My Horse-Rescue Book

Here’s an excerpt from my upcoming non-fiction book:

Chapter 1, Feral Horses

In a sunny, remote meadow between two grass-covered hills, amid the peacefulness of a gentle breeze, two stallions suddenly reared up and violently struck each other with their front hooves. They were in a territorial fight to establish dominance over hundreds of acres of pasture and a band of fertile mares that were in heat. Driven by instinct, the big, black stallion and the black-leopard-spotted stallion tried to overpower the other, alternately kicking and biting. Despite their open wounds, they persisted for several minutes, completely focused on the other. It was a primal act of nature. They fought and whinnied as they tried to assert their authority, until the black stallion finally retreated, putting an end to the bloody battle.

While this scene evokes images of wild horses fighting for domination, it was actually an abandoned herd of domestic horses that were left behind on a ranch that our family acquired when we bought the property from our neighbors in 2013.

What had begun as a vision for a sporthorse breeding program devolved into a desperate situation when the business partners—friends since childhood–split up their operation. The horse breeder took some of the foundation horses with him and re-established his successful breeding program elsewhere. The partner who owned the 800-acre property kept the remaining horses and allowed them to free-breed there.

The landowner and his 15-years-younger wife  turned out the remaining horses–which included high-quality Appaloosas, Percherons, and warmbloods—and gradually introduced other breeds, including Mustangs, off-the-track Thoroughbreds, Paints, ponies and Quarter horses. During the 17 years the ranch supported horses, it is suspected that hundreds of foals were produced. There were all kinds of Appaloosas: leopard-spotted, Appys with snow blankets on their hindquarters, and few-spot Appys that looked solid-white from a distance. There were white, black, dark bay and light bay horses, buckskins, duns, chestnuts, pintos and palominos, and a number of equines with unusual patterns such as Pintaloosas. The majority of them were not handled, which resulted in feral horses of all sizes, shapes and colors, running free on the ranch.

The horses grazed the grass on the hilly property. But a drought paralleled some tough times for the landowners and in 2012, the county animal-control service got involved and required removal of the horses, a number thought to be about 200. The actual number was impossible to confirm as there were several different bands of horses living on various sections of the ranch, which was situated in the foothills of Northern California’s Coast Range. Since the horses were untamed and an economic recession was in full swing, it was difficult to find homes for them. At the time of the liquidation, there were some benevolent people in the community who adopted a few horses. The majority of the feral horses were hauled off by a buyer who specialized in challenging situations such as this. He allegedly took about 70 horses to an auction in the San Joaquin Valley, while the other 40 went to out-of-state auctions and undisclosed local brokers.

Twenty-three horses were left behind when our family and the Anderson family jointly purchased the property in March 2013. Seven mares quickly foaled, bringing the total to 30 horses. There was speculation that the remaining horses simply evaded capture and hid in the hills.

We planned to graze sheep on the property, which meant that we needed to remove all the horses. One horse consumes roughly the same amount of forage as 10 sheep, and our sheep production would provide the income we needed to pay for the land. It was not economically feasible for us to keep the horses.

My husband called the previous owner’s wife and told her they needed to remove the remaining horses. We gave them an extra week of access to the ranch so they could retrieve their horses. The week came and went, but no one showed up to get the remaining horses. Some of their friends stopped by the ranch, unaware that the owners had relocated elsewhere, but nobody arrived to take away any horses. We had no choice but to make immediate plans to take care of the remaining herd. Our plans included capturing the forsaken horses, several of which were bony and emaciated, and finding new homes for them, which turned out to be quite a challenge.

yanciranchhorses.com

In 1996 the partnership for a well-respected Sporthorse breeding program ended. One partner took his share of the horses and relocated to a new location, while continuing the meticulous breeding plan with which his vision for the breed began. The other partner turned out his share of the horses on the 795 acre Yanci Ranch in Winters, California and let them free-breed. Top quality Appaloosas, Percherons, and Sporthorses (virtually all registered) comprised the foundation stock and the horses immediately began producing phenomenal offspring in a wild-west setting.

Numbers quickly increased to the point that for the well being of the herd the owners needed to cull about 30 or 40 horses annually and they did so through the local auctions, as well as selling a handful to personal friends. During the seventeen years the ranch supported horses it is suspected more than 500 horses were produced and most of these horses were patterned Appaloosas. They had added improvement stock to include Off the Track Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Paints, and Mustangs, so solid horses and a number of non-traditional Appaloosa patterns were also present.

The horses were feral and lived well off the land for many of the seventeen years, however the drought paralleled some tough times for the owners of the ranch and in 2012 the county got involved and required removal of horses, a number thought to exceed 200. Real numbers were impossible to confirm as there were so many different herds living on various sections of the ranch and the Yanci horses reproduced at a rapid rate. Since the horses were primarily feral (with the exception of the foundation stock and the improvement stock) and the recession was in full swing, it was challenging to find them homes. At the time of the liquidation there were some big-hearted people in the community who took a few horses home and gentled them for themselves and/or to make it easier for the horse to find a home with someone who might not have been able to take on the challenge of an untamed horse. 110 horses were given to a buyer who specialized in difficult situations such as this. He took 70 horses to the Cow Town Auction in Turlock (mid-November 2012) and the other forty went to out of state auctions and undisclosed local brokers.

When the Rominger family purchased the property in spring ’13 to add to their farmland there were twenty-three horses left behind. Seven mares quickly foaled, bringing the total to thirty horses. The Rominger family spent roughly eighteen months finding homes for the remaining horses. In an effort to make two of the stallions more marketable, the Romingers registered Chief and Flint with alternative Appaloosa registries (The American Appaloosa Association and the American Indian Horse Registry respectively). Both of these registries require a DNA submission.

