California Riding Magazine • August, 2012

The Gallop:
Red Bucket Equine Rescue
Horses' sad stories end at thriving enterprise with a new, permanent home.

by Kim F. Miller

Susan Peirce doesn't buy the conventional wisdom that horses are colorblind. If they were, they wouldn't respond so enthusiastically to the approach of their very own red bucket.

These standard stable items have both symbolic and practical purposes at Red Bucket Equine Rescue, which Susan co-founded in Huntington Beach in January of 2009. Susan's husband David and Mary Behrens, owner of the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, are co-founders.

Susan Peirce and Finbar

Since taking on responsibility for nine desperately-in-need horses, the non-profit has saved 108 horses and found homes for 48, all of whom went to new owners with their red bucket. Inscribed with each rescuee's carefully-considered name, the bucket represents the horse's individuality and new status as a valued, cared-for living being.
They also carry food! That's a big deal for most arrivals, who typically need to and do gain 300 to 400 pounds in the first few months of their
new lives.

Horse rescues are as plentiful as they are invaluable, especially in these tough economic times. Red Bucket Equine Rescue stands out among them for several reasons, the first being the big news that it now has a home of its own. In early June, many of RBER's 400 volunteers hauled horses and equipment from the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center to their new and permanent home in Chino Hills. Getting displaced from a leased property is one of most rescue endeavor's biggest worries and now that's not an issue for Red Bucket. "I can't tell you how empowering it is to have a truck, a trailer and a ranch," Susan reports.

Of course, there's an $8,000-plus monthly mortgage that needs to be paid off within five years. "My goal is to pay it off in two years and I never miss my goals," asserts Susan. An organizational development consultant in her full-time regular-world job, Susan set up the rescue to run like a business. Her vision is to operate the most recognizable and reputable rescue in the country and to popularize rescues as a source of good horses, just as canine rescues are considered go-tos for great dogs.

She acknowledges that the business model is expensive. All horses taken on are assured a life-long home if need be, but the goal is to rehab and retrain them for adoption. That process can take from a few months to a few years. "I will not be put in a position to adopt out a horse to the wrong home," Susan says.

Finbar when he first came to Red Bucket Equine Rescue

Finbar today

The upside of the model is a very low rate of return on adopted horses.
This is a credit to patient and extensive training and rehabbing, thorough screening of prospective adopters and field support volunteers on call to help adopters work through any issues that arise with the horse in its new environment.

Once each rescuee's basic health needs are met and its behavioral and mental state assessed, short and long-term goals are established. Susan estimates that five percent of the horses will be "sanctuary" horses who, for health, behavioral or age reasons, will likely never be suitable for adoption. On the other end of the spectrum is Susan's own horse, Finbar, a 16.2 hand Irish Thoroughbred who arrived weighing an emaciated 828 pounds. A challenging three years and 400 pounds later, Susan is cautiously optimistic that Finbar may become a hunter/jumper poster boy for what's possible with rescue horses.

Susan brings a lifetime with horses to the task, and Red Bucket's head trainer Kimberly Fohrman is a graduate of Lamar Community College's Horse Training and Management program. Together, and with help from volunteers with the training and experience required to handle the horses, they establish goals for each Red Bucket resident. Brinker, for example, has a buckled knee (possibly a slab fracture) that makes it unlikely he'll ever be able to bear a rider's weight. Yet "the Red Bucket way" dictates that he have an interesting life. Kimberly has taught him 50 tricks to keep his mind stimulated and he will start work on long lines soon.

The assignment of a guardian is a key step in every horse's progress. "Most of our horses have never had a positive relationship with a person," Susan explains. "Their guardian teaches them how to bond with people, which makes their eventual transition to a new home much easier." Of the program's 170-plus active duty volunteers, only a small percent are cleared to actually work with the horses and the guardian designation is a "great honor."

Cash with his guardian, Cathy Hessman.

