“I call first Deb hug!” I’m not fully awake yet. It’s a little earlier than I’m really happy about and I’ve been focusing my energy for days on the demanding task of safely driving seven young horse lovers two and a half hours down to Lockwood, CA where Redwings Horse Sanctuary is located. Rachel, Sara and Savannah have had a sleepover. They were sitting waiting on Rachel’s porch and are rushing at me as if they were one body. Fortunately, before they can knock me over, they got distracted by trying to decide where they are going sit, they careened to the left and went tumbling into the borrowed Ford Expedition.

Next stop was Skylar and Jaclyn’s house. “I call first Skylar hug!!!” The Expedition has been stopped for less then a second. The doors fly open. They manage to fly out of the SUV without knocking each other to the ground and then race to the front door. To their chagrin, Skylar came around the back, forcing the three of them to sprint along the front of the house and leap a small hedge.

With all sorts of thumping and bumping they rearrange themselves in the SUV. “I call first Stoney hug!” That was Rachel Loran. She has a thing for Stoney. We haven’t left the driveway, but the girls know we have to stop at Quail to pick up Sierra. Sara and Savannah are faster than Rachel. Sara got to Stoney first. She didn’t do this intentionally. She just loves to hug the horses.

Savannah H was our last passenger. They didn’t knock her down, but I saw her knees buckle as the “gallop girls” piled on for a group hug.

It was party time in the Expedition all the way down to Redwings and I don’t remember very much of it because I was focused on driving. Although I did notice that none of them seem to be very good at twenty questions. They didn’t know that an onion was not a root vegetable, etc…

Our tour started with a lecture, the first part of which I missed because I was still in the car putting on sun screen. But I joined the girls in the office at the point where Sara, the woman primarily responsible for all the horse care, was saying, “and when you buy a horse, you are taking on a thirty year commitment”, an opinion she then repeated five or six times. Evidently, Redwings gets ten to fifteen calls or emails a day from people asking them to take their horse, mostly because it’s inconvenient for them to keep the horse or because they just don’t want it anymore. All the horses are Redwings are truly extreme cases. There’s Patrick, the sway back former roping star who was left padlocked into a stall without food or water at the Salinas fair grounds. There’s Autey and Apollo, horses foaled at Redwings from mares that had been confiscated in an animal abuse case and had been severely malnourished. There’s Calypso the Premarin mare who’d spent much of her life confined to a straight stall; not allowed to lie down because it would disturb the apparatus used to collect her urine while pregnant and deprived of adequate water because the urine needed to be concentrated. Most striking to me was the herd of horses confiscated from a man who was trying to breed his own Pryor Mountain Mustangs but by the time the herd came to the attention of law enforcement, there were thirty eight horses living on three acres, none of them gelded with goodness knows how many generations of inbreeding; a greater variety of misshapen horses cannot be imagined.

There are thoroughbreds saved from slaughter and discarded cutting and reining horses with grapefruit sized knees. There is a horse that was being used in a “horse tripping” event at a rodeo and horses that were too badly breed or starved or beaten to every be ridden. Of course they have the requisite collection of donkeys and minis, the former which breed like rabbits on BLM land and the latter that are, more often than not, purchased with as much thought as one would purchase a toy. Redwings is a living museum of all the ways that humans have abandoned responsibility for the equines they created and the array of complications and suffering that is created in their lives as a result.

The effect of that suffering was not lost on the girls. If I’d been towing a trailer, we wouldn’t have left without it full. They have decided on five “must haves” for my program.

Before I took her on, Chavali was skin and bones, left in a pasture with liquid rust for water. Stoney had been abandoned. CG was rescued from pony purgatory. Velvet was never in trouble, but at present, her owner is dependent on the income she earns as a lesson horse in order to be able to keep her. Jackson was loved for a couple of years but then neglected. Freedom is cared for and always has been, though he’s not really part of the program as he and Savannah mainly just keep us all company. But all the rest of the horses work for their keep and I work for thank yous and hugs.

It was Shana who started the hugging. She insists on hugging each and every horse and horse girl when she arrives and when she leaves. She met us after a ride at Rancho San Antonio last week. After hugging each of us, she turned to the stranger who’d walked with me down the hill and hugged her too. She’s been so persistent in her hugging that pretty much all the horse girls hug all the other horse girls all the time and also me.

Freedom will be leaving the herd in June. Jackson will be either going into a lease or back to his owners in October. Katie Dayharsh wants Stoney for a lesson horse. Jaclyn and Skylar want to lease Chavali and move her to Page Mill. For the first time in more than a decade, I really am in a position where I could, in good conscience, let all of this horse business go. Sara, Savannah Y and Rachel met me at the barn with their usual group hug. I thanked the because my spirits were low and I explained how I was faced with a choice. Savannah, with fire in her eyes, turned to me and said, “If you quit, I’d DIE! I’m serious.” It’s safe to say she speaks for all the horse girls, not that they are all specifically dependent on KLH, but it is the general idea.

Parents see the riding as an extra. One dad told his daughter “I pay for private school so why should I pay for riding.” This family owns a house in Hawaii. It’s been my experience that private school is worth every penny, but truly, if it was left up to the girl, she’d ditch the school in favor of horses in a heart beat. Most parents only want to pay when the child rides and if the child only rides twice a month, then there’s more money for their ski lift tickets or dinners out in Cancun, whereas the costs of having a child who rides twice a month or every week on my end are the same. I had one parent who complained for years about how tight her budget was. I finally gave in and allowed her daughter to ride for a shamefully low price only to find out shortly there after that the family of four was going skiing for presidents day weekend. When confronted, the parent said, “well of course we have a tight budget. How else could we afford to ski on a holiday weekend?” These people are by no means the exception. More than half the parents a pinching pennies in order to afford a big ticket; a week for four on Maui, two weeks in Denmark, skiing in Whistler; vacation. Every year I hope I will break even. I have not yet done so. March is one of my most expensive months. As of tomorrow, I have $3,100 in board and insurance due. I’m short $1,200 in the KLH account. Even if I could afford a trip to Hawaii, I couldn’t afford the cost of the horse care while I’m gone. But it’s a choice. When I visit Redwings I feel a lot better about my choice. I’m willing to put money on the fact that almost all the horse girls, when they are grown and owning their own ponies, will make the same choice.

On the way home from Redwings, Rachel realizes that she hasn’t gotten “first hug” once. She’s almost apoplectic and she won’t shut up about it. The parents are meeting us at Quail. Rachel is bound and determined that she will get out of the Expedition first and get to hug Stoney first! Sierra, who is mild mannered and long suffering, ran out of patience. She says, in a dead pan, “I’m sitting on the side of the car that will be nearer the barn so I will be able to get to Stoney before you and get first hug.” She kept up the facade until just minutes before we got to the barn. She never had any intention of getting out before Rachel, but had to confess her intent when it became clear that Rachel was just seconds away from committing a dastardly deed and yes, Rachel got first Stoney hug, the hug, that we all know is the only hug that really matters to Rachel.

Horsegirl Rachel and Sage the donkey, resident of Redwings Horse Sanctuary.

Horsegirl Rachel and Sage the donkey, resident of Redwings Horse Sanctuary.

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