When “Amigo” was surrendered to Wild Hearts Rescue Ranch in late July with reported mild lameness, the organization’s owner, Jessica Gray, quickly saw that he was part of a much larger abuse and neglect case.
Though the rescue tends to consistently adopt out all the horses they take in, Gray describes that “Amigo is this year’s big exception … He’s a forever deal.” After taking account of all the abuse the horse had endured to that point in his middle-aged life, Gray decided that his needs and struggles would be taken on directly under her care. Gray’s decision to personally care for Amigo highlights one of the things that sets Wild Hearts apart from many other rescue ranches, in Gray’s experience: “Our attention to detail and passion for perfection.”
“I don’t keep all the horses I like — I break my own heart all the time! The primary goal is that they get all their needs met, whether that takes six months or six years, if that’s the time it takes to heal a psychologically volatile animal and find the right person,” explained Gray. “The amount of time we put into the adoptions makes sure we find the right horse for a person and the right person for the horse … The goal, of course, is to find horses wonderful homes, but a driving factor is those homes are forever homes.”
Wild Hearts Rescue Ranch is a nonprofit incorporated through the state of Arizona that is currently applying to be a 501©(3) organization. Gray founded the ranch in Marana, Arizona, in 2010, having been raised on a ranch in New Mexico and involved with horses and animal welfare since she was young and having noticed a need for rescuing horses in Pima County. She has since moved her operations to a 15-acre location in Hereford and has been working to establish the rescue in Cochise County since May of this year.
Gray makes sure her ranch achieves the most care they can for all the people and horses they work with in accomplishing their multifaceted goal, the first two parts of which directly involve care of horses in need: “We provide primarily rehab for abused and neglected equines,” Gray said. “Secondarily, we provide rehoming services for horses that are in need of a change of home and the owner doesn’t know how to proceed or has unmet needs, such as training or medical care.” The ranch will take custody of horses if circumstances that way wend, but mostly works with horses’ owners to help them find the best rehoming situation for them and their animals.
Another thing that sets Wild Hearts apart from many other rescues is their collaborative work with law enforcement. In cases of criminal neglect and abuse, Gray describes that not taking the issue to authorities “does not lend to educating the community about the consequences of equine neglect and abuse.” Though she notes that she has not had to call the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office since moving to Hereford and that horse problems seem less plentiful here than in Pima County, they are willing to take any case of “owner assistance, owner surrender, or civilian concern” within 300 miles of the ranch — “and yes, we have passports, we do (extend efforts into) Mexico,” adds Gray.
The third part of the ranch’s mission focuses primarily on human interaction with horses.
“We provide a therapeutic environment for people of all backgrounds and needs to be with horses,” said Gray.
She explains that they will provide free access to the grounds and animals to benefit people through a calm community and connection to the horses, as well as to educate the public about the needs of these animals.
“We don’t have a licensed therapist or anything, but let people come and be with the horses. Some people, especially with traumatic stress and other therapy needs, find that a less directed environment is more relaxing for them. They can come to see the horses, love on the horses, garden, do art — we offer all sorts of services for free.”
A newer goal is to educate the public about farming and rural living by having “farm days,” with themes such as dairy goat care and products, mesquite harvesting, and aquaponics. All of the ranch’s community outreach efforts in these areas stem from Gray’s belief that “the everyday person should have personal experience with equines.”
“We want to enhance people’s experience with horses,” she said. “We want them to see the horse the same way as their dogs and cats, understanding they are sentient beings with needs and that it’s not OK to see them standing out in the blazing sun, undernourished.”
Gray explains that she feels a lot of people simply do not know what constitutes a dire circumstance for horses or who to call when they do. That is why Wild Hearts focuses on education, according to Gray.
“If people knew from Wild Hearts what is not an OK situation,” she said, “I think they’d be as proactive for the horse as for the dog or cat in the same situation.”
Gray and the volunteers of the rescue are willing to do whatever is best for each horse, whether that means finding it a suitable home as soon as they can, or shouldering the financial burden and time constraints that give the animal the care it needs. She notes that there are no “employees” on the ranch and that everyone there has a job to support themselves and works at the ranch on their own time. Gray adds the she and the volunteers take on most of the expenses involving the horses as well.
“We provide all of the infrastructure expenses and property costs … We primarily fundraise for hay and vet bills,” she said. “Most of our basic infrastructure needs are built into what we take in income. We have a bunch of regular sponsors, but even the occasional donors are our driving force. The small donations matter big time.”
Besides donations, another way Gray gets help at the rescue is through volunteers. Once they are more settled into the new location, Gray hopes to start volunteer days that are open to the public (ages 12 and under with a parent, 15-18 with parental drop-off and consent). She also conducts interviews for those interested in becoming regular volunteers to help with grooming, cleaning, riding, and covering any needs at the ranch.
“Regulars are largely military and veterans who want to be around the horses for their own reasons,” she mentions.
She also notes that specific help they need right now is for tractors to manage the brush bordering one side of the ranch and create a firebreak — “we haven’t had a fire, but it would be really easy to,” Gray noted.
Gray also mentions that regular volunteers in local missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have helped her a lot with expanding and setting up the rescue.
“We love serving and helping at the rescue ranch!” commented Elder Iwaniec, a missionary who has been volunteering at the rescue twice a month for the past four months.
“They are doing a great job rescuing horses and helping them get happy and healthy again,” adds another of the missionaries, Elder Terry. “And it’s always very fun helping clean and groom the horses and animals.”
Whether for educational or rescue purposes, Gray encourages the public to call on the ranch with any questions or reports.
“There is always 24-hour emergency assistance at my phone number,” she said. “Emergency medical needs, transport, euthanasia, injury management — if someone has an equine crisis or needs help, we will help anyone with any horse, at any time, for any reason.”
And when it comes down to it, all the expenses and time required to deliver the level of care that Wild Hearts Rescue Ranch believes is standard for their animals stems from a real love and care for the horses.
“He’s a big, strong young boy with a really cool personality,” remarked Gray lovingly of the recuperating Amigo. “He’s so neat.”