ReHorse Rescue: Saving Lives, One Unwanted Horse at a Time

Kerry McCray Holland
By Kerry McCray Holland September 15, 2015 14:12



Raquelle Van Vleck with friend Cookie

When Lynn Martin retired from a 20-year career as a Columbia College counselor, friends assured her she’d have no trouble occupying her time.

“People said, ‘You’ll have so much to do,’ ” the 72-year-old Sonoran recalls. “I didn’t find that. What I did find was that there was no segue. It’s like, you get up in the morning and you’re not working anymore.”

Enter ReHorse Rescue Ranch, a nonprofit organization which rehabilitates horses that have been abused, abandoned or given away because owners couldn’t care for them. Martin is one of about 15 seniors who volunteer there, finding satisfaction in helping the horses – many of which are older and can’t be ridden – regain their health and eventually find new homes.

What do Martin and the others get out of their time at the ranch? Much the same thing as the horses, it turns out.

“The word ‘purpose’ really comes to mind,” says Martin. “I needed something to do that makes me feel like I’m contributing to something important.”

She is, says Raquelle Van Vleck, ReHorse Rescue’s founder and executive director. Van Vleck, 45, and partner Tony Dye, 50, set up the operation in 2009 and rely on volunteers to do most everything, from cleaning stalls and scrubbing water troughs to completing paperwork and raising money.

Volunteering at the Jamestown area ranch is a good fit for retirees, many of whom tell Van Vleck they need a reason to get outside more often. They need not be experienced with horses. In fact, most of Van Vleck’s volunteers weren’t when they signed up.

What they do need is a willingness to help, one to three afternoons per week, for a few hours at a time. “Sometimes I think it’s very easy for older people to no longer feel useful,” Van Vleck says. “Working outside, with horses that depend on them, can be life changing.”

It was for Van Vleck, a former mortgage company owner who moved to Tuolumne County from Southern California with Dye, a real estate investor, in 2004. It wasn’t long before the two bought a 10-acre ranch.

Van Vleck purchased her first two rescue horses, Sarge and Cupcake, at a 2008 auction she and Dye attended. When Raquelle, a lifelong horse lover, learned that horses could be abused, neglected or even trucked to Mexico for slaughter if sold to unscrupulous buyers, she became a bidder – and a rescuer.

Within months the economy worsened, the drought fueled high hay prices and word got out that Van Vleck rescued horses. People she had never met called her, asking her to take in horses that were being neglected by their owners.

“The phone calls started to come in and I thought, ‘What’s going on with these animals?’ ” recalls Van Vleck. “There was such a need. It broke my heart.”

Twenty-six horses, two donkeys and one pot-bellied pig (also rescued) now live on the ranch, the only horse rescue ranch in Tuolumne County. There’s a smaller operation in the Oakdale area, Van Vleck says, and another in El Dorado County. A large nonprofit rescue in the Sacramento area closed earlier this year.

“The problem is that there aren’t enough rescues overall, and everybody is just inundated with horses,” she says. “We network like crazy with each other to try to find homes for some before they even get here.”

She estimates that 500 horses have been placed in new homes through ReHorse, with perhaps 200 cared for at the ranch before being adopted. Networking efforts yielded homes for the rest.

Van Vleck takes in cruelty cases from animal control departments in Tuolumne, Calaveras, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Lake, Madera, El Dorado and Mariposa counties. In 2013, when hay prices were high and the economy was dragging, ReHorse was home to more than 50 horses.


Lynn Martin and Van Vleck assess Delilah’s recovery from neglect

The horses come for several reasons. Some owners can’t afford food and vet care, while others treat the animals

cruelly and get caught. Death or divorce may orphan horses. When an owner dies or a partner leaves, economic realities can force families to give the horses away or stop providing proper care.

Often horses are abandoned, Van Vleck says. They come to her half-starved, and most haven’t seen a vet in years.

It’s a sad and familiar scenario to Jennifer Clarke, Tuolumne County’s animal control manager. Her department gets a call about once a month to investigate a horse that has been mistreated or abandoned.

