Nine-year-old Renee Bell had been described by some as a painfully shy little girl. To say she is not a talkative child would be as accurate as Aaron Rodgers’ passes have been for the Green Bay Packers this season. But something happens to Renee when she’s around a certain 30-year-old named Fancy…it’s as if her true personality was coming to the surface.
You see, Fancy is a horse stabled at Cimmaron Sanctuary off Adobe Road outside Petaluma, and Renee is one of several children who visit the sanctuary once a week for horseman training in a program set up by Gwen Justis.
Justis began the nonprofit Cimmaron Sanctuary with the vision of bringing horses and children together to experience personal transformation and learn to communicate with each other.
It’s coming together
She can see her vision crystalizing through Renee and the other children in program. Not only has Renee become more outgoing, she recently took her first ride on a horse without a lunge line to the trainer.
“She was so independent,” Justis said. “She was the first child in our program. She graduated from all of the steps. The first phase of the horsemanship program involves all the work on the ground…cleaning stalls, feeding grooming.”
After completing the first phase, Bell then began riding bareback so she could develop her balance on a horse.
“It’s like getting on a bicycle with training wheels,” Justis said. “When she mastered perfect balance, we put her in the saddle, but always on the lunge line.”
She also saw it when the children from Cypress School in Petaluma, which is for autistic kids, would spend a couple of hours with the horses as an excursion at Stable Acres.
“Many were scared of horses, but by the end of the day, they were high-fiving, and talking about how they touched the horses,” Justis said. “But there is an insurance liability incurred in that. I didn’t own the property, so it was something I couldn’t continue.”
Justis believes the horses at Cimmaron can provide some semblance of therapy for children and adults.
“The horses are healers and provide a perfect environment for a child to go through transformation, and that’s what really happens,” Justis said.
Jenny Alphin runs the HoofBeats program at Cimmaron, which is geared to children 5 and older, and teaches them how to handle, lead and care for their horse prior to sitting in the saddle.
“It has been scientifically proven that horses help humans heal, through a variety of ways, and I’m privileged to be participating in this process through the HoofBeats program at Cimmaron Sanctuary,” Alphin said.
Fancy’s here for the kids
Justis also insists the children provide a boost to the horses as well.
“I honestly believe Fancy’s alive because of the kids,” Justis said. “It’s her purpose in life.”
The sanctuary had been seeking a more permanent home since Justis opened it the spring at Stable Acres right outside Penngrove. The problem with Stable Acres was that it didn’t have the capability to provide for covered arenas so the children can work through the winter. But help arrived in the form of a donation from Wells Fargo Bank and a sweet deal she cut with Guillermo and Haley Recio, owners of the spacious Sonoma Mountain Equestrian Center off Adobe Road outside Petaluma.
“We went to see him (Guillermo), and said we needed to relocate and that we needed a covered arena so the kids could work all winter long where everybody would be safe and dry,” Justis said. “We understood he had significant costs, running a place like that. But we asked if we could make us a deal and he did. And now, we’re operational all year round.”
Having Guillermo Recio, an accomplished and championship rider, around has been a boon for the children’s learning curve.
“He’s at the very top, as good as you can be, and we’re starting kids to where they meet the horse for the first time and they’re just learning to ride,” Justis said. “So it’s like the alpha and the omega of horsemanship.”
Three horses and a donkey
Cimmaron currently has three horses and a donkey stabled at SMEC plus a number of horses off site in pasture who are in reserve for training to come in or they’re just rescues.
The rescue horses issue is touchy for Justis, who has been an avid rider since she was a little girl. A rescue horse is one that comes to the sanctuary because its owners can either no longer afford to provide a home or one who simply isn’t cared for and abandoned. Justis said it is a growing problem in the country.
Maintaining a horse is expensive, generally running an average of $500-600 per month. Justis tries to reduce the number of rescue horses by subsidizing them.
“We’re subsidizing three horses with board and feed,” Justis said. “They’re outside the county, where the family can’t sustain the horses. Our subsidizing them allows them to stay in their homes with their owners, and they’ll get good care, which is preventing the need for rescue.”
Even though the rescue horse problem is accelerating, the multi-million dollar equestrian industry remains the second-largest industry in Sonoma County behind wine grapes, according to a survey performed by the World Bank.
“It’s very significant, huge, but most people don’t know that,” Justis said.
Her current program currently has 15 kids participating, but by the start of the summer, she expects to have close to 30. It also has one adult in the program, which prompts Justis to say her program is for kids of all ages.