The winter has finally come, as has my time to commit to a blog. I'm doing this for two reasons; number one, to document the progress of the NGO I started in Catalonia, Spain and two, to document my personal experience with altruism.
Some basic facts. I am an American that was born in the Pacific Northwest of the United States of America. My father was a logger, my mother was a housewife until they divorced. My step father is a military general and my mother became an entrepreneur. I grew up in a beautiful countryside, surrounded by large conifers, mostly Douglas fir trees, lakes, rivers and mountains. My parents bought me my first horse when I was 8 years old and I have been hooked ever since. I am far from a perfect human example and I am not always altruistic.
I have travelled and lived in a lot of places. I settled in NYC in my twenties and started a post production film company with my husband. We met while working at a post house in NYC and 20 years later, here we are.
Two months before, the Twin Towers went down, I turned down an administration position in a Chinese import firm in Tower Two. I was taking the job to help finance the post house we started. The fact that we needed an external income and more hours provoked our decision to leave NYC and we moved to Barcelona on the 21st of June, 2001.
I brought part of our film restoration business but quickly chose another path. We moved to a remote village, Granyanella de Segarra, where I taught English, gardened and tried to restore a three hundred year old farm house. We spent 7 years in this medieval town before moving to Maresme. I brought my "lleidetan" accent to the shores of Maresme and to this day I am proud of this accent. It is a constant reminder of central Catalonia's strength and how it helped transform me into the person I am today. My soul was warmed by the intelligent, hard working friends that I made and I still meditate on the sea like land scape in my mind's eye and the isle like villages that dot Segarra's and Urgell's vast open spaces. There are very few places that rival the beauty of Segarra in the spring and its luminous nights.
We left Segarra with one joyful daughter and shortly after our arrival in Maresme, welcomed another. I will call them Wonder and Star in this blog in order to protect their anonymity. They are the main reason, I started the NGO and changed the direction of my life.
When I had my girls, I didn't want to leave them in day care, so I thought about changing careers to have a more flexible schedule. My husband has always been my biggest supporter. I wanted to do a project that evolved around the year 2050. My oldest daughter would be 43 years of age in 2050 and I wanted to know, as much as possible, what the world would be like and what they would be inheriting from the previous generations.
I buried my head in research papers, books and documentaries. I was gutted to find what scientific consensus predicted in regards to climate change, the depletion of our natural resources and the destruction of biodiversity. It was my wake up a call and I have been wide awake ever since.
My first effort in my radical new life was a documentary project on Spain's energy crisis but my daughter became ill and I abandoned the project. When she recovered, my husband encouraged me to follow my heart, which has always been horses and nature. I completed a post graduate course on Equine Therapy and became a licensed Equine Therapist in Catalonia. I felt horses and nature were a great way to tackle mental illness and arrest negative mental pathologies from developing and causing social exclusion.
When I started building my equine therapy centre and became more immersed in horse cultural, I was shocked to find that horses aren't treated kindly here. They are valued as a product and easily disposed when they provide no function or are no longer amusing. Where I grew up we all knew where our horses were. I have cried with friends who lost their horses of 38 years, horses that I have known my entire life. Our horses were retired and grew old in pastures with companions but here, horses are often neglected and abused. There are a few dedicated horses professionals that do value their horses but they are under valued in our culture. Normally, when the horses stop being useful, they are often slaughtered. They don't just slaughter the old and sick, they slaughter good horses that the owner no longer can care for, bankrupt yeguadas (Spanish breeding farms) that cash in on the €250 euro price for an average horse carcass. Spain slaughters more horses than any other European country and does not always impose laws protecting horses from neglect and abuse.
When good local horses started being sent to the slaughter or abandoned by their owners; I stepped in. I have my weaknesses and that is any living thing that is being abused, under threat or exploited has a special place in my heart. I can't turn a blind eye and I can't always follow the protocol. When people learned that I was taking horses that no one wanted and saving them from the slaughter houses, I started receiving calls.
Before long, more and more people began to send photos of abused and neglected horses from our community. I reported these abuses but to no avail. There is no system in place that effectively deals with abused and neglected horses and the criteria for defining these cases is ridiculous. Since, there are no shelters for horses in our area and those few that exist in Catalonia are full to capacity, the cost of such removals are placed on the shoulders of local municipal governments that do not have the economic resources to take care of problem or a place to send them. The abused animals aren't removed or when they are, are often sacrificed because there is no alternative.