In 2015 Renee Boice was looking for answers regarding the history of her new leopard mare Dottie West. Dottie was purchased through a horse broker in Clovis, California and the broker repeatedly refused to provide any history for the mare. The broker truthfully claimed that the sale of the mare did not include any history. With no other options, Renee began to investigate. Renee has a PhD in American Literature and the mystery behind Dottie’s heritage presented an opportunity for real life research. Dottie’s bold leopard pattern is extremely rare and she began by searching the internet for potential sires who might share the pattern. One potential match surfaced almost immediately in the form of a foundation stallion for an internationally acclaimed Sporthorse registry located only a few hours from where Dottie was purchased. An email with Dottie’s picture attached elicited a response which confirmed the possibility. The founder of this Sporthorse registry explained that his ex-business partner had free-bred their foundation stock and that Dottie could well-be from that ranch. He had little hope that it could ever be proved but wished Renee well.

Meanwhile, Renee contacted Heidi Green-Carpenter with the American Appaloosa Association in Republic, Missouri and asked if she had any suggestions for uncovering Dottie’s history. Heidi is an Appaloosa breeder with fifty years of experience and one function of her alternative registry is researching specific horse’s heritage. She has a practiced eye for conformation and color. Heidi took one look at Dottie’s picture and insisted Renee have Dottie’s DNA tested and run against a lone horse registered through the American Appaloosa Association two years prior. The organization had no other matches for the horse called Rominger Chief, but he was a stallion and he had run wild on a large ranch in California. Low and behold,  Rominger Chief is the only horse against whom Dottie’s DNA was tested and he proved to be her sire.

Renee contacted the Rominger family about her search for Dottie’s history and the match to their horse Rominger Chief, a horse for whom Heidi had explained the Romingers successfully re-homed as a gelding somewhere in Southern California. Robyn Rominger is an experienced journalist and had taken many notes about her family’s experience with the Yanci horses. She and Renee decided to merge their talents and write a book about the Yanci horses, to honor the amazing horses who had lived there. To do so, they would need to track down every Yanci horse they could find. Because DNA had played such an important role in confirming Dottie’s place on Yanci Ranch, they decided to continue DNA testing the horses and to create a family tree. Due to the large number of Appaloosa patterns present, UC Davis’s prestigious Appaloosa Project became interested in analyzing the herd’s markings and using relevant horses to better understand the crossover application for the human disease Vitiligo.

The adventure continues as Renee and Robyn diligently work to locate and document Yanci horses that have rippled across the United States and potentially into other countries.

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My first ride on Pavona

My first ride on Pavona

“Pavona” is a registered Thoroughbred who lived on the neighboring ranch that we bought earlier this year. She is a former racehorse and won first place at Bay Meadows Racetrack in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2005. While she has been ridden, it has been a few years, so we are having her trained right now at Christa Petrillo Total Horsemanship in Winters, California. She is getting a tune-up, in preparation for her future life as a trail horse. This photo shows me riding Pavona for the very first time–which just happened to be on Friday the 13th, but I felt pretty lucky to ride such a great horse because she has a gentle disposition. Christa said she is a kid-friendly horse too, so one day my children may be riding her. By the way, Pavona is the name of a town in Central Italy. Apparently when she was racing, her owners were of Italian descent. My husband and I plan to visit Italy next year, so we hope to visit the Italian city.

Horses need homes

060Horses need homes

We are still looking for homes for several of the horses that we acquired when we bought a neighboring ranch to expand our sheep operation. The horses range in age from this Thoroughbred/Quarter horse filly who was born on June 13th, to a 26-year-old Appaloosa/Percheron broodmare. So far, we have found homes for 20 of the 30 horses that were left behind on our new ranch by the previous owners, thanks in part to local horse trainers including Christa Petrillo. Please help spread the word to fellow horse enthusiasts who may be interested in adopting a horse.

Controlled burn

Controlled burn

We’re conducting our second controlled burn on our new ranch today, in order to improve the grazing land for our sheep. We are trying to get rid of the non-native goat grass and replace it with native grasses that are better for livestock.
Before we bought this ranch, there were around 100 horses roaming free on about 800 acres, and much of the grass that they grazed on was goat grass. When the previous owners decided to sell their land, they sent most of the horses to an auction. When we bought the ranch in March, there were about two-dozen horses left. We decided to keep a few horses and we noticed that one of the mares had abscesses on her gums. When we had the University of California, Davis veterinarians come over to examine the horses, they attributed the abscesses to the rough grass that the horse had been grazing on. The same thing can happen to the sheep, so the controlled burn will ultimately improve the feed that is available.
Our local fire department conducts the controlled burns. Before the fire is lit, my husband drives a big John Deere tractor and disks the fire breaks to contain the fire. Then a firefighter walks around and uses a drip-torch to light the fire, as shown in this picture. Several fire trucks are stationed around the fire to make sure it stays under control.

My recent visit to Cal Poly’s Equine Center

My recent visit to Cal Poly's Equine Center

While our family was in San Luis Obispo to watch our son graduate from Cal Poly, I visited the Equine Center, where the university has student-managed breeding programs for Quarter horses and Thoroughbreds. In addition, Cal Poly’s mascot is the Mustang. I didn’t see any of those at the equine center, but thanks to our recent acquisition of ranch property that came with two-dozen horses, we have a spectacular Spanish Mustang that could be a beautiful addition to the campus herd.