Four Legged Friends
At her Harmony and Hope Horse Haven, Ruth Plenty makes a home for horses not ready for the finish line.
by Dawn Newman-Aerts
"Somewhere in time or in space; there must be some sweet pasture place; where creeks sing on and tall trees grow; a paradise where horses go; for by the love that guides this pen, I know great horses live again...."
— Stanley Harrison
At the Harmony and Hope Horse Haven in Portal, Ariz., Ruth Plenty gets up early every morning to care for more than 60 horses who have found a second chance and a home — after abandonment, neglect, injury or just a string of bad luck.
Plenty, whose accent still reveals a hint of her New Hampshire upbringing, is part of a network of rescue operators who don't have to look much beyond their own pasture to know that the last few years have been hard on horses. "It's really about a down economy, the rising feed and fuel costs we see," says Plenty, looking out from the ranch that stretches across 40 fenced acres in the San Simon Valley.
Here you'll find old thoroughbred horses and blind ones, horses that have earned cash prizes and racing trophies, and those that can barely stand when they arrive through her gate. But that's the norm in equine sanctuaries these days, says Plenty. Some horses here are quirky, or stubborn like certain old folks; others are more mischievous and playful like kids.
Plenty takes in an average of four to six equines per year at the "haven" in Portal, a town just over the border from Rodeo, NM. They don't ask for much, she says, but they give back quite a lot.
Ruth Plenty believes her own love for horses began at age three — sometime between her first ride on a draft horse and a visit to the county fair, when she went to "bear hug" a Shetland pony. "The pony spun around and kicked me in the head," she says. "But my aunt says I've had this ‘horse disease' ever since."
According to Plenty, her own vision for this rescue ranch took hold in the 1990s. It was Plenty's early experience with the harsh realities of racetrack life that led to a rescue commitment. "My husband and I had spent roughly 15 years working with the racing industry in Phoenix, breeding thoroughbreds, and dealing with a side of the racetrack world that was too often heartbreaking." She saw horses that were injured or drugged; beautiful horses that didn't win enough races; athletic horses that weren't wanted.
Plenty with her whiteboard. Taking care of some
60 horses requires lots of planning.
She knows that only a few of those horses found second careers.
"Some were sent back to the breeding barns. Others filled a demand for pleasure riding, or became backyard pals," says Plenty. "But many others were sent to auction, and their next trailer ride was to the slaughterhouse."
Nonetheless, she notes, the equine industry continues to turn out thousands (of various breeds) annually. Thoroughbred breeders alone are known to register at least 40,000 foals a year. Horse industry estimates show that over 100,000 horses are sold at US auctions each year; most are shipped to feed lots, and slaughtered to become products in places like Mexico or Asia.
It was horses like the unwanted animals she'd seen in Phoenix that Plenty hoped to reclaim at Harmony and Hope Horse Haven.
Today, at her Portal ranch, Plenty is up before daybreak. More than 60 horses are anxious for attention, for the proper mix of grains and alfalfa in bins. Medications are added as needed and water tubs are topped off. By mid-morning, hoofs and mouths are due to be looked at.
Plenty doesn't often get the one-to-one time she and the horses are fond of. But she always takes time to nuzzle and pat, or just talk to them, by name.
"I find that thoroughbreds, in particular, are so drawn to human companionship," she says. "So you can't help but bond with them through the year, but (like people) personalities can be damaged or strengthened depending on the care or connection they've had with their owners or trainers.... I've found lots of satisfaction in this work."
She reminds visitors that every one of these horses has a story to tell, a situation they've been through. While some of the horses come to her from owners who can't or won't care for them any longer, others are more directly rescued.
"Unfortunately, new owners don't fully understand what it takes to care for a horse long term... the costs of properly caring for them," Plenty says. "Horses have a long lifespan, so maybe they can't afford the rising cost, or maybe they have their own health issues."
Her gate entrance sign sums up her philosophy: "God Is My Partner."