A perfect example of the failed system is my neighbour. For 15 years he has abused and neglected animals, caused severe environmental pollution and endangered the public. He has kept a ferrel herd of forty ponies and some 200 dogs on his property for 15 years. It has only been the last year that the animals are being removed but the ponies, there is no record of where they are going, who is administrating it and whether or not any have been sacrificed. I tried to help but found it unbelievably hard. I documented the abuse and neglect, which pressured the removal of some animals that were in severe danger. We managed to rescue one donkey from this lot and it is now living in a happy and healthy home.
My first idea was to use abandoned horses as therapy horses. I thought, I could base my work on Tara Carlsen's work in Michigan, where she works with at risk youth. I could also provide a space for my fellow equine therapists to use the facilities and horses to work in all areas of equine therapy. It sounds like a great idea but equine therapy is very expensive and horses are very expensive, so I couldn't see how this project could be sustainable. I also was running out of space and had more needy horses.
I knew, I needed to do something but it hasn't been easy. My first problem was where to put the horses. I had two horses of my own and dozens that needed a home. Legally, I can only have 5 horses without applying for a zoological number, which I need but first I have to submit a project (around €1,200 to 3,000 in expenses) or pla especial (€8,000 to 10,000). These projects are created by agro engineers, architects and veterinarians to be submitted to the local mayors office then sent on to various departments to be approved. This process normally takes two years and creates a horrible waste of paper and creates an economic burden.
I decided to rent (with option to buy) a large farmhouse with 33 hectares (81.5 acres). It was an amazing place in a public park that unfortunately has no nature reserve. The forest was around 50 to 60 years of age, 85% of the forest was cork oak and there were some trees that were over 200 years of age. There were 4 hectares of fields and some abandoned terraces. It was the perfect place for a herd of horses, no one wanted.
I took cautious steps to introduce the horses to their new home. I first kept them in the fields with small forest tracts fenced. I fed them in the open and slowly started introducing them to the woodlands. In the two years, I had them at Can Terrrades, I only had one deep flesh wound and it did not require stitches and healed within a week with barely a visible scar.
What I began to realise is that my sick and lame horses thrived. I have horses that have severe arthritis that dragged their hind legs and stopped dragging them. I have had bowed tendons, severe sweet itch and thread worm infections, horses that came to me with no hair. A horse with heaves. A ton of infected hooves, from mild thrush to severe abscesses and the forest cured them or at least improved their health and provided them with happiness. They became relaxed and engaged with each other. It filled my heart with such joy to see this band of unwanted horses turn into something breathtaking to behold. They stopped being these resigned, defeated animals and once again turned into noble selves.
I was so happy with where we were at. I was recuperating one of the most beautiful parts of the Park de Montnegre without any negative impact to the biodiversity. I didn't need heavy machinery, only a herd of unwanted horses. In order to save the land from a negative impact, I put in two kilometres of electric fencing powered by solar panels. I created places where the autochthonous animals could pass unhindered by the horses fence. The horses had over four kilometres of woodland paths that zig-zagged through the property. Each day, I fed them four bales of festuca through out this path. This was enough food to keep them busy for 24 hours. They had to walk all the way to far end of the property and they helped open up the forest paths and abandoned road networks. I was shocked with the positive impact they were having on their environment. They had to return to their two watering deposits that were always placed 500 meters away from where I was feeding them. the constant movement improved their health and kept the forest clean.
Horses are intended to graze for most of the day. Their digestive systems are created to constantly be functioning and a healthy digestive coincides with movement. I went from 6 colics a year to zero colics. The forest went from overgrown fire risk, to recuperated interior roads, underbrush cleared and grass growing. I had wildlife cameras hanging from the trees to see whether we still had our wild forest friends. We mostly caught images of wild boars but we did see scat of dozens of different species that the horses did not scare off. I was enamoured by the wealth of biodiversity and knew that my project had to influence its conservation.
The neighbouring properties were being decimated. Our neighbour took out nearly 50 percent of the trees and eliminated nearly 90% of the biodiversity. He created a hole in the ecosystem with death of the mycelium and an increase in erosion. He left a fired hazard of thousands of square meters of dried branches and trunks. I began to understand that my project wasn't about saving horses but about using them to save a forest.