Cathy Hessman had minimal horse experience when she sought to revisit her childhood dream of a life with horses. She found Red Bucket and began learning about horse care in the Curry Comb Club, one of several outlets for the educational aspect of RBER's mission. A few years later, she was invited to become guardian for Cash, a starving steed abandoned in a riverbed, then appropriated by a homeless person who relinquished him for $100 cash, hence the name. Cathy now spends most of her days at Red Bucket. She grooms and handwalks Cash and supervises him in turn-out, then helps with other chores. The prospect of Cash being adopted is a deeply emotional one, she acknowledges. "But it means we will have done our job."

Adopter Ellen Neal confirms that RBER is indeed doing its job. Having taken on rescue dogs over the years, she sought a parallel route when she decided to return to the horse world. She liked RBER's policy of taking any horse in need, rather than the most adoptable or those of a certain breed. She lives close to RBER's original home in Huntington Beach and was able to get to know her future horse, Samson, over the course of a year, starting with handling and working up to riding. He fit her preference for a horse trained in both western and english and one "that wasn't going to be too much horse for me." When RBER moved, Ellen sent Samson, and a second adoptee, Shavers, to Chino Hills. "I just feel like they are in such great hands," explains Ellen, who now drives half an hour to see her horses four days a week. "It gives me great peace of mind."

Business & Magic

Media, marketing and business savvy are critical to RBER's all-important bottom line and helped secure significant financial support early on. The Cecil B. DeMille Foundation is one of Red Bucket's earliest and most generous supporters. DeMille's daughter, Cecilia Presley and her late husband, Randall, gave both money and great advice.

"They strongly recommended that we raise money to make a down payment on a property of our own," Susan relays. In her investigation of 58 potential stables, boarding income was a top priority. Formerly known as Coyote Creek Ranch, the 4.3-acre facility is also home to Trendsetter Performance Horses. Each entity has its own arena and areas of the property, but both share a horsemanship approach and degree of compassion that makes them suitable stablemates.

The boarding income covers the ranch maintenance and hay costs. That's a huge help but a far cry from the rescue's considerable expenses, starting with the mortgage. Susan is grateful for the ongoing generosity of donors and counts fundraising as one of her most important missions. Fortunately, "the Red Bucket magic" is contagious. Much of the veterinary and farrier care is donated, volunteers cherish their shifts and several people are donors, volunteers and adopters. Susan recalls that, even before RBER had its non-profit status, Huntington Beach boarders were dropping off "extra" hay, shavings and equipment.

A lifelong hunter/jumper rider with an old-school horsemanship approach, Susan runs a tight ship in the barn and on the books. "I love it when a prospective donor wants to see our books," she says. "They like the way we account for and don't waste one cent of our horses' money." Horse care accounts for 98.3% of all donations, she says.
The stable has a combination of box stalls and spacious paddocks, some of them up to 90' in length. Situated next to several private and public boarding facilities on English Road in Chino Hills and a short walk from the Chino Hills Equestrian Center show facility, Red Bucket Equine is a quiet, peaceful and spacious place.

Happily Ever-Afters

Horses find their way to Red Bucket by way of abandonment, animal services departments and individuals who come upon a desperate horse. Many are starving and several have seen much worse.

Susan holds up a photo of Sawyer's wound
next to how she looks now all healed up.

The Quarter Horse Paint mare Sawyer was found lying in a pool of her own blood with most of her body covered in gaping, oozing wounds. Susan believes she was used in a sick sport called "dog baiting" and the initial thought was dignified euthanasia when the little mare arrived. But Sawyer had other ideas. Several months on antibiotics and creative use of gauze soaked in honey bandages helped pull her through. Today, she is affectionate and insistent on attention from visitors to the clean paddock she shares with the pony Hot Wheels. Susan thinks she may be rideable and has the green light from Red Bucket's main vet, Jenn Winnick, DVM, CVA, but they are waiting until Sawyer is better about her feet being handled. Use as a roping target was probably also in the mare's past, and she remains sensitive about her hooves being handled.

Sad stories like Sawyer's end at Red Bucket Equine Rescue. Cross the threshold and the happily-ever-afters begin.

For more information on Red Bucket Rescue, visit or call Susan Peirce at 310-466-6223.

Get Involved:
Aug. 4: Fireside Chat
Aug. 10: New Volunteer Orientation
Aug. 18: Curry Comb Club meeting
Sept. 9: Ranch Open House