What is a Horse Sanctuary?

I’ve had several discussions lately about exactly what happens at a sanctuary for horses. What makes it different from a “Rescue” and why do horses need “Sanctuary”?

My personal perspective comes from decades of saving horses and keeping most of them till the end of their lives. That is pretty much what being in sanctuary would mean to a horse. He would have a safe, healthy home for the rest of his life. Horses are entirely dependent upon people for their every need! So, to be safe and cherished seems like it would be every horse’s wish.

Sanctuaries can be rescues, but not every rescue is a sanctuary. To be able to take in more horses, rescues need to adopt out horses that heal or become trained. Certainly many rescues keep horses that would not fare well elsewhere, but one average sized equine will cost $1,200 per year just for hay that is fed. Add hoof care, Veterinary care, supplementation, the cost of water and electricity to run the facility, petrol to get supplies… it all adds up quickly. It is not for the faint of heart.

The horse who has known hardship will require compassion and time to recover. Sometimes, they do not stretch beyond the trauma they have experienced and the best we can offer is a quiet life with their needs being met until their life ends. As advocates of all equines, we at Dharmahorse hope for the best, comfort a horse (or pony, donkey, mule) and accept the limitations they might have as we work to improve their circumstances. With this focus, getting our horses’ lives as close to a natural one is our priority.

We see our program for horses as one that creates as natural an environment as possible where the horses interact with each other, move about freely, graze upon grass hays in feeding stations and can choose their shelter according to wind and weather. If you take authority over an animal, you take responsibility for their well being. My favorite quote is: “Love is the active promotion of the well being of the love object” – E. Fromm. We love horses.

So, a horse sanctuary is a place where each horse is honored for his/her individual personality with a conscious awareness of the reasons for any quirks or fears. It is a place where equine nature is understood and supported, knowing that horses are herd animals; they are gregarious and need other equines to interact with.

Every horse owner can make their horse’s environment a sanctuary. It is a loving concept that can mean the difference between a mediocre existence of service and an enriched life well lived. A horse who is cherished will look forward to human contact. This horse will give more than is asked of him. There will be light in his eyes and he will be curious, engaged and content.

They say that we can judge a person by the way he treats animals. With horses, we must ask ourselves if they are here to prop up our egos or are they deserving of the same consideration we want for ourselves? When we open our hearts to accept the nature of horses and see through their eyes, we gain empathy for them both as a species and each as an individual. That is when their lives can flourish as we begin to add the simple things that support them and remove the things that torment them.

Sanctuary – a place of refuge or safety.

A horse rescue is also a sanctuary by definition and a horse sanctuary is dedicated to the principles long term. A funny side-effect of Sanctuaries is that the people who participate in the compassionate care of horses are healed, themselves, by the act of caring.

Horses bring out the best in people, given a chance, and when the human opens up to the pure honesty and persuasiveness of equine nature. We are changed by our association with horses. If we have their best interests at heart, we are changed for the better.

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What Horses Want in a Human

We all know what we want in a horse, what does a horse want from us? It is an important question when we consider our responsibility for the life of a sentient being, totally dependent upon us.

We need to make their lives interesting, but safe. Enrichment means adding varied terrain, spreading out feeding stations to mimic natural grazing, taking horses out on walks in-hand and riding in groups to add herd like interactions and confidence.

Safety means building proper, visible fences and providing shelter from wind, rain and sun. Horses need companion animals (and equines are the first, best choice). Horses want us to spend time with them and observe their preferences. People do things for “looks” that horses would not want if they could have their say. Facial hair is often shaved to make a nice clean look for competition. Horses need their facial whiskers to act as “feelers” so they don’t bump their eyes in the dark and because they cannot see the ends of their noses, whiskers alert them to where objects are. In parts of Europe it is now illegal to remove whiskers from horses. Leaving tails as long as possible means they have natural fly swatters.

