Horse of Another Color

On Labor Day 2009, I set out to do an interview for an article an editor had asked me to do. My task was to find out about a local afterschool program supported by a local horse sanctuary. What I found was so much more.

Driving to a town I’d only heard of, but never visited, turned out to be visually engaging. Winding my way towards Chico, I watched orchard after orchard glide by and give way to green open space. Destination: Los Molinos. I have never taken my son on an assignment before, but he was off school and wanted to come, and the sanctuary owner said he could come.

We were to follow typical rural instructions: go down a gravel road, turn at the blue post, undo the gate, drive through, redo the gate—that sort of thing. But when we arrived, there was no doubt we were in the right place. Grazing in the tall grasses, stood the most beautiful mare and foal I had ever seen. They were Cremellos, pale in color with bright blue eyes.

Jordan jumped out to open the gate and the pair came to greet us as if they had been told we were coming. I swear I saw them smile.

My own sad story roots itself in my desire for a horse since I was small. My dad was a rancher type (Cal Poly ag guy) and my mom more a city gal out of Long Beach who met dad briefly at Cal Poly before they relocated to the country. My dad built a corral for my horse when I was five, but come six, my parents announced they were getting a divorce. Guess what that meant? No horse. Instead, I got to look out at an empty corral for the next twelve years hoping that one day I’d have my own horse.

As an adult, fresh out of 30 years in the city, I still don’t have that horse, just a longing suppressed by time.

We drove in, but I had to stop again and get out of the car. The horses were beckoning me. As we approached them, they approached us. It felt like coming home. I felt we knew each other. We were connected. Jordan sensed it, too. We could have spent the day there, reconnecting, but there was an interview up ahead.

Sanctuary owner, Christina Nooner, spent four hours with us that morning introducing us to all the horses. Volunteer Chantel Owens took Jordan in a golf cart, saddled up Coconut (followed closely by new colt, Patches) and guided Jordan around the riding ring as three wild horses (in training) watched on as if to learn what they were supposed to do.

Sunshine Sanctuary gets its name from one majestic horse named Sunshine. Conceived on the Santa Cruz Island, Sunshine’s herd was evicted from the island in 1998 because the horses were no longer a fit for plans to develop the island into a tourist attraction. Nearly dispatched due to cost, the 15 horses of Sunshine’s herd were eventually relocated to the Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown, California. Good thing, too, because as geneticists would soon discover, these horses were the last of the breed dubbed the Heritage Horses, or as Chistina calls them, the Heavenly Heritage Herd.

These horses are special beings. Originally hailing from the Iberian Peninsula of Spain, the horses were bred for equine therapy and are known to have a strong intuitive connection with children. Christina would use this ability to connect them with high-risk kids to create a sanctuary where kids and animals learn kindness and compassion from each other. She’s been at this for the past ten years.

“Look up in the trees. Angels are here. They watch over this sanctuary,” says Christina.

Each horse surprised me with its own distinct character, but when I met Sunshine, I was overcome with feeling. Christina says when she met Sunshine, she felt she had been touched by God. I knew what she meant. Sunshine nuzzled her face next to mine and created a space I never wanted to leave.

Known as “the magic white horse with the blue eyes,” Sunshine has teased death and won on several occasions. When she came to the Sanctuary she had only a 1% chance of survival. Today, she is the matriarch of the Sanctuary, and is the horse always chosen for new, young riders.

Money has become an issue at the sanctuary. The herd is now up to 30 and feeding thirty mouths and breeding more in recessionary times proves difficult for Christina and her husband. She is hoping to adopt out some horses under the agreement they will breed them and not let this unique breed die out. I so want to play in that game.

Christina sent me an email after I left and said the horses acted as if they knew us and were connected. I felt I knew them, too. It was as if they stepped out to heal that little girl looking out the window toward an empty corral and said, “We’re right here whenever you need us.”