September 2016 - The Gallop: Stepping Up

Valley Center family takes in a neglected mare and winds up helping much more than the horse.

Unlike Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, Rhiannon Huppert did give a damn about Scarlett. That’s the Paint mare she saw appear last December in a pasture near her home in an unincorporated part of San Diego County’s Valley Center.

Scarlett in late July. Photo: Monique Mark Photography

Scarlett shortly after she arrived at the Huppert family’s ResSolution Stables.

Even on her first drive-by, Rhiannon could see that Scarlett was skin and bones. The mare was on property owned a man known to sell horses at the Ontario auction every Tuesday. Scarlett appeared on a Monday and Rhiannon was sure she’d be going to the auction the next day. Yet, day after day, there she was. Rhiannon learned later that it was the Scarlett’s sorry state that saved her from the auction fate: she was too skinny.

The pasture is on Rhiannon’s route to the bus stop to pick up her and her husband Phillip’s 6-year-old son. The following week, she saw a teenage girl riding the horse. “I thought, ‘No. This cannot be happening!’” because of the mare’s clearly starving condition. She appeared to be surviving on produce discarded by grocery stores that the property owner collected and fed to his livestock.

“I didn’t know what to do,” recounts Rhiannon, who is building a small-scale training business and summer camp program under her ResSolution Stables banner. “I had to think hard about it. My husband told me, ‘Don’t you dare…’”

“Finally, one day after driving by this skin and bones horse so many times, I couldn’t take it any more. I stopped to ask the man who owned the horse.” He directed her to a tiny, run-down trailer nearby, where Rhiannon found a woman who explained that the horse belonged to her daughter. “I asked if there was anything I could do for the horse: like feed and medical care, and I told her I didn’t want anything in return. The woman was crying, and said, yes, of course, I could help.”

A Bigger Proposition

Poverty is plentiful in this part of San Diego County and Rhiannon quickly recognized the signs of that in the horse owner’s family. What started from desire to help a horse became a bigger proposition.

About a week after meeting the family, Rhiannon took the horse onto the Hupperts’ own property and began arranging for proper feed and veterinary, farrier and chiropractic care. She invited the horse’s young owner to trade feeding, stall cleaning and other chores for the mare’s care, with her husband’s blessing. They later extended the offer to the girl’s brother and the children’s working visits came to include meals with the Hupperts and often food to take home to their family.

The Hupperts aren’t rich. They have four horses of their own and two kids, 6 year old son Emmett and 2 year old daughter, Ryder; but Rhiannon was inspired by a similar kindness shown to her in her youth. “Someone did this for me when I was younger. Some people saw that I loved my horses but couldn’t afford them and offered that I could work off my board. I was a troubled teen and even though I had my fall-outs with those people over the years, they ended up being a big part of my life. My husband sees what we are doing as a ‘pay-it-forward’ type of deal. I’m not sure about that…” The bottom line, she continues, was that “even if we struggle, at least this horse is going to be fed.”

Scarlett was in bad shape: a 1.5 on the 9-point Henneke Body Conditioning Scoring System, Rhiannon estimates. Following UC Davis recommendations for “re-feeding” emaciated horses, Rhiannon started Scarlett on frequent small meals then moved to free-feed hay and several meals of alfalfa pellets. Since being taken in to the ResSolution Stables late last year, the mare has put on approximately 300 pounds, and probably has another 100 to 200 to go to reach a healthy score of five on the body conditioning scale.

Moodwise, Scarlett has gone from “being really cranky, like she wanted to kill anyone who touched her, to now she just doesn’t want to be bothered when she’s eating. Her personality has really come out.” Now that she’s gained good weight, exercise is an important part of her recovery and little Emmett is a perfect partner for that. He doesn’t weigh much and their treks around the property are just the right exertion for this phase of rehab.

Of course, food and appropriate exercise are only two of several steps in nursing a severely neglected horse back to health.

In her late teens, Scarlett needed dental work and had dropped suspensories on her hind legs. Rhiannon wanted to address both immediately, while also lining up chiropractic treatment that revealed the mare also had torn hamstring muscles in her hind legs. The suspensory and hamstring issues led Rhiannon and her care-giving team to the theory that the mare had been ridden up and down hills to the point of trauma at some point in her life. Putting shoes on her rear hooves should help with the suspensory issues and the dental work enabled her to chew and digest her food properly.

Scarlett getting her hooves tended to in May of this year.