Track systems or large fields let them be in motion and bare hooves keep them in touch with healing earth energies and allow the hoof to be a flexible foundation. Horses want tasty food that is nourishing and available most of each day. So, providing nets full of grass hay (no Sudan, Johnson grass or Fescues) scattered about their premises helps relieve boredom as well as feeding them more naturally.

Horses’ lives can become boring. Imagine living in a box stall 20 hours of each day. Imagine coming out of, what to us would be like living in a closet and being placed in a round pen to be chased about to “let off steam”. Then you’re saddled and bridled and expected to respond to a rider’s whims and wishes before being put away, back in your stall to await the next day and another ride. No wonder horses get all manner of vices and odd behaviors as coping mechanisms.

Imagine if your drinking water sat out day after day, being topped up but never cleaned. The taste would become off-putting and as you drank less, your digestive system would begin to fail. I was taught as a child by a British Horse Society trained instructor who made us drink out of our horses’ buckets. Nothing makes you more aware of and attentive to clean buckets of cold, fresh water than having to drink from it yourself!

Horses need some REM sleep each day/night. In a herd, they will tend to have at least one “guard” who stands while the others lie down. Horses can sleep standing up, but they do not go into the restful REM unless they can get down and feel comfortable. Some manner of soft bedding makes that possible. Sand, peat, shavings, straw or soft earth is needed to encourage real rest.

Horses need access to minerals, especially salt, to stay healthy and at our Sanctuary; we prefer the mineral rich Himalayan salt, tied in different locations for them to savor. When the weather is changing or a horse has hoof issues, we add an ounce daily of the course ground Himalayan salt to their bucket feeds as well.

Tree shade is best shade, but some tree bark and/or leaves are poisonous to horses. The worst are Yews, Red Maples, Black Walnut, China Berry and Cherry. Trees that are healthy for horses, even if they munch on them are Willows and Mulberry trees. If horses could mention it, they would tell us that they love trees.

I lived in a huge pasture with my two geldings for several months. I would walk around with them at dawn as they moved from hills to depressions, finding cool air and warm spots; settling into cover under the Cottonwoods and drinking from tanks where I had floated small pine logs so the bees would not drown. They would lie down in a big sandy wash above the small river and I could lie with them (my older Anglo-Arab serving as a pillow) and sleep safely until time to roam again, grazing on grasses and young plantain. There was a huge Black Walnut tree that they wisely avoided. They also knew when the bees were most active and we wandered to the edge of the pasture to avoid disturbing them.

I want that kind of life for our horses in Sanctuary. We are in the high desert and the pasture is not possible, but the roaming and exploring and herd interaction is something we can provide.

And I can spend time with them. Observing their daily preferences and moods; getting still and quiet with them allows me to understand each of them as an individual. It is a privilege to be with a horse.

What do horses want from us? Consideration, kindness, water, food, shelter and friendship – these are the basic ways we can enrich their lives and support their good health. In turn, we get loyalty, healing, compassion and trust from a being whose ancestors built our civilization. Talk about a Win-Win situation!

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Bond with Horses

It’s about listening, honoring and knowing each horse as an individual, and awareness of all horses as a species.

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The Victimization of Equines

This is a difficult topic for me. As a survivor of abuse, I find triggers for my own anxiety in the mere thought of any being suffering demoralization, neglect or even worse, violence. Because I run a sanctuary for horses, I see the cost in the emotional, mental and physical bodies of the horses we care for day in, day out.

Yet, the horses (and long ears) find it in themselves to forgive and come around to trusting again. At least, they learn that they can trust us because we work very hard to be trustworthy.

At the sanctuary, we had a mare come in who had to be 30 years old. She was foundered badly and her body was scarred in a unique way. Damaru showed the classic scarring of a victim of “horse tripping” – a violent and deadly form of amusement inflicted upon horses. While we tried as best we could to heal her on all levels, her body just could not repair the damage.

But, Damaru knew love. Great, boundless affection and compassion were wrapped around her every day. She was cherished and she responded in kind; she nuzzled us for treats, she stood calmly for treatments and care and her soul was healed before her body finally gave out.

