On a gusty and bright fall afternoon on the Grace Foundation ranch dozens of volunteers feed, socialize and exercise horses, many of which suffered starvation and abuse at Whispering Pines Ranch in Susanville.
Intel Project Manager Jean Acosta works with her “project horse,” a spirited and affectionate 2-year-old gelding mustang named Rusty.
She plans to adopt Rusty, a process that will allow her to leave him at the Grace Foundation but make her financially responsible for his room and board.
She wonders what he went through before he came under her care, and if a former owner might one day ask for him back, admitting that they left their horse at the derelict ranch.
But all rescues are quarantined for several weeks. Any original owners would have to go through an adoption process.
“Six months ago he was much thinner,” she said. “He’s a small horse (an estimated 11 hands high and still growing) and I may never be able to ride him but that’s OK.”
With Rusty’s nose firmly entrenched in a feed bowl, Acosta explains that like many Grace volunteers she originally came to the ranch through her employer. Intel conducts regular team building sessions at the ranch.
In addition to feeding, exercising and grooming Rusty three times a week, Acosta now maintains the foundation website and leads a youth group at the ranch.
She also helped out during the intake of the first batch of horses from Susanville in April. “Rusty was one of four babies,” she recalled. “I went into the corral to take pictures, and he was very shy and afraid. I crouched down and watched him and the others for a while. He came up to me and nudged my head … curious … and sort of snorted.”
She was smitten. “There was just some connection in that moment,” she said. “He melted my heart.”
Acosta took him on as a project horse when he was released from quarantine. DeCaprio taught her how to socialize what was essentially a wild animal, to break down his fears, desensitize him to his surroundings and, importantly, to relinquish dominance.
So she “wither walks” the spirited Mustang, strolling around the ranch with her hand on his neck. “He doesn’t like it,” she said. “But he puts up with it and it helps socialize him.”
Horses confined over long periods can get pretty neurotic, she said. “They develop fears of all kinds of normal things and carry them around forever if you don’t break them down.”
So Acosta encourages Rusty to approach the orange cone that used to terrify him. After months of work he’ll now walk by that water trough but still won’t drink from it.
Another volunteer and project horse work nearby. The animal’s ankles droop almost to the ground behind his hooves. Acosta explains that collapsed ankles result from being locked in a stall for months without exercise.
“He’s been here for years,” she said. “People don’t want to adopt a horse when they know they’re facing vet bills later in life.”
Acosta said she’s concerned that Rusty’s life might be shortened by liver problems, but won’t let it alter her adoption plans. “To lose him now, after all we’ve been through, would be devastating,” she said, “but to be able to be here for him and see him grow has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life.”