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."
From the seat of her tractor, Plenty appears comfortable as she hoists bales of hay and moves in and out of the corrals with ranch-hand expertise. As both caretaker and friend of the horses, Plenty makes two rounds of the corrals each day. That's a lengthy hodge-podge of 60 corrals that add up to roughly seven miles of walking and carting buckets of feed.
She says that her horses, with all their quirkiness, are much like close friends. There's Blue, with the bad knee, and Mr. Porter, whose eye was purposely damaged. There's Wood Town Bob, Santoni and Tux, who won all those big purses, and Cody who is blind but finally retired. As Plenty passes through the corrals, horses not only take notice of her company, but are eager to greet her for a simple rub on the head.
She estimates that each horse costs an average of $140 per month in a typical year. Then there's the cost of vaccinations, worming and hoof care (every six to eight weeks), fly repellants and masks, blankets for the ill and elderly through the winter. She says an illness can be costly — to euthanize or to bury an expense. "I have to admit that sometimes the worst fear I think about is where the next hay load will come from, but that's just what horse rescuers deal with."
A handful of dedicated volunteers are at the core of her sanctuary. They, says Plenty of her supporters, are well trained and compassionate people — locals like Bobby Schurian, Joy Schneider and Madeline Stamer. "These people come in here and give hours of their time, to love and care for these horses. They're the ones that carry grain pails, scrub the tubs, brush them down when they need it — or, the less glamorous jobs, like just cleaning out stalls.
"But it all has to be done," says Plenty, "day in and day out."
Over the years, Plenty has found both mentors and benefactors. She credits a handful of dedicated horse-lovers like Grace Belcoure of the CERF Foundation and Pam Berg of GEVA (Glen Ellen Vocational Academy) and others who have provided hundreds of horses with a second chance.
Last year, Harmony and Hope was awarded funds to update gates and fencing through CARMA (California Retirement Management Account), a fundraising organization in California that helps retired thoroughbreds. Locally, residents led by Debbie Anbinder worked tirelessly last year to gather volunteers for two fundraisers that raised almost $2,000 in donations.
And Hope and Harmony is hardly alone: Regional horse rescues located in places like Aztec, NM, and Green Valley, Ariz., likewise provide a second chance to horses who deserve proper care and a permanent home. In the Silver City area, End of the Road Ranch and Serenity Acres Equine Rescue work hard to help homeless horses (see box). They are among nine equine rescue operations licensed by the New Mexico Livestock Board.
Unfortunately, horses can arrive at Harmony and Hope cranky, frightened or just "head-shy" if they don't feel well. A few carry mistreatment from the past. Most times, they respond with their own kind of gratitude, says Plenty of her lifelong passion for horses. "I tell people, there might be a lot of work here, but I've been doing exactly what I've wanted for the past 17 years — what I feel is important in life. When I can't do it any more, just lay me to rest with the horses."
While her schedule would seem rigorous to a greenhorn — two feedings a day, rain or shine, medicines to apply and stalls to clean — it's mostly routine for Plenty and volunteers. "We try to get the hoof cleaning done for at least 10 to 15 of the horses each day. The pens are cleaned regularly, then there's worming, and vaccinations."
She is particularly proud of the well-stocked storehouse — a place, she says, that operates a little like a catering company, but keeps things organized. Here, you'll find a room full with horse staples. "We have roughly 12 different menus for the horses," says Plenty — special diets for seniors, quarter-horses, racehorses and the sick. Among the general feed products like barley and alfalfa tubs, she has recipes for active and hot-blooded seniors, along with low-protein feeds and high-quality supplements. She explains that horses, like fine athletes, have summer and winter diets to follow.
Wrapping up another busy morning at Harmony and Hope Horse Haven, Plenty reflects, "You could say this was always a personal thing I had to do. Bringing them back from injury or neglect is never easy, but it's been awfully rewarding."
Says Plenty of caring for the 60 or so equines who call her ranch their a home, "I have my busy days, and routine ones, and once in a while, a sad day."
She adds, "It's not easy sometimes, but I've never have a bad day when I'm with the horses."
Other licensed area equine-rescue ranches include:
Serenity Acres Equine Rescue
Attn: Rebecca Ferranti
12 Shasta St.
Silver City, NM 88061
End Of The Road Ranch
Attn: Carol Johnson
PO Box 5011
Silver City, NM 88062
For more information on Harmony and Hope Horse Haven, see harmonyandhopehorsehaven.com or write PO Box 173, Rodeo, NM 88056.
Dawn Newman-Aerts is a former Minnesota newspaper journalist who lives in Rodeo.