Damaru arrives at Dharmahorse Equine Sanctuary

Keeping her free of pain became more and more difficult and we finally made the decision to euthanize her (surrounded by those who loved her)… it was the final and ultimate act of love. We were honored to have known her!

While Damaru was with us “after the fact” of her abuse, I watched a horrid scene of victimization that I was powerless to prevent one time when I was leaving a facility where we were preparing for a Horse Trials. I was to be the “cross country steward” that weekend and had been out on the course inspecting the jumps. As I was driving out, I saw a group of men on horseback repetitively roping a young donkey. She was terrified.

My truck windows were down and I could hear the men yelling and laughing – they sounded quite drunk. I was alone except for them at the facility. It was late evening and as I watched the donkey tremble and try to duck away from them, it felt like I was watching a gang rape. If I had tried to intervene, I would likely have been in great danger. I couldn’t call the authorities, what these monsters were doing was perfectly legal, acceptable in the “cowboy” circles…

I cried all the way home and all night. How could humans have so little respect for the precious life they were tormenting? How could I be so impotent in my ability to help her? I decided to try to buy her when I went out the next day. She was gone. So were the cowboys who had abused her. But, in the world of “livestock”, what they were doing was not considered abuse. In my world, it was the definition!

The blatant mishandling and demoralization in those two examples is easy to recognize. What I saw a few months ago is a bit more difficult for some people to understand as abusive. I had gone to an event to watch a trainer’s demonstration and went down to the arena early. This trainer was standing outside the arena with a coming three year old filly all saddled, wearing a halter. He stood beside her with her lead shank looped through a pipe on the fence, standing her just above a patch of green grass. The grass was inches below her muzzle and every time she reached down to take a bite; he hit her in the head with the end of the lead rope. Over and over…

I decided that I couldn’t watch any more. I left. Many people might think that he was “training” her – perhaps “showing her who was boss”. I saw disrespect that was causing confusion and a situation that he (as the one who was supposed to be the thinking part of the team) could have resolved by simply holding her over by the abundant dirt and sand that offered no temptation.

Horses learn that we are either kind and aware or unkind and oblivious.

Horses become victims when the humans responsible for their wellbeing are either deliberately cruel, unconsciously neglectful, blind and deaf to their needs or blatantly self serving. As a species, we can do better. And I live my life trying to be a voice for the voiceless. Let’s all do better.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the education of horse handlers and riders. There are so many videos out there with information as “How To” demonstrations… I used to say, “Take 100 horse people, ask them a question and you will get 99 answers because 2 of them might agree”. An exaggeration, I know – BUT, there are multiple methods because all horses are individuals; all people are individuals; horses will always TRY to cooperate with us. The only way to gain experience (the only way to become a horse person) is through “Theory, Direction and Practice”. The best way to learn Theory is through books. Yep. The Masters have documented methods and philosophies in amazing books that deserve study. I put a few important books beside our new banner (I’m loving it!) and Mark took a pic. I return to these (and several other masterpieces) time and time again… I’m old school.
My feelings about the films and videos (and mind you, I am, myself, in 2 valuable, international ones) is that they draw from a different part of our brains – to sit and quietly read a book, dwelling on a potent paragraph or chapter, puts us in a deeper learning space. So much in the standard writings of Masters needs to be “felt” rather than “viewed”.
The key to good relationships with horses is clarity and CONSISTENCY. Whatever style or method you choose, you must be consistent in its application and in explaining it to the horse. My deep hope is that you choose a method based upon compassion and kindness. We can choose ideas from many teachings – ultimately it is the horse himself/herself who decides if we are successful.
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Water is Life

We have been adding to the herd on the track system at Dharmahorse Two. LungTa (the Draft gelding) and 4 mares have become a bonded herd with Joe (28 year old OTTB) needing his own private space and the newest addition, Teaberry, coming out of quarantine. Teaberry went to the central giant round pen four days ago and was integrated into the herd yesterday… he is a gelding, a youngster for DH at age 7! He and Luna hit it off (kids, they’re just kids!). We put Juniper in a side pen so she wouldn’t ramrod the new kiddo at first.



