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Leading a Horse to Water

St. Helena's Sunrise Farms ponies up for the valley's abandoned horses.

Walks in the vineyards, a healthy diet, regular check-ups, and a part-time job helping children. Sounds like the ideal Napa Valley lifestyle—especially if you’re a horse who weeks ago was headed to the glue factory. When Tracee Beebe and her husband, Mark, started Sunrise Stables in St. Helena nearly six years ago, they were planning a riding school, not an animal refuge, but they’ve ended up with both. “I would go out to buy a horse for a client, and in the next field there was a horse that was starving to death, so I’d have to bring it home,” Tracee says. “They just keep finding me.”

A year ago, with every penny from the riding school going for horse care, the Beebes established a nonprofit foundation to raise funds for the rescue operation (they spend about $400 a month on care for each rescue horse). Every horse at Sunrise Farms has its own sad story. Cost is one reason they were abandoned—the animals became expendable when their owners fell on hard times. Some were put on the auction block by aging owners who assumed they’d be sold to loving homes. Instead, bidders were looking to turn them into meat. Others are valuable show horses sidelined by minor injuries or old age, whose wealthy owners have moved on. A few were the victims of ignorance, starving on an overgrazed pasture, or fed hay and grass that their aging molars couldn’t chew. Two rescued this year were tied up with no shelter, standing knee-deep in wet manure. At Sunrise, with the help of dental and hoof care, medical attention, special diets, and, perhaps most importantly, grooming by the riding school’s doting young students, the animals are transformed from skeletal, shivering creatures into shiny, bright-eyed horses who trot around the paddock with a spring in their step. “It’s heartbreaking,” says Tracee. “Horses give their lives to humans. They work hard, they compete, they give their whole heart. And then they just get thrown away.” Unless they find their way to Sunrise.

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