I found how we could take a community problem of abandoned horses and use them to clear the forest in a sustainable way without negative environmental impact. I spent days writing proposals for grants, outlining projects and documenting the changes in the horses and the forest. I hosted open doors, where I invited scientists to come and observe and encouraged them to send me their students for further research and development of this project.
Everything was going well, except for two things. No money and no water. Maintaining a herd is a lot of time and money. Although, I have associates, they are only on paper and do not participate in any aspect of this project. It's very hard to convince people to work hard without receiving any money in compensation. I worked 60 hours a week for two years. It was gruelling and often heartbreaking. I poured every bit of myself into this project and often felt hopeless. I didn't have the money to pay for help. I barely covered rent and horses feed. I raised €400 in donations in two years and it felt hopeless. My feed bills are €1,300 a month and there is always another €200 to 500 in other expenses. My husband has had to pay for the entire operating costs. I have felt so much guilt for this. It is hard to use someone's hard earned money but he always told me, it is for something good. He said, you are doing something good, we'll get by. His trust and generosity fuelled my determination and I wasn't going to let him down.
We got by on a shoe string, until there was no more water. Spain is increasingly feeling the effects of climate change and where we were in the Park de Montnegre was no different. Our only source of water was a 300 year old mina (small cave made to access an underground stream or fountain). It dried up. We had no water for 12 horses and I had to start hauling 1,000 litres every 2 to 3 days. I brought in specialists but a well was nearly €10,000 and there was no guarantee of water. I was scared of taking a risk on a property that I was unsure of its viability for the centre I was trying to create. I had to consider the safety of the horses.
I thought surely donations will start coming in and I will be able to solve the water issue but no donations came and everyday, I hauled water. I had an old Landrover that I drove up and down the mountain with a trailer and a 1,000 litre water deposit that I used to fill up another water deposit on the property. Twice the breaks went out. I slid during rain storms and got stuck in mud but I continued my journey without stop. I could not take a holiday or spend any days away from the horses because of the water insecurity. Everyday, up and down; until November 2015 and my Landrover's transmission went out. I had to pay €400 euros a month to have water delivered by a local forestry worker, until I could afford a new Landrover. Meanwhile, I was still going up and down but this time with a mountain bike. Somedays, I just cried all the way up and all the way down the 12 kilometers. I didn't know how much longer I could last and I didn't know where the horses would end up if I failed. The only support system, I had was my husband who was breaking his back trying to pay for everything and my children.
In January 2016, I bought another Landrover. It lasted another 6 months before dying. I had to make a major decision and decided to quit. I was short on funds, tired and couldn't secure the horses' safety. I thought it was best to try and re-home as many horses as possible but where??? I was burnt out and disillusioned but worse, there was no place for the majority of the horses. The healthy, beautiful, younger horses were wanted but the horses that were old or suffered from immunology problems, no one wanted. I made deals that I would give my personal horses for free, as long as they took two of the others. I wanted to keep them together for the most part. They had such strong bonds and those bonds helped them recover. In the end, no one came forward and I had zero solutions.
I am glad no one in the end separated the herd because I took a week off. I went to France, spent time with my family and friends. In seven days, I started feeling better and my kids encouraged me. I had a lot of guilt for all the time the horses and Black Elk took away from them but they are supportive. They understand it is for a good thing and they are proud of me. When your children are proud of you, well the sky is the limit. I have come back more determined, to make a positive impact where I live and improve the world around me. I decided to move the horses down to a couple of hectares my husband and I have near our house. We rented a neighbour's property to create a space of seven hectares. We are still in the middle of construction and it will take time for the place to be where we want it but the horses of Black Elk are safe.
We moved the horses October 2016 and hired a new agro engineer and we are getting to work. Black Elk Sanctuary will be the first horse rescue that uses horses to solve problems that affect our community. We are going to clean forests and save trees, help teenagers that have prematurely abandoned their studies and are at risk of social exclusion. We want to inspire children and adults to conserve our natural resources and we are going to do this with the help of our abandoned an neglected horses.
I really appreciate that you took the time to read about my experience and hope you'll follow this altruistic journey my family and I have set out to do. I will try and post weekly blogs that follow our trials, tribulations but most of all, our progress. Until then have a great day.