OAKLAND — Part of makes what the horses at Duchess Sanctuary so captivating to watch run free, said local artist Gena Lee Tharp, is knowing what they’ve been through.
“I wish everybody in Douglas County could see it,” said Tharp, an equine lover. “It’s the most beautiful ranch I think I’ve ever been to. Everywhere you look there are horses dotting the landscape.”
On Saturday, Duchess Sanctuary will host a public open house with guided tours, information displays and a silent auction of local art, including several paintings of Tharp’s. The sanctuary, funded by the Humane Society of the United States and The Fund for Animals, has two annual open houses that have become traditions for some local retirees who love horses and relish the opportunity to watch them roam in a more or less natural setting.
“They’re just gorgeous, especially when they’re running right at you,” Tharp said.
Duchess is a 6-year-old horse rescue on 1,120 rolling acres east of Oakland. Most of the 189 horses there cycle through subdivided pastures in a large herd. But with an aging population, more and more of them are being transferred to private paddocks to live out their twilight years. But always with a “roommate.” Horses at Duchess are only ever kept alone at quarantine, said Jennifer Kunz, the ranch’s manager.
During the colder half of the year, when the horses are fed hay, the bossier horses and the more passive ones are separated to their respective packs, leaving the even-tempered majority to comb the hay barns.
Many of the horses here were recovered from pregnant mare urine operations in Western Canada. The mares were hooked to urine collection machines six months of the year, forced to stand in small pens, to supply the production of hormone therapies for menopause.
Kunz said many a horse lover is surprised to learn she takes medication containing estrogen from pregnant mares.
“I can’t tell you how many women say, ‘Oh, I take Premarin,’” she said.
Kunz said pharmaceutical giant Pfizer carries other drugs containing mare estrogen, including Duavee and Prempro.
The Humane Society estimates that at its peak, the industry kept 55,000 horses for this purpose, though public backlash has reduced the number to about 2,000 today.
Widespread public support is one of the reasons Duchess gets most of its money from outside the area, unlike a lot of local nonprofit groups. The Fund for Animals, which oversees three other sanctuaries in the U.S., collects donations primarily through direct mailings.
The sanctuary’s small staff this Saturday will show off the site’s latest improvement, a $210,000 hospital barn. With the Duchess herd getting older, Kunz said, the barn will offer better long-term care. In the hospital, the horses get their feet trimmed, and receive vaccinations and veterinary and dental care. But they don’t undergo training or teaching.
“Most of them are not particularly adoptable,” Kunz said. “There’s some that will never be friendly to people.”
There’s Delilah, a 21-year-old draft mare from Canada. Like many mares hooked to urine collection machines, she now suffers from arthritis and joint problems, a result of the years she spent standing in a small pen over a cement floor.
A replica of such a pen will be displayed at Saturday’s open house. Contrasted with the idyllic pastures beyond, the vending machine-sized pen seems especially inhumane.
“They’ll live out their natural lives here,” Kunz said. “But they’ll live good lives.”
Others are mustangs recovered from wild herds by the Bureau of Land Management, or otherwise spared from the slaughterhouse.
Then there’s Herbie. The 11-year-old pony came to the attention of the Humane Society when his original owners in Burns tried to unload another of their horses on the Mustang and Burro Freedom Foundation. The owners submitted a photo of that horse, but in the background — to the horror of foundation workers — was Herbie, with his hooves so overgrown and neglected they resembled elf slippers.
After Herbie’s transfer to Oakland, a farrier removed 30 inches of hoof from Herbie’s feet. The friendly pony will never be able to walk normally, but he’s now a favorite at the sanctuary, Kunz said. He gets spoiled on treats and rooms next to his pal, Nelly.
Nelly is 25 years old, blind and with a swayback. She came from a large seizure in North Dakota. When authorities finally arrived at that ranch, 100 of 250 horses had already starved to death.
Of the survivors, all were adopted but Nelly.
A native of Alberta, Canada, Kunz has been with the herd since she worked for a small nonprofit helping free 89 mares, 60 of which were pregnant. She moved here with the horses when the sanctuary was established in 2008 and still lives on the site.
She said she’s come to appreciate horses in their native environment, and not just as athletes or helpmates to humans.
She’s watched many horses adjust to a life at the sanctuary.
“It’s sort of like the stress that they’ve been building up in their body just goes away,” Kunz said.
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.