This is the third in a series about challenges facing the agriculture and equine communities.
By Karen Brainard
Many horse rescue operations, known as shelters for horses that are neglected, abused or needing a new home, are finding themselves begging for help to feed their growing population.
“We’re full to the brim,” said Nancy Nunke of Hearts and Hands Rescue at Spots ‘N Stripes Ranch in Ramona.
With approximately 59 adoptable rescued horses, Nunke finds her nonprofit operation struggling financially.
Increased living expenses combined with rising hay prices are making it economically difficult for some owners to keep their horses, so they turn to the horse rescues.
At $7,000 to $8,000 a month to feed her rescued horses and zebras, Nunke said, “It’s so difficult. People just don’t realize what it costs to run a horse rescue.”
Nunke said she goes through 256 bales of Bermuda hay and 10 tons of Bermuda pellets, which she buys wholesale, every four weeks.
In some cases, by the time she receives a horse from an owner who can no longer afford to feed him, Nunke said the horse is so skinny that she is unsure whether he will survive. It will cost her double to feed the horse then because she has to bring back his weight.
That is accomplished by feeding often and in small proportions, she explained. A skinny horse is fed six to eight times per day and usually needs supplements.
“Their bodies just need a kick-start boost,” she said. “The body has just given up.”
Anna Merino, who owns Summer Glen Hose Rescue in Ramona, has had similar experiences.
Driving her golf cart through the top and bottom meadows of her 10-acre ranch, Merino said of her 21 rescues: “Most of these horses are here because people can’t feed them. Or, they’re on the way to the slaughterhouse.”
As long as a horse wants to eat, she will feed him, said Merino.
“I don’t put them down until they lay down and can’t get up,” she said.
Most of Merino’s horses are “hard keepers” — horses over 20 years old. Her horses include a Missouri foxtrotter, Tennessee walker, Belgians, Arabs, quarter horses and thoroughbreds.
While horses have been brought directly to her, occasionally she finds a horse abandoned and tied to her gate.
Merino said she spends about $1,300 a month to feed the horses, up from about $800 a month last year.
Both Merino and Nunke noted that those feed costs do not include any veterinary bills they incur for the horses.
Nunke said her costs increase a couple of hundred dollars a month. And while she used to offset her expenses by adopting her horses out to people, she said no one is adopting now.
Breeding miniature horses, miniature donkeys and zebras also helped to sustain her rescue operation, but no longer. The miniature horses that used to bring in $5,000 to $10,000 cannot fetch more than $600 now, she said. At that price, she only breaks even with the mini’s feed costs, Nunke noted.
Nunke’s rescues are not limited to horses. When she agreed to take a zebra as a rescue, it came with two goats. The zebra’s owner, Nunke said, told her that the three were raised together and the owner wanted them to stay together.
Nunke said the economy has really hurt her rescue operation, which at this point she is merely trying to sustain and not do any breeding.
“It gets a little bit discouraging. I just don’t have the money anymore,” said Nunke.
She formed a nonprofit for her rescue operation but said she doesn’t have the time and can’t afford to hire anyone to promote it. Her two ranch hands help to care for the animals and keep the place clean.
Nunke, who lost her house in the Witch wildfire in 2007 and cannot afford to finish rebuilding, will train and teach classes to raise funds for her operation. She is certified in emergency evacuations and said she can teach groups how to be prepared to evacuate animals in exchange for a donation to Hearts and Hands.
She is also an equine trainer and offers clinics. Her experience includes training abused horses, zebras and wild horses, including a Przewalski that she has at her ranch.
To keep the rescue operation going, Nunke said, “I need the community’s help. Everyone who donates gets a tax deduction.”
Merino tries to maintain her operation with donations from her lawyer, Michael Feinberg, and her adopted son, Jason Rodenbo, and any other contributions. She also depends on rent from a guest cottage and granny flat on her property but said that, if her renters don’t pay, she’s stuck. Recently she and her two helpers have been scrapping metal to raise money to feed the horses.
Merino, who has serious health issues, said she’s been able to feed the horses “by the grace of God.”
“I don’t want anything to happen to my horses,” she said. “I’m going to live because they need me.”
The two rescue operators cautioned that horses sold cheaply or at auction houses often end up a Canadian or Mexican slaughter house. Horse meat is a delicacy in European and Asian countries, said Merino.
“We need to honor the horses in the U.S. They’re such beautiful animals,” said Merino.
Merino said donations are welcome and may be sent to Anna Merino, Summer Glen Ranch, 1137 Summer Glen Drive, Ramona, CA 92065. For more information, she can be reached at 760-755-4308.
Donations are also accepted for Hearts and Hands Rescue. For more information or to schedule training, contact Nancy Nunke at 760-898-3927 or go to Hearts and Hands website at hhar.org.