Helping creatures in need


==B By Maggie Mah/Special to The Almanac

Animal welfare is one of many pressing issues in today's world, and while awareness of the need to help familiar creatures like dogs and cats is high, the plight of animals we encounter less often is far lower. Horses are one of those animals, and due to the fact that horses are large, expensive to maintain and need plenty of space, they are extremely vulnerable to neglect and abuse.

Profiled here are three nonprofit groups, each working in unique ways to provide better lives for horses.

Big Bay Ray

Gretchen Kyle repurposes feed sacks to make stylishly sturdy shopping bags and wine totes to support her charity, Big Bay Ray.

Named in memory of "Ray Ray," a rescued horse who in turn helped Kyle's daughter through a difficult time, the charity uses proceeds from the sale of the bags to support other horse welfare organizations.

After retiring from her job with Stanford University's clinical lab team, where Kyle worked in "stat" situations, transporting blood to critically ill patients, she began to spend more time around horses. She noticed that boarding facilities generated a lot of empty feed and grain bags. The bags are often made of woven polypropylene, a strong, easy-to-sew material usually printed with colorful horse-related graphics. It sparked an idea.

"I thought: Everybody needs shopping bags," Kyle recalled.

With $10,000 of her own money, she got started. Along the way, Kyle received help from a sewing machine company representative, feed manufacturers, and several local retailers including Roberts Market in Woodside. Shopping totes are currently available at Portola Feed in Portola Valley.

Now in her third year of operation, Kyle's selection of bags has expanded beyond basic shopping totes to include more elaborate designs with custom embroidery and recycled vintage fabric, linings and straps.

"But," said Kyle "it's about education as much as bags. People don't understand that horses need rescuing."

Kyle also donates bags to other organizations whether or not their cause is horse related. "We can help each other. It's not a competition," she said.

Kyle designates one organization per year to which she donates all proceeds for that year. Beneficiaries include Sonoma Equine Rescue and Rehab for horses affected by the 2017 and 2018 wildfires and Angels for Minis, a Bay Area group dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and re-homing miniature horses.

Kyle recently made an "out of the blue" call to Veryl Goodnight, the artist who created "Spring and Sprite," the bronze mare and foal sculptures on Woodside's Village Hill. After telling her about Big Bay Ray's mission, Goodnight responded by offering proceeds from the sale of her painting, "Untethered," which is valued at $3,500. According to Goodnight, "What Gretchen is doing benefits far more than the individual horses she helps — it makes others aware of the need to be proactive in helping our animal partners. I am thrilled that my art can help in some way. 'Untethered' represents what we all wish for our horses — the ability to run free."

The painting will be on display during Day of the Horse festivities at Kyle's Big Bay Ray table in front of Roberts Market on Sunday, Oct. 13, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Sweetbeau Horses

Images of wild horses running free may evoke the pioneer spirit of the American West but, despite being protected by federal law since 1971 (through the Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act), the future of mustangs and burros is at risk due to increasing competition for use of taxpayer-subsidized grazing lands. Shrinking habitat and fewer natural predators create an unhappy combination that leads to overpopulation. To address the issue, the Bureau of Land Management, the government agency responsible for managing both the land and the animals, conducts helicopter roundups to drive the animals to areas where they can be rounded up and transported elsewhere. Many are held indefinitely in government facilities or end up in the slaughter pipeline.

Woodside residents Patricia Griffin-Soffel and husband Michael Soffel started Sweetbeau Horses in March 2017 with a mission to adopt wild mustangs and thoroughly train them before placing the horses with new owners.

Griffin-Soffel was first introduced to mustangs through endurance riding. Having ridden only horses of "domestic" breeds (Arabians, Missouri Fox Trotters, etc.) she became interested in these sturdy horses and was surprised to discover the qualities of horses bred in the wild.

"I never thought you could truly domesticate a wild mustang but there they were, eager to be competing with their person. What I didn't expect was how smart, affectionate and loyal these horses are," she recalled.

Griffin-Soffel's commitment to helping mustangs deepened after learning that more than 900 wild horses were in dire circumstances at a failed rescue operation in South Dakota. She went to work raising money, coordinated with other rescue organizations and got through the legal process of gaining title to the horses. When all was said and done, it turned out to be the largest horse rescue in U.S. history.

Ultimately, Griffin-Soffel and her husband decided to make mustang rescue a lifetime commitment, bringing their first 25 horses to their Paso Robles ranch in October 2017.

Using natural horsemanship methods, a style of training that employs the horse's natural instincts and gentle pressure techniques, the wild horses gradually become accustomed to being haltered, handled and ridden. Once trained, the horses are versatile and are excellent on the trail.

"These horses are so willing to please," Griffin-Soffel said. "Every one of them conquered the craziest obstacle courses without trauma or drama."

Four of Griffin-Soffel's Sweetbeau mustangs will be at the Mounted Patrol grounds on Saturday, Oct. 12, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

American Wild Horse Campaign

Wild horses are also the focus of Menlo Park resident Terri Ducay, director of development for the American Wild Horse Campaign. AWHC is an advocacy group working through legal and legislative means to address issues that threaten wild horses and burros on public lands.

During what she refers to as her "first career" as an executive in the tech world, Ducay initially got involved with canine rescue. The more she learned about the fate of animals caught up in various and terrible human-caused situations, the more she wanted to help.

"It really led me to understand that helping animals is my life's calling," she explained.

Soon after coming to that realization, she visited an elephant sanctuary in Thailand and ended up working there for a year and a half.

As a former horse owner, Ducay was drawn to the American Wild Horse Campaign. Now in her "second career," Ducay and members of AWHC work in conjunction with other organizations, including Sweetbeau Horses. The AWHC also advocates for the use of humane in-the-wild management solutions, such as birth control vaccines, as a more humane alternative to removal and long-term holding.

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