Morgan Austin, a 17-year-old cowboy, approaches Riata, a horse that was… (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)
HUNTINGTON LAKE, Calif. — Comanche has one pale blue eye, one deep brown and a prancing gait that has cowboy Morgan Austin suspecting this mystery horse once paraded around an arena.
Until two weeks ago, Comanche wouldn't let anyone in the saddle. It took Morgan, 17, two months of talking to him "real quiet-like," slipping on a saddle blanket, then the saddle, before he could hoist his own lanky frame onto the brown-and-white quarter horse.
Now, on a day when the sky is pale with heat and ragged breaths of wind kick up thick, sticky dust, Comanche and Morgan lead the way down a boulder-strewn Sierra trail. Clifford Housley, the pack station foreman and head trainer, rides behind, blocking the way should Comanche try to bolt back. Morgan reaches out to snap pine branches with a loud crack and slaps his stirrups against granite, part of training Comanche to be a High Sierra packhorse.
PHOTOS: Rescue horses
"He has to be dead broke," Morgan said. "That means bombproof — you could ride that horse through a thunderstorm without him blinking."
Usually, a horse expected to carry tourists through the wilderness would be raised in the mountains. But these are brutal times in the horse world. Comanche, a flatlander, is being groomed for this job as a way to save his life.
The number of abandoned horses has more than doubled nationwide in the last five years, according to rescue groups. But in the Central Valley, where banks foreclosed on homes and ranches at one of the highest rates in the country, the numbers are even harsher. The Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals went from rescuing a few horses a year to taking in 60 abandoned horses over the last 12 months. Drought and incentives to convert crops to ethanol helped double the price of hay to as much as $20 a bale. It reached a point where even a purebred horse sold for less than the cost of feeding it for a year.
People who had collected the animals as prized trophies left herds to starve.
Comanche was one of 15 horses abandoned on a Sanger, Calif., ranch by a man who had won a $40-million Super Lotto jackpot in 2001. It was one of a string of high-profile mass horse-abuse cases in the Central Valley last winter.
"Horses are a luxury item, and the economic crisis turned the horse world upside-down," said Beth DeCaprio, who runs Grace Foundation horse rescue outside Sacramento.
On the trail, Comanche, who was dangerously thin when he was rescued, has come to a creek. He pulls back his head, sends rocks clattering with his hooves. Morgan, who also rides broncos and ropes steers, is calmly fighting for control.
Housley brings his horse behind Comanche and herds him across the water. Then they turn him back to recross the tiny creek. The return trip is worse. Comanche rears, pawing the air.
This is one of those moments when things can quickly go wrong and someone gets hurt. Housley and Morgan can list the parts of their bodies that they've broken, pulled and twisted.
But once the strange, hissing water is left behind, Comanche settles down.
"That horse is wound tighter than an eight-day clock," Housley tells Morgan.
"But you're going to be OK, right, boy?" Morgan says, patting Comanche's neck. "You've just never crossed creeks before."
At D&F Pack Station, owner Sue Walker is trying to pet two young colts adopted at the same time as Comanche. They were rescued from a group of 18 horses found starving and nearly wild at a ranch in Clovis in the valley below. They were probably foaled in the field.
They push their muzzles close to Walker but shy away when she reaches to touch them. For some reason, however, they let children pet them. She always sends the kids who are going on trail rides over to their corral.
To hear of horses being abandoned was once rare, she said with a shake of her head.
"Every once in a while you'd hear about a horse being abused and you'd just want to shoot the person, but it was one or two horses and life went on," she said. "But then it was 30, 60, 100 horses left to starve. And I thought, there's something we can do about it, at least for a few of them, so let's go do it."
Walker and her husband, Randy, told Housley to grab a saddle and drive with them to Fresno. They were going to adopt as many horses as they could find jobs for at the station. The SPCA was holding more than 30 horses.
Randy Walker knew Housley, 22, was the right man to do the choosing.
"Clifford can spend 20 minutes with a horse and before even riding it tell you everything about it," he said. "It's the craziest thing. I've seen him just put his head on their head like they're communing."
Housley wasn't crazy about the responsibility.
"I'm not going to lie to you," he said in a velvet drawl that may have something to do with his spell over horses. "I was nervous putting a halter on them and trying to guess whether they'd ever been ridden before I got on.