Finding forever homes for horses in need is the mission of all reputable equine welfare and rescue efforts. Finding a forever home for the organization itself is usually more dream than mission. That requires land and lots of it and that’s expensive.
Redwings Horse Rescue & Sanctuary celebrates its 30th anniversary in the new year by moving onto its own 141 acres in Paso Robles. “The horses own it,” says Sara Ruggerone, Redwing’s supervisor of equine care. The property is located at 6875 Union Road, where Redwing’s approximately 90 horses expect to be settled by May of 2021. That means no worrying about land being sold, leases expiring or drastic rent increases on renewal.
Established originally in Monterey County’s Carmel, Redwings has been located since 2000 45 minutes north of Paso Robles in the remote town of Lockwood. The 167 acres allowed it to care for a diverse herd: Mustangs from Montana, Draft horses saved from Premarin production in Canada, nine burros from Death Valley and Miniature horses. The land was relatively affordable, but it was a long drive for regular volunteers and for most veterinarians when needed in an emergency.
Like most equine welfare operations, Redwings counts on grants and donations to meet its considerable expenses. The Lockwood location is out of sight and out of mind from a community awareness standpoint. While email, direct mail and, recently, radio advertising help get the word out, there’s no substitute for the visibility and easy access Redwings will soon enjoy located in the relative heart of horsey Paso Robles.
Made possible by the bequest of a late supporter, the Redwings’ property lies just a little east of the Highway 46, between Branch and Genesea Roads. It’s within eight miles of the Paso Robles Horse Park and not far from Twin Rivers Ranch. Both are venues that regularly bring top hunter/jumper and eventing competitors to the region.
“We want to get the community involved,” explains Sara. Not just the equestrian community. “We want to be a place where a lot of different people can come and enjoy horses.”
Exposure & Education
Paso Robles is a hot wine tourism spot and the new ranch is on the “wine trail.” Sara envisions ranch tours as an outreach for raising awareness that will help all equine rescue efforts. The ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for rescues, and that long, slow process starts with education. “The new location gives us a lot more exposure and opportunities to educate people about why we are here, what we do and why there is a need,” Sara says.
“Tours will be an opportunity not just to meet the horses, but to talk about the history and the future and wanting to reduce the amount of horses that wind up neglected, abused or bound for slaughter.”
The American Horse Council’s 2019 estimates pegged the unwanted horse population at 1 to 1.5 percent of America’s estimated 9.2 million horses: 92,000 to 138,000 horses.
By providing permanent sanctuary, retraining and a foster-to-adopt program, Redwings has been finding forever homes for horses throughout its existence. Approximately 50 percent of its 90-horse population are permanent residents. Age and medical needs are the most typical reason for horses not being suitable for adoption. In a few cases, behavioral problems warrant that status.
The ideal is restoring horses to physical and mental health and preparing them to be adopted by owners who view horse ownership as a commitment throughout the horse’s life. Adopted-out horses range from companion animals to horses suitable for a variety of riding styles.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early spring, Redwings girded itself for an influx of horses in need. During economic downturns, this common scenario occurs through surrender by owners no longer able to care for their horses and by the rescue of those subjected to neglect and abandonment, a reality for many horses in any economy.
Redwings was ready for what turned out to be a surprisingly small increase in the number of horses in need, Sara says. The happier surprise was a “record breaking number of people applying for our foster-to-adopt program.”
Record Adoption Applications
The pandemic triggered a similar increase in adoptions from small animal shelters and rescues. COVID-19 or no, horses are a bigger commitment of time, space and funds than dogs and cats.
Like all reputable equine rescues, Redwings has thorough vetting process for prospective adopters. Applying to foster a horse is the first step.
“We do research to make sure these are people looking to provide a long-term permanent home for the horse, not just an interest during the lockdown,” Sara explains. Successful foster prospects complete an application before even meeting an available Redwings horse in person. “We know what the person wants to do with the horse and where they plan to keep it before we start thinking about whether they’d be a compatible match.”
The prospective foster vetting process includes an on-site visit to inspect the home or boarding facility, one item on a “long checklist.” The list includes safe fencing, appropriate feed storage and checking the health of other animals in the home or kept elsewhere by the prospective foster party. Successful fosters provide a monthly report with pictures and receive a quarterly on-site visit from Redwings personnel.