Last night, LungTa took Dream Cat (little Arabian mare) to a far corner of the track. This morning he still had her sequestered there. We brought Molly (the world’s greatest mule) and Bodhi over today and they are in the smaller track system by Joe. All was going well… except, LungTa and Dream Cat had not been near the water tubs!


I couldn’t let them go long without drinking water – no matter what I did, LungTa channeled her back to the far corner. So, we put Teaberry back in the separate pen, Juniper back in the herd and I had to put Dream Cat in the central round pen for tonight where she will have her own water. She drank and drank! Then LungTa came back up the feeding stations / water area and HE drank and drank. Whew!!

What seem like the best of plans can work out differently than expected. Maybe some people would not have noticed that LungTa and Dream Cat were never going down to the waters… maybe an impaction colic (or two) would have been tomorrow’s destiny. But, we juggled things to make everyone as safe as we could. We hope to sleep tonight, we are weary.

Because we had to change Joe’s pen and now he is fenced off from his beloved Yucca (he scratches himself on it), we put a big railroad tie deep in the ground and attached nobbley scratching pads all around it. Joe loves it! And, no worries, it’s supposed to get warm enough tomorrow for me to soak him in emulsified Jojoba oil and warm water (he has chronic dry skin, I have total empathy).


Joe is gaining weight slowly. Teaberry is sound, he has been trotting and cantering around all day. Bodhi loves Molly, Molly is liking Bodhi well enough… Clemmy pretty much loves everyone and she is sound enough (she’s very “over in the knees”) to gallop full tilt across the whole yard! We left lights on around the DH2 Yard so no one loses their bearings tonight. Loving horses is all about these things.


Water is Life. If LungTa and Dream Cat were not going to go to the water tubs, we, the thinking, responsible ones, had to find a solution. There is always a solution. Perhaps I will actually sleep tonight!

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Fires at Midnight

We used to live in Tucumcari, New Mexico. In 1977, my Father broke his back and we discovered that our Newspaper Corporation would have to declare bankruptcy – that was on December 21st. On December 23rd, we were sitting with our Editor at our home south of town. The house had no windows on it’s west side and was entirely glass on the east. As we sat, discussing the fate of our business (with 45 mph winds whipping across the dry, native grasses that surrounded us), my brother and I asked each other several times, “Do you smell smoke?”…

I was looking out the back, toward Tucumcari Mountain when suddenly, the whole world was on fire. The feeling cannot be described. I screamed, we all ran out the front door and the sight was like Hades itself. Flames were leaping over parked vehicles, licking up trees and whirling full speed across the native pasture of our 40 acres right for the huge wooden barn full of shavings and our beloved horses.

8-27-2011 10;42;11 AM

8-27-2011 10;42;08 AM

There was a mare with her foal, two young stallions, more mares and many geldings, a small pony and a half Draft horse. They were trapped and all I could think was, “RUN”. And I did. All I can figure is that I can run at over 45 mph because I beat the flames to the barn. I threw open the garage door at the south end and began opening stall doors frantically. Each horse trotted (some galloped) out of their stall and out onto the 40 acres. The blessing was that I had always just opened stall doors to let them out onto the (now dry) pasture and they simply ran on out from habit.

When they all had gone out, I slammed the end door shut and ran, gasping, to the well house. I opened all the taps and started hosing down the building as my brother and my Mum caught up with me. The horses were confused but not panicked. They gathered in little groups on bare patches of land and the fires rolled around them, the air full of red and black smoke.

We could not see past 20 meters into the smoke and the heat was overwhelming. I pulled my shirt off and wrapped it around my face to breathe through it. Crying, praying, cursing and trying to breathe, I watched embers landing on the roof of the giant barn. What saved the barn, besides the flood of water we were pouring all over it, was the thick coating my Mum had had applied to the (leaking) roof the previous summer. It was, in retrospect, not flammable!

