Rescued horses find new home

The trailer had arrived to take Finbar away from his home of the last three years, the place where he arrived scared and starving and gradually regained his health, his energy and 400 pounds.

And for the moment, the horse wasn't budging.

In the grand scheme of things, it was a happy day for Finbar — probably the happiest in many months. He and dozens of other horses would soon depart their stalls at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center and arrive at Red Bucket Equine Rescue's new sanctuary at a ranch in Chino Hills, which it had acquired two weeks ago after months of uncertainty.

But Finbar didn't seem to share the excitement as his handlers tried to maneuver him into the back of the vehicle Thursday morning. For nearly half an hour, a handful of Red Bucket volunteers and two professional loaders tried to perform a basic task: get the horse to walk into the trailer and stand still long enough to be tied to the wall.

That proved to be no small hurdle. With a rope attached to his muzzle and canvas shipping boots to protect his legs, Finbar froze, tried to run and sometimes fled backward after the handlers coaxed him in.

Red Bucket President Susan Peirce, who has adopted Finbar and is having him trained as a show horse, could understand the reason for his panic.

"These horses have never gone anywhere," she said. "When he came, he was starving. Now he weighs 1,200 pounds. This is their safety, here at the equestrian center."

One handler stood in front and held the rope; another trailed Finbar with a whip, which he used to lash the ground and occasionally tap the horse's legs and rear. On the third try, they held and tied him inside the trailer; two more horses followed, and the walls shook repeatedly as Finbar banged against them.

Finally, head trainer Kimberly Fohrman tied all three horses and ducked through what Peirce called the suicide door — the small opening at the back of the trailer just big enough for a human to fit through, not to mention an escape from serious injury when the animals thrash around.

Fohrman leaped in the pickup truck hitched to the trailer and drove down the dirt path behind the equestrian center stalls. Three more horses were on their way to Chino Hills, and the nonprofit had roughly two dozen more to ship by Saturday. But the loaders may have just packed in the hardest one.

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'Clearly the dominant horse'

Peirce could tell Finbar would require special attention the first time she saw him. Actually, she could tell by looking at the horses around him — specifically, the stubs where their tails used to be.

Finbar came to the nonprofit in 2009 as part of a herd of 50 horses, which a breeder had abandoned. Red Bucket got a tip and drove to the Inland Empire to pick up the animals just hours before a truck was scheduled to take them to the slaughterhouse.

When Peirce and her colleagues arrived, they found a harrowing proof of the horses' hunger: The 22 stallions in Finbar's pen had chewed each other's tails to the bone. Only one tail hadn't been touched, and that was Finbar's. Peirce guessed that the other horses left him alone out of fearful respect.

"He was clearly the dominant horse in the pen," she said.

At the time he entered Red Bucket's stalls, though, Finbar hardly looked dominant. His frame had withered to little more than hide and bones, and he showed almost no emotion or response to actions. When handlers loaded him onto a trailer, he went docilely.

Of the 50 horses in the herd, Red Bucket found homes for eight and took in the other 42 — more than doubling its case load. Finbar, named after the surname of Peirce's Irish grandfather, was a particularly challenging case. The trainers had to walk him every day in the bullpen, a small, round area with high walls, to help him focus, and even put cotton in his ears so sounds wouldn't distract