head plus the expense of gathering, transporting and providing medical care.

After noticing the scrawny state of the horses on Gardner's ranch, neighbors called the county animal services department and complained to county supervisors. The animals were seized after an investigation by the district attorney's office.

That's when Starr and others began knocking on doors throughout the valley, looking for land to keep the equines and volunteers willing to care for them.

"Wildhorses in Need was born for the sole purpose of these horses," said Jean Marie Webster, a retired commercial real estate broker and one of the nonprofit group's volunteers. "We rely on people's generosity to use their land, veterinarians to give their time, and people to volunteer."

Some say it's the people in Wildhorses in Need who make the difference. The organization has no president or even a designated spokesman.

They all pitch in where they are needed. Some have given money, others placed ads -- such as the four-page spread that ran in the Santa Barbara News-Press. Others scatter hay evenly for the horses and scoop the pastures and ranches daily.

"Every day I do something to help these horses," said Gail Page, who grew up in Los Angeles and knew nothing about horses until she started volunteering. "If not physically working, it's a phone call, a letter, an e-mail."

Help comes in many forms and from various organizations. Return to Freedom, a wild horse sanctuary, agreed to house about 60 of the seized animals on its Lompoc ranch, and Wildhorses in Need cares for more than 100 equines, some of which are still under the watchful eye of the county, which pays the veterinarian bills.

Still, the organization needs volunteers and supplies, such as halters to train the animals, trucks to pull bales of hay through the fields, and money.

So far, Wildhorses in Need has raised $43,000, said Starr, who estimates that $2,000 a week is spent on feed. Adding to expenses are the upkeep for pregnant mares, which will give birth within the next few weeks, and medical bills for the 65 released horses.

Although the released animals now belong to the Wild Horse Sanctuary, near Mt. Lassen in Northern California, Wildhorses in Need has created a program in which individuals may sponsor a horse either through monetary donations or a foster home and care for it indefinitely. If a home can no longer be provided, the animal might be returned to the sanctuary.

Meanwhile, Gardner, who faces several felony counts of animal neglect and check fraud, wants the confiscated animals returned to his ranch, where about 400 more horses are monitored by the county's animal services department. He denies all of the charges, and says many of the horses were sick when he brought them to California.

Even now, he scoffs at the volunteers' results. "Just because those horses are fat doesn't mean they're healthy," Gardner said. "They would've been fat if they would've left them here."

Nicolette Birnie, a horse trainer and Wildhorses in Need volunteer, said working with the organization gave her a crash course in dealing with wild horses. "A lot of people will say these horses are not good for anything," she said. "But that's just not true. They're fabulous."

To help Wildhorses in Need, contact or send donations to P.O. Box 824, Solvang, CA 93464.

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