I remember vomiting twice, coughing up blood later, and my eyes swelling almost shut as we suddenly thought about our house! I stayed with the horses. My Mum and brother ran back to the house – it was dark like evening time (at mid-afternoon). I later heard the story of how my Grandmother, Mum and Brother and our Editor used hoses until the home well ran dry, then used buckets to throw water from the swimming pool onto the trees, bushes, under cars and onto the roof of the house. It was surreal.

As I collapsed in the dirt by the barn, too dry to cry anymore, through the smoke, I saw the flashing lights of fire trucks racing across the fields – they just rammed through the wire fences, sirens screaming, and screeched up to the barn to douse it with water then head to our neighbor’s house. More arrived, as the fire burned out on our land, and began soaking the huge manure pile (far enough from the barn) that was now smoldering. Embers were flying everywhere.

I realized that the horses were now loose and most of the fences were down… but they stayed clustered on familiar land and were unnaturally calm. In shock, I suppose, I knew I was.

We later found out that an RV caught fire and kept driving, setting fire to 3 counties of dry grass and brush. The incident made the national news where they said no homes nor humans were threatened – many of us were enraged by that statement!

As things settled and the fully soaked, sopping wet barn seemed safe, I began catching the horses and putting them into their stalls. It was night, the electricity was off, it was getting cold and I was exhausted. The family gathered to assess the situation. We decided that I would sleep in a car driven down and parked beside the barn. Dotted all across the countryside were glowing, smoldering cedar fence posts that looked like thousands of campfires in the distance. And the huge, composted manure pile glowed like a flying saucer. It was terrifying. Over the next few weeks, road equipment kept coming out to grade through that pile and fire trucks came to soak it, over and over. Manure is amazing fuel.

I spent each night in that car for a week and we spent the days repairing fences so we could turn horses out again. Every now and then, at night, I would see a distant Mesquite tree or Chaparral blaze up and burn out over several hours. Late nights were when I could see the extent of the lingering fires… Day time was when the charcoal encrusted vistas showed the damage. My brother and I walked the land with shovels, putting out every smoking discovery, hoping to see less fires the next night.

I have faced other wildfires through the decades, some bigger even, some hotter, some in forests – nothing ever felt so overwhelming as the one in Tucumcari when I realized that all of my horses were standing, trusting, in my wooden barn, bedded in dry wood shavings with that raging fire heading full speed straight for them. Even now, if I smell smoke, my fight or flight response kicks in.

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These Hands

I used to be embarrassed by my arm. After falling through the window and having my hand reattached (severed tendons, nerves, arteries and veins), I have always worn long sleeved shirts. The scars are nothing, really, now – compared to how they looked for those first few years… like an arm sliced up to use in a sandwich.

My hands worked so hard all my life. Decades of struggle; loading and unloading hay, holding onto spooking colts, keeping stallions under control, running printing presses, riding Harley’s, cleaning out needle valves on the carburetor of my Dodge PowerWagon, planting gardens, scrubbing Operating rooms, changing tires, dyeing clothing, kneading bread dough….. the things horsewomen do and healers do… catching my granddaughter at her birth, holding my Mum’s hand as she passed over, holding disabled children on patient old horses…

My hands have been useful. And they have seemed so ugly to me. I had Mark take a photo of the sore my new shoe created on my toe (it should not have happened, there is a nasty seam in one shoe). I saw my hands. I cried. How could they get so battered… so OLD? I’m only 63 years old; they look like a hundred.


Then I thought about all they do and have done. In spite of a near crippling injury and being stepped upon by a horse; being exposed to countless hours in water and being soaked in cleansers… they are so resilient, considering. Years of wearing gloves and not wearing gloves. They have been useful.

I searched for the photo from our wedding, of Mark and me with our rings. I found it. I had turned my hand over because the palm is less abused looking. And I thought about how he, Mark, beloved friend and husband “took” that hand that day. He put a beautiful ring on a funky old finger and never has he seen these hands as ugly.


