Saving the Lockwood Horses
By April Horowitz
(The Heart of a Horse Story, part 15)
One day Kevin called to tell me he was treating thirty-seven starved horses at the Humane Society facilities in Ojai, nine of whom were pregnant. The sheriff’s department and animal control had removed the horses from a property in the Lockwood Valley, which is located along the Grapevine that connects the San Joaquin Valley with the Los Angeles Basin. Although Kevin didn’t know at the time the full scope of the tragedy he was entering, it would prove to be one of the largest cases of horse abuse in the history of California.
At seven a.m. on the morning of October 8, 2008, more than 20 law enforcement personnel accompanied by four veterinarians descended on the Cochema Ranch in the Lockwood Valley after a month-long investigation of suspected animal cruelty. The authorities arrested ranch owner Joan Bor, her son Ernie and his wife Cecela. The investigation was triggered by neighbors’ complaints that more than one hundred horses at the ranch were malnourished and in need of medical treatment. One of the horses was in such bad shape that it had to be euthanized on the scene. Others were to follow.
Officer Tracy Vail was on the investigating team and told me, “When I arrived on the property I saw horses that hadn’t been fed. I also saw the head of a horse, skeleton of course, that still had its halter on.” From beginning to end it was a case that had elements that were both bizarre and macabre. Ernie Bor had gone to auctions to buy the horses for the ranch. He was a truck driver who had once been a horse trainer. He would buy the horses and the family would then breed them with the idea of selling them for a profit. But the Bor family didn’t have the resources to feed a hundred horses and apparently didn’t much care. The three eventually pled guilty to the abuse charges and were sentenced to six months in jail and three years probation. But were not barred from owning horses again. The entire case made me realize how cruel people can be when it comes to abusing animals and how little the law protected horses when the abuse came to light.
Kevin told me that he had been called in by the Ventura Humane Society, and had worked all that day to stabilize the 37 horses they were housing. David Murdock, the billionaire who owned Dole Pineapple and had a ranch in Ventura had loaned the Humane Society a 20-stall portable barn that was used to shield them from the 30-degree temperatures at night. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Kevin said. “It’s like a sea of walking corpses. I’ve seen thin horses and abused horses before, but when you see so many, and they’re collapsing around you it’s something else.” Then he said, “I’m going tomorrow with Chris the Farrier, to take care of their hooves, which are so overgrown that some have become banana feet, and the poor souls can hardly walk. Would you like to come out with me? Maybe we can figure out a way to raise money for the hay and medicines that we’re going to need for their rehabilitation.”
I said I would, and then asked if he would mind if I brought Peter and Ian, my cameraman and soundman who did the videos for Heart of a Horse. “I’d like to document what’s going on,” I explained. “Maybe that will encourage people to adopt the horses. Maybe we can educate people and prevent tragedies like this from happening.” Kevin said it would be fine if I did. I called Peter and Ian and arranged to meet them in Ojai the following day.
The next day, Kevin and I met up at the post office in Somis and drove in his vet truck up to Ojai. When we got there, it was even worse than I had anticipated. Every horse had ribs sticking out. There were pregnant horses, horses with hooves so overgrown they looked like flippers, and they were all filthy, and tired and stressed out. They had been marked with yellow numbers, like concentration camp victims. It was so sad. As Kevin had said, they looked like the walking dead. I couldn’t believe the cruelty that had caused this. While I was having these thoughts, Ian, our soundman started to cry. “I’m in a state of shock,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” I felt like crying myself.
In the lot behind the Humane Society offices, men were putting up pipe corrals, and a dozen volunteers were milling around looking stressed and overwhelmed. These people were used to taking care of cats and dogs, and one horse in such a such a distraught condition would have been disturbing to them. But there was a sea of them. Some of the horses were just standing or moving in slow motion they were so thin and weak, they were close to dying. One woman volunteer had come with her teenage daughter who had suffered some type of brain damage. All she wanted was to help the horses, but now they didn’t know what to do. One of the volunteers I recognized was Patty Perry, who owned an exotic animal ranch. She had lots of animal experience particularly in sedating, and had brought the dart gun she used for the tigers she kept. Some of the horses were bolting and rearing up out of fear and had to be sedated from a distance. In addition to the sadness of it all, the situation was dangerous.
Many of the people I saw as I entered the area, seemed to be in varying states of shock, just wandering around, taking in the awful sight. Kevin realized that something had to be done and began taking charge. Soon he was controlling the situation, guiding and directing everybody in various tasks that needed to be done. He and Chris set about sedating individual horses with injections and then attending to their overgrown hooves, which needed to be clipped. (You can see video footage of their efforts in the video section of this Facebook page just under the Cover photo.) When this was done, the horse would stumble painfully to its feet. Once up, the sight of even these skeletal bodies walking again however wobbly was bracing. It filled me with optimism and made me feel that they were on the road back.
Heart of a Horse was able to supply hay, and medicine to help the situation. We made a video of the rehabilitation efforts, and the Humane Society put the video on their website, which helped them to raise money for feed and care, and also to find adoption homes for the horses. In addition to opening a window on the cruelty of some owners, and the need for public awareness, the Lockwood case made me aware of how much this job of saving horses actually involved and the fact that I needed staff and resources if I was going to make a significant contribution.
On the advice of one of my board members, Craig Snider, I hired a consulting firm called Vizion Group, which specialized in non-profits. They helped me put out a newsletter and a brochure about our mission. I designed a logo for the foundation with a horse jumping through a heart, which we put on all our literature, and which is both the Cover photo and profile picture on our Facebook page. People immediately loved the logo and I put it on T-shirts and hoodies, and began creating a line of “rescue clothing.” We sold the shirts in the local tack stores to raise money for feed and medical supplies, and I began looking around for charitable organizations to help out with our costs. (In a week or so, we are going to put up a new store on our Facebook page, which will carry an even bigger line of rescue clothing with the logo. All the profits will go to horse rescue.)
The supermarket chain Whole Foods had a program to help charities called “Change for Change” under which their local stores put collection cans on the checkout counters so people could contribute to the causes they selected. I approached the local Whole Foods store in Thousand Oaks and they agreed to make Heart of a Horse a “Change for Change” charity. On the weekends I organized our volunteers to stand in front of the store and hand out brochures that explained our mission. The Whole Foods campaign lasted three months and we raised over $3,000 to buy more hay and medicines for the many horses in need who were still out there.