Red Bucket's head trainer Kimberly Fohrman puts Shields through a course of
trail obstacles. It's all part of the rescue's unique emphasis on training horses to maximize their chances of finding a forever home. "We try to make them as
well-rounded as possible," explains RBER president Susan Peirce.
The handsome bay stabled at the Orange County
Fairgrounds Equestrian Center looks like your average
well-cared for and much-loved sporthorse. He's in healthy
weight, his coat gleams and he whinnies when his owner
appears. But the story of Striker, aka "Strike Gold," is anything
but that of your average privately-owned horse. The tip off is the red sign
on his stall door that identifies him as a Red Bucket Equine Rescue horse.
Striker is one of 125 horses the non-profit has saved from desperate circumstances since it started in January of 2009. "Rescue is only the beginning," is RBER's motto. As one of 50 horses currently living with adoptive owners, Striker exemplifies the effectiveness of the non-profit's three-part mission:
1. To save or rescue the horse that is starving, abandoned or slaughter-bound.
2. To rehabilitate, restore trust and re-train the horse and prepare him for a
3. Finding the horse a forever, loving home.
Striker is a 16hh Irish Thoroughbred. His current physical appearance bears little resemblance to that of the horse that was part of a massive undertaking back in March of 2009.
"There were about 50 horses who were victims of a breeding scandal and all were within 12 hours of the kill truck coming when we found them," recalls Susan Peirce, a co-founder and the president of RBER. The horses were grossly emaciated and crammed into tiny, broken-down wire pens. "They didn't have tail hair because that was the last available food source, their hip bones were protruding and what water they had was squalid," Susan remembers. "It was haunting."
After getting a call about the horses Susan led volunteers in the pitch dark of a late Friday night to help. Ten of the desperate steeds were placed with temporary homes and the rest were transported to Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, where RBER started and was based until moving to its own ranch in Chino Hills this past July. (California Riding Magazine, August 2012.)
All of the horses were in terrible shape but each bore the burden of their past differently. "In my experience, they all have their baggage," Susan observes. "Some get over it easily, but Striker wasn't one of them." He kicked when they attempted to load him in the trailer and was difficult to handle from the get-go when he arrived at Huntington Beach. Some horses are submissive after being starved and beaten down, but not him. "It was like he was daring us to try to hurt him," Susan remembers.
Susan Peirce, co-founder and President of
Red Bucket Equine Rescue, with Caspian.
Led by Red Bucket's one paid employee, trainer Kimberly Fohrman, the rescue team applied phase two of its mission to Striker: rehabilitate, restore trust and train or re-train. "That is the part of our mission that really differentiates us from other rescues," Susan emphasizes. "Our model works because we put so much into the rehab and training of these horses." That's why RBER has a remarkably low return rate, which is a big problem for all animal rescues, especially those with horses.
"Each horse's rehab is thoughtfully and deliberately managed," Susan continues. Usually it starts with establishing trust. "After you have overcome the effects of malnutrition, the next issue is trust. We can't really do any meaningful work until the horse feels safe." These rehab steps alone can take up to a few years, although some horses shed their emotional and behavioral baggage much more quickly under Red Bucket's customized approach.
Rexanne Bowman-Anderson was a member of RBER's training support team when she first met Striker. Matchmaking savvy is critical to the mission and Susan had a sense Striker and Rexanne would be a good partnership. Rexanne has an animal science degree from Cal Poly Pomona and a lifetime of horse ownership, so she was a good fit for RBER's tougher cases. Together they embarked on a very individualized
"We do not believe in one size fits all training," explains Kimberly, a graduate of Lamar Community College's Horse Training and Management Program. "Each horse is unique and has its own set of strengths and temporary challenges. Each Red Bucket horse receives a training plan and a goal that is specific to the needs of that horse.
We monitor the horse's progress daily and step back and review accomplishments and current status during rounds every Monday morning. When a horse successfully accomplishes a goal, we set a new milestone. We take the entire horse into account; their temperament, level of past abuse, level of conditioning, etc.
"We never know how long it will take," Kimberly continues. "It will take however long
it takes and, if we listen to the horse, he will
tell us. All of our work is deliberate and consciously designed to prepare the horse for
their forever home."
As a member of Striker's training team, Rexanne was eventually invited to assume the ultimate honor for an RBER volunteer: being one horse's "guardian." RBER welcomes volunteers of all experience levels and educating them is part of its mission. They are very careful, however, about who interacts directly with the horses and only a small percent of volunteers meet the criteria required of a guardian.
"The role of the guardian is to create that transitional relationship in which the horse learns to bond with people," Susan explains.
Rexanne and the RBER staff believe Striker had never been ridden before. All of the horses he arrived with were bred for the racetrack and some had the minimal under saddle training described as being "track broke."
Family Affair: Red Bucket Equine Rescue has become a family affair. In addition to passing the two year mark between adoption and ownership of Striker, Rexanne continues to serve RBER, as a field volunteer and in other ways. Her husband Thomas is Red Bucket's webmaster and their two-month-old daughter Genevieve is very busy being adorable in her tiny red cowgirl boots and matching outfit! Photo by Kim F. Miller
Various career paths are considered for each horse. To create maximum adoption options, the RBER training team strives to give each a foundation that can be tailored to several disciplines. "We have team members trained in dressage, hunter/jumper, western, gymkhana, trail, etc.," Susan explains. "We want to give them a diverse skill level in their training to whatever level is appropriate for the horse."
Rexanne enjoyed starting from scratch. "Because Striker didn't have any training, it was really fun to teach him to lunge, then to lunge
with the saddle, then side reins and, eventually,
to sit on him. It was also scary at times, but as
we established his trust, it was really an
Striker came to RBER in March and was determined to be 4. By that fall, Rexanne and the RBER team felt he was ready to be ridden. "We didn't do anything huge," she recalls. "We just walked around the barn at first. Gradually we taught him what to do when I put my leg on him, etc. It was a long process, but once I started riding him regularly it became a whole new thing."
For Striker, too. He was giving the all-important whinny when Rexanne approached, even showing signs of jealousy when she was with another horse. When her own horse reached retirement age, she spent a few months test riding potential replacements. "One day Striker saw me ride up to the ring on another horse, and I could hear him kicking his stall," she laughs.
When her husband Thomas wondered why she was looking at other horses, Rexanne agreed Striker was her equine guy. She became his adopter and, as of late October, reached the two-year probation period required to become his owner. Once she's fully recovered from the birth of their daughter two months ago, Rexanne plans to steer Striker toward an eventing career.
High Cost of Commitment
Committing to each horse's rehabilitation and training has a high price tag. "I think it's ridiculous for anyone to be involved in rescues and not expect that these horses are going to have some kind of baggage that takes time to resolve," Susan says. "We're not just trying to get rid of the horses we've rescued. In addition to rehabbing and training them, we look for that certain chemistry between a horse and an adoptive owner so that it will be a good match. Our ultimate goal is to make sure every single horse has a forever home."
The costs incurred developing adoptable horses are extremely high. RBER's move to its own ranch in Chino Hills alleviates the common worry of losing their stabling, but adds a hefty mortgage payment to the non-profit's already considerable feed, care and training expenses.
With Thanksgiving coming, Susan is particularly grateful to the many generous donors who have helped Red Bucket transform the lives of 125 horses so far. She and her team, which includes 400-plus volunteers, look forward to saving many more and thank in advance any and all donations toward that goal.
To donate, help in other ways or find out more information, visit www.redbucketrescue.org or call Susan Peirce at 310-466-6223.