Without Van Vleck and the entire ReHorse crew, horses likely would not receive the care they need, Clarke says. “There was a tremendous need for a place to help unwanted horses,” she says. “It was a huge undertaking, but the fact that she’s been around for years tells you something about her success.”

Weeks can go by at the ranch without a new horse, but sometimes they arrive in droves. One time Van Vleck, Dye and their volunteers took in 10 horses living in several feet of mud and muck in Calaveras County.

Cases like that pull on Van Vleck’s heartstrings. She grew up in San Jose, a horse-crazy girl. Her father took her riding once a year at a Milpitas stable as a birthday present.

Then her parents divorced, and Van Vleck moved to Southern California with her mother, who landed a job there. There was no space or money to own a horse, but the idea stuck with her – prompting her to buy her first two horses at that 2008 auction.

Cupcake, a miniature horse, was 21. Sarge, a 15-year-old Morgan, was underweight and didn’t take to people.

Van Vleck says caring for horses changed her perspective on what’s important in life – so much so that she wanted to reach out to children and teens in need.

She knew that horses can help children with physical disabilities. She figured children who had experienced loss and other hardships would benefit too.

In 2010 she approached Tuolumne County Child Welfare Services, proposing a program in which foster children are paired with horses. Youngsters don’t ride the horses – they care for them and bond with them, learning much-needed relationship skills along the way.

More than 150 children and teens have been through the ReHorse program, which lasts six to eight weeks. Many like it so much they repeat it.

“When they start hearing the stories about what brought their particular horse to the ranch, there’s an instant bond,” says Cori Ashton, senior program manager with Tuolumne County Adult, Child and Family Services.

Older volunteers learn how to relate to horses as well. Lynn Martin, who also serves as a Yosemite Community College District trustee, cares for Dora, an 8-year-old Morgan from that muddy Calaveras County rescue in 2012.

FN00276Dora was so skittish she couldn’t bear anyone coming close enough to put a halter on, Martin says. She now tolerates a rope halter that lies on her neck as Martin leads her around a corral, talking softly.

Martin’s proud of the progress she’s made with Dora, who comes to the fence when she approaches. But not every volunteer works directly with horses. Some come to ReHorse insisting all they want to do is clean pens.

Take Kathy Kenna, 57, a physical therapist and Columbia College biology teacher who lives in Sugar Pine. She says she feels fulfilled raking, watering, feeding and soliciting donations for ReHorse fundraisers.

“I like just knowing I’m helping these creatures that have had such a rough start,” she says. “It feels good keeping older horses happy and comfortable.”

It takes money and manpower to make that happen. Van Vleck says it costs from $10,000-12,000 a month to run the ranch, all of which comes from donations and grants. She credits generous support in the community and constant fundraising for making it possible.

ReHorse earlier this year received $10,000 from the Sonora Area Foundation, money which Van Vleck says has helped pay for hay, medication and special feed for sickly horses.

More than 40 volunteers of all ages work on the ranch. Even if they don’t intend to, they often get attached to the horses. Some have even adopted an animal.

Most horses that come ReHorse’s way are eventually rehabilitated and adopted. Horses that can be ridden may be adopted for about $700-800. A family’s ability to pay shows Van Vleck it can afford to care for the animal.

Horses that can’t be ridden can be adopted for about $25. A thorough background check is conducted, including investigating whether the prospective owners can afford feed and vet care.

Many of the horses can’t be ridden because of their age, physical condition or lack of training, but they take on new roles, often as family pets or pasture companions for other horses. Not unlike ReHorse volunteers, who have also found new purpose in life.

“The horses depend on me,” Martin says. “That serves a purpose. And it’s a lofty one, at least in my mind.”

Editor’s note: As this issue went to press, we learned that Dora has been adopted – by Lynn Martin, of course.

ReHorse welcomes volunteers of all ages and hosts an open house twice a year. It also welcomes visitors by appointment year-round. In addition to its program serving foster children, plans are in the works for a new program pairing veterans and horses. Call (209) 337-5886 or visit online,

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Kerry McCray Holland
By Kerry McCray Holland September 15, 2015 14:12
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