If all is satisfactory after the first year of fostering, the formal adoption is processed, followed by an annual check-in with Redwings team members. The 501(c)(3) non-profit organization recently began charging a modest adoption fee.
Adopt, Don’t Shop
Sara Clark, DVM, adopted her family’s first Redwings horse two years ago and is six months into fostering a second. She grew up riding in Maryland, with U.S. Pony Club and eventing activities. “We’ve always had an ‘adopt, don’t shop’ mindset in our household,” she explains. A military family, the Clarks had recently moved from Japan to the Lemoore Naval Air Base in Fresno County. Ready to resume her life with horses, Sara learned of Redwings through one of her husband’s co-workers who had two Redwings graduates at the base’s stable.
As a veterinarian focused on acupuncture, chiropractic and rehab care for all species, Sara had nice references and the friend’s recommendation to highlight the family’s foster application. Per protocol, the process still entailed a few visits to Redwings to meet the mare they wound up fostering and a visit to the base’s boarding facility.
Looking for a family-friendly horse compatible with the Clarks’ four kids, Sara scoped out the prospects on Redwings website for a few months in advance. Talking to Sara Ruggerone was the most influential step in the selection process. “She’s a really good matchmaker,” Sara Clark says.
The now 15-year-old gray mare, Stella, has turned out to be exactly what they’d hoped for. “I rode her for a while, and now our 10-year-old daughter is her primary rider.” Stella came to Redwings from another rescue that closed. It was clear to Sara Clark that she’d been ridden but had not had much training. Believed to be an Andalusian, Stella now does a little of everything: barrel racing, jousting games, dressage and jumping. Andalusians are famous for amateur friendly temperaments and Stella definitely has that, Sara says.
After a year of monitored fostering, the Clarks were cleared to adopt Stella. Sara is now six months into fostering a second Redwings charge: the 5-year-old Off-The-Track Thoroughbred, Stalker. In this case, Sara Ruggerone reached out to Sara Clark, tipping her off to a young horse suitable as her own riding horse, possibly for lower level eventing.
Stalker came to Redwings after being rehabbed for a bowed tendon. “He didn’t know much other than racing,” the veterinarian says of the youngster now learning basic dressage, pole work and enjoying trail rides.
Learning Is Life Saving
Sara Clark’s extensive horse ownership experience made her an ideal adopter, but Redwings is equally committed to helping those newer — sometimes brand new — to the adventure and commitment of ownership. The education that makes those partnerships work is a big part of the mission to end the causes of equine suffering.
Sara Ruggerone estimates that five percent of their adopters are brand new to horses. A bigger percent are taking on their first horse, but have some riding and handling experience or have leased a horse.
Youth education programs are a hoped-for addition once the relocation is complete. “We want to educate people from the very beginning — from before they own a horse — how long horses live, how long they can live even when they’re not ‘useful,’ and the fact that different horses are suitable for different things,” Sara explains. “We hope that, over time, that will reduce the overall number of horses who wind up suffering abuse or neglect.”
Partnering with the animal science department and students at nearby Cal Poly San Louis Obispo is another eventual goal. Therapeutic riding and equine-assisted therapy programs are also on the long-term wish list.
Meanwhile, existing partnerships with national and regional equine organizations and local and national equine businesses are expected to grow stronger with Redwings’ new base. Purina, The Riding Warehouse, Schneiders Saddlery, Dover and Weatherbeeta are among Redwings’ supporters.
The more convenient location may attract more people like Linelle Soxman, who underwent Redwings’ volunteer training three years ago at a friend’s suggestion. “At my first meeting, they didn’t have a secretary, so somebody asked if I would take notes. Three years later, I’m still the secretary.”
Linelle is also spearheading a $1 million capital campaign surrounding the move. Opportunities include naming rights for pastures and helping out in various ways. In bringing the horses closer to the community, the hope is that more people will feel a closer connection to all horses and their welfare.
Redwings Horse Sanctuary & Rescue is affiliated with the Thoroughbred retirement organization, CARMA: the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance; the Unwanted Horse Coalition; the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries; GuideStar Exchange and Charity Navigator.
For more information, visit www.redwingshorsesanctuary.org.