Phillip, Rhiannon, Emmett & Ryder Huppert. Photo: Monique Mark Photography

Rhiannon estimated a $2,000 cost to address the immediate health needs and launched a fundraiser campaign in which she straightforwardly described the situation and sought donations of money and supplies.

And not just for Scarlett. As Rhiannon spent more time with the children at her stable and often in her home for meals, she learned of their extreme poverty. They had no toilet in their trailer, were relying on canned goods from food banks for meals and “sneaking into camp grounds every couple of weeks to take showers.” Rhiannon’s heart broke anew when the girl shared that kids at school made fun of her because she smelled bad.

In her fundraiser request, “I just wanted to explain the situation the best I could, be open and honest and see if there was anybody out there that wanted to help.”
There were – from far and near. Thera Pony Rescue in Ramona and Hi Caliber Horse Rescue in Valley Center led the way with help and advice. Drs. Anderson and Heaton from West Coast Equine Medicine were quick to come out and examine Scarlett and get to work on her teeth.

Individuals from around the world responded with monetary donations and, from those nearby, donations of food, clothing and other things for the kids. One of many complete strangers to chip in generously was Texas resident and NRHA and AQHA judge Kristin K. Lilley. “She saw the fundraiser and was a huge donator in sending clothes and funds so the kids could go shopping.”

Rhiannon included her phone number and address in the fundraising site. “I’d be in town on errands or out to dinner with the family and get calls from people saying they were at our home with a bags of clothes for the kids and other donations.” In the spring, one woman came by with goodie-filled Easter baskets for the kids. Rhiannon took the donor to the family’s trailer where the baskets were given to the parents to put out for their kids, who had no idea where they’d come from.

“Many people told us that, whether this lasted a day or 10 years, they wanted to help in any way they could,” Rhiannon shares. “They believed in us and what we were doing and reassured us we were making a difference.”

(The fundraising site was taken down after immediate needs were met.)

Earlier this year, the kids moved into the Hupperts’ home. The boy moved into Emmett’s room and the girl into Ryder’s. Emmett already had a bunk bed in his room, but their daughter was still in a crib. “Someone who saw the fundraiser showed up with a bunk bed, and came in to put it all together for us. That was a godsend!”

The Huppert children accepted the situation well. “It’s hard explaining to a 6-year-old why these kids didn’t have any food,” Rhiannon says. “We told them they were going through a rough time and needed some help.”
“I never would have thought that all this would transpire from asking to help a horse,” Rhiannon admits.

The kids moved out of the Hupperts’ home at the end of June, some months after the family’s situation came to the attention of Child Protective Services. The department wanted the kids to stay with the Hupperts, Rhiannon says, but the parents asked for them back. Recently, the family took off, presumably in fear that the children might be removed from the parents’ custody.

Scarlett stayed behind. Rhiannon plans to continue caring for her and hopes that some day she can be reunited with her owner. Plan B is that she may someday be adoptable as a companion animal, providing the ownership issue can be sorted out.

“I’m really proud of her,” says Thera Pony’s Lana Russell of Rhiannon. The women have known each other through earlier rescue efforts and Facebook communication. It’s not the first time Lana has witnessed an individual taking action on their own to help a horse. “Rhiannon has fostered horses before and worked with rescues, and she’s a trainer, so she knew it could be a long haul.” Lacking that experience, she continues,

“Sometimes people’s hearts get ahead of them and they end up taking on more than they can handle.”

Thera Pony first offered to cover the cost of Scarlett’s hoof trim, by their mutual farrier Louis Aguilar, who has a lot of experience with neglected horses. Hi-Caliber Horse Rescue offered to take the mare on, but the girl was not willing to relinquish ownership. Both organizations continue to stand by to help Scarlett.

On Reflection

Would the Hupperts do anything differently? “No,” Rhiannon says without pause. “We stepped in to help the horse, offered the care that she needed and we wanted to help the kids, too, and we did that. Wherever they are, we have an open door for them.”

“I don’t think we helped the family as a whole unit,” she continues. “But we made a huge difference in the lives of those kids. They learned that there’s a way to earn money and buy the things you want. In our family, we have a motto that nobody lives here for free. We all chip in, even our 2-year-old. Her job is to water the pigs, which means she plays in the mud a lot.

“Us not having a lot of money ourselves, the whole thing was a leap of faith,” Rhiannon reflects. “The whole thing my husband and I take away from this is that we did the best we could. We wanted to help the horse and the kids and we did a good job.”

Scarlett has a home at ResSolution Ranch for the foreseeable future. “Right now she still belongs to the family and I am not going to make any decisions regarding her,” says Rhiannon.

The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 949-644-2165.