Tonight I watch them struggle to type, one letter at a time… they serve me well. They succeed even when they ache to the bone. They are precious. They may drop silverware in public and let glasses slip to the floor… let go of the longe line, drop the wand, cramp up and let go of the hay twine, but then, after, they pick things up again.

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Object Permanence and Horses

A friend explained this concept to me a few weeks ago as I described to him how one of our horses in Sanctuary gets confused when a rider gets on him and “disappears” from sight. A light bulb turned on in me. Diamond is not being obstinate, not obtuse, he genuinely does not understand what has happened to the person who mounts him.


While that may seem hard to fathom, after years now of working to heal his lameness, we had not been as connected to him as a riding horse. When soundness returned, we were careful to move gradually with him under saddle, making certain the footing for him was cushioned and that he only walked (for months). With another horse in the arena or with me walking along watching him and coaching a rider,  he seemed confident enough and willing to engage. I remained dedicated to getting and keeping him physically sound, without realizing that he had big gaps in his education and perception.

As students tried to take him out on the rail in the arena, away from me or another horse, he would worry. The rein and leg aids seemed to have little meaning to him. I knew he had been at a camp in the mountains, doing trail rides with children before he came to us. Thinking about this, I began to figure out that Diamond was comfortable as a “follower” and he likely only walked down the trails with his nose at another horse’s bum. He did not conceptualize a person sitting in the saddle giving him signals… he followed the other horses.

So, when we do a lesson on him, our success in getting him away from me and listening to his rider came with having his rider talk her directions to him continuously. If he is hearing her verbal signals, he stays connected enough to feel at ease and go where she wishes. If she is silent, he shuts down as if he has dropped an anchor and his confidence evaporates!

I then began thinking about the trainers who bring a young horse’s head and neck around to the saddle as they mount and stand during those first rides. It does effectively keep the horse from bolting, rearing or bucking, especially if one is starting the youngster without assistance – but now, I realize that the horse really sees where the rider has gone!

Oh yes, horses have great peripheral vision and can certainly see that something is there on their sides, but to know that a person is up there… I’m just not sure it comes by default.

We are working with Diamond. Filling in gaps, substituting the leg and rein aids for verbal aids. As time passes, I see him becoming more confident. I like him a lot and I want him to be able to comprehend what is going on, not just act as an automaton from being flooded and losing his desire to live. That’s not the way we operate here.


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The Right Way

I think about this constantly. I had some interaction with a woman who was chastising me for using a wand to direct my horse around me (loose in a turn out, no round pen, no lines or ropes) as he circled me happily. She is an advocate of clicker training.

So am I. I worked at a rescue that brought in Draft mares and foals from the PMU industry. There was an aggressive mare there whose daughter was still with her as a coming 3 year old! I used the clicker schooling (marking desired behavior) and was able to accomplish a lot with the mare to make her safer and help her understand us.

I trained Saddle Seat at one point back east; I rode colts off the track aiming to make them H/J prospects while in Florida; I had a blind retired Eventer that I rode! I worked with 3 year old colts and fillies who had never seen a human being until they were chased into stock trailers and unloaded into my barn aisle! I rode most of them eventually, but it was a long journey to get to the trust.

I rode under Charles deKunffy and trail rode my own mules… there are hundreds of ways to do things with horses and all of them are correct IF they do no harm.

You know why people get adamant about a particular style of training or handling or feeding a horse? It is because they’ve had success with it. That’s all. And because many roads can lead to the same destination, many people have lots of successes. That’s very cool!


I sit here tonight thinking about how new, green horse peeps must feel confused or overwhelmed sometimes (especially with the endless information online) and wonder which is the “Right Way” with horses.

Imagine how confused and overwhelmed horses must feel by our methods! Truth is, horses are beyond remarkable. They can go from “owner” to “owner” and have to relearn or rethink what the signals and responses are from person to person. And try they do – horses want to please us!

If you are working with your horse and you are both safe and happy and understanding each other. You are doing it the Right Way.

Categories: Horse Training, joy, Saving Horses, vision | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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