Creating the Heart of a Horse Foundation
By April Horowitz
(The Heart of a Horse Story, part 11)
While my work helping the horses came naturally to me, I was a little intimidated by the organizational tasks I knew I had to deal with in order to accomplish my mission. I knew I had to create a charitable foundation if I was going to pull together the resources to make Heart of a Horse effective. With the help of the online service LegalZoom, I set about filing the appropriate documents and then forming a board.
I knew I had to get some celebrities on the board, took a deep breath, and sent an email request to Bobby and Luciana Duvall. After sending it, I spent several anxious days telling myself they were very busy people and filmmaking could be a totally absorbing enterprise, often taking actors to remote locations where they were out of touch. When I finally received an email back saying yes, I could almost hear myself exhale the breath I had taken what seemed like weeks before.
The willingness of the Duvalls to join us was a major step forward for the Heart of a Horse Foundation. Their presence gave our efforts enormous credibility. As soon as they had signed on, the recruitment of new board members became much easier. When it was complete, the board included Steve McEveety, the Braveheart producer, Tab Hunter, General Paul Vallely and his wife, Muffin, music manager Jonathan Daniel, actress Lee Purcell, singer Ed Ames, Fullerton Congressman Ed Royce, philanthropist Craig Snider, and Phyllis Gorby another philanthropist and friend.
With the help of the online company, Legal Zoom, I set up a corporation and put in an application for tax-exempt status with the I.R.S. The official papers creating the foundation came in June 2008, a month after I had filed the papers, but the request for tax-exempt status dragged on and on. As the months passed, repeated efforts failed to get a response from the government. I couldn’t even get an official on the phone to discuss the progress of my application. The I.R.S. voice mail was always full, and my letters weren’t answered. Finally, I turned to one of our board members, Congressman Ed Royce. The congressman was able to get a positive response within days, and our tax-exemption was made official.
But now there were other problems. Four months after I had received the original foundation papers from the California Secretary of State, the nation’s economy took a sharp downturn. This had an immediate devastating effect on horse communities everywhere. The cost of boarding a horse can be as much as five hundred dollars a month and more, and when people started losing their jobs one of the first decisions they made was to dump their horses. They did this by abandoning them in the stables where they were boarded, or if they were stabled at home by leaving them on roadsides, or in open fields, where they had to fend for themselves. I will never understand how people can do this, but it is a fact that they do.
The ongoing tragedy received very little attention in the nation’s media. Part of the reason for this was a general misunderstanding about horses, whom people often regard as “wild” animals that can survive alone. In reality, horses were domesticated thousands of years ago, and outside of Asia, there are no longer any wild horses in existence. Even the mustangs that are free roaming in the American West are descended from domesticated animals brought over by the Spanish. In the wild, their herds are decimated by diseases and predators, and by humans hunting them for slaughter. Where there were once thought to be two million mustangs, the herds have been reduced to about 35,000.
Releasing horses that have been bred and raised by human hands into the wild means sentencing them to almost certain and agonizing death. I learned this first-hand when I visited two of my board members retired General Paul Vallely and his wife Muffin in their home in Big Fork, Montana. The local ranchers told me that people were abandoning their horses in the adjacent mountains, and that those that didn’t starve were attacked and eaten by cougars and bears. If they escaped these fates, they were vulnerable to diseases that without proper medical attention were often fatal. In 2010, the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that there were over 100,000 abandoned horses throughout the United States.
The devastating impact of the economic recession was brought home to me when I received a phone call from the owner of a boarding ranch. Her name was Carol and she was a lady I would guess was in her seventies. Carol was not a wealthy woman and her modest income depended on the rent and boarding fees she received from horse owners who had no stables of their own. There was a note of desperation in her voice on the phone as she told me that she had twenty horses in her stables that people had simply walked away from, or if they hadn’t, were no longer paying their room and board. Carol didn’t know how she was going to feed them, and wanted to know if Heart of a Horse could help.
The horses in Carol’s stable told the story of economic devastation that the downturn had caused. Four horses, including a pony named Jojo were owned by a contractor who had lost his job and had been unemployed so long he was on the verge of losing his home. He had young children to support and though he was concerned for his horses he felt there was nothing he could do to help them. Occasionally he called Carol to apologize for being unable to pay for their room and board. His home phone had been cut off and the electricity was frequently off as well while he struggled to keep his family above water. But there was no way he could pay for the care upkeep of his horses.
The owner of another horse named Mo had been seriously ill for two years. Her husband worked several jobs trying to pay her medical bills and raise their three children. But the work was not full time and the pay was less than her husband needed to support his family and the horses. One of the things that was keeping the woman alive, however, was her horse Mo. Even though she could no longer ride him, or even see him, she would call Carol regularly to ask how he was. It was the only time she talked to anyone outside the family other than her doctors.
After listening to these and many other stories she told me about the horses that had been left with her, I told Carol I would bring her some hay and medicines. I also told her I would help her find them homes. For a moment, she was speechless. Then she said to me: “I’m kind of like these horses that were dumped. I’m used to people taking advantage of me; I’m not used to people reaching out to help me. Now you’ve given me hope and strength to carry on until we can find a place for them.”
As I looked for help to support the work I was doing with people like Carol, I quickly discovered how difficult it was. Horses seemed to have been forgotten not only by the general public, but by the world of charitable giving as well. While there seemed to be quite a bit of money available to help cats and dogs, there was very little available for horses in need. In part, I realized, this was because most people lived in urban areas and were unfamiliar with them as members of a household. But it was also because as prey animals, horses were less trusting of strangers, and it took time and effort to know them and win their confidence.
As I looked around for help, I found some in the networks I had been building. In my effort to create a community of support for horses, I had become acquainted with a hunter-jumper trainer, a tall, classy woman named Nancy Prosser. Nancy had a wealth of knowledge and I was eager to learn as much as I could from her. I saw how disciplined she was in maintaining protocol around the horses and insisting that others do as well. But despite her stern demeanor in the arena, I also discovered how much she cared about the animals themselves. When I showed her the photos I had taken of abused horses, tears began to well in her eyes and I could see how deeply she was affected.
Nancy’s disciplined approach in the arena came from her awareness of how danger can come suddenly and unexpectedly around horses even when proper procedures are followed. One day she was out working a client’s horse when he hit a divot, causing horse and rider to flip over, knocking Nancy out. When she came to, she couldn’t move. For a moment she thought she might be paralyzed, and worried about what would happen to her young daughter Olivia and her husband if she lost her livelihood and was confined to a wheelchair. They took her to the hospital, where she was told that she had permanently injured three vertebrae in her neck. She has suffered from chronic pain ever since.
Nancy’s daughter Olivia had long brown hair and a face like an angel. When I saw her I immediately wanted to photograph her and make her the poster child for Heart of a Horse. We set up a photo shoot with a very large white warmblood from Nancy’s stable named Ricardo. Olivia barely reached up to Ricardo’s chest. I did a shot in which Ricardo’s head was out of the frame so that all you could see was this beautiful little girl holding the horse’s leg and coming up to his chest. The poster we made said in big letters: “Help My Friends.” (The phone number in the photo as pictured above is incorrect now. Our new number is 805-377-3302)
When I told Nancy I needed to raise funds to help the horses, she said she would put her mind to it and get back to me. A couple of days later, she called to say she wanted me to come up to her barn to meet the ladies from an organization called “The Caring Crew.” This was a group created by two women, Julie and her friend Pam, who organized fund-raisers to help community projects like mine. Julie and her daughter were two of Nancy’s clients. When we met I told them my vision for helping horses and they said would hold a garage sale. While I wasn’t sure that a garage sale could raise much money, I still regarded them as horse angels for offering to help.
The event turned out to be no ordinary garage sale. It was held in Hidden Hills, an upscale horse community, with choice items donated by people who could afford them including a famous personage or two like the singer Sting who lived in the area. When I pulled up to the sale, the entire block was full of people. It looked more like a fair than the garage sales I was accustomed to. There were kids everywhere who had volunteered to sell items and give out information in the neighborhood telling people to come out and give to our horses. Julie and Pam had made a display with a hay meter. The hay would get higher as people donated. I was so touched when I saw it all that I almost started to cry. There were so many people chipping in to help horses.
When the day came to an end, Julie and Pam had raised nearly $6,000 in all, which was going to provide a lot of hay and medicine. Looking at all the people who had come out and worked so hard for the horses that were close to my heart but whom t they didn’t know at all was a little overwhelming. I thought how the actual owners of the horses we were helping hadn’t even cared if they were fed. When I saw all these strangers talking passionately about the animals and giving what they could, I thought, this is what I need to do. I need to build a large community of caring crews, composed of people who had hearts for horses.
Thank you, Build-A-Bear, for your recent grant award. We cannot fully express how appreciative our foundation is for this grant. Many horses will benefit from your organization’s generous donation. Together, we can end the suffering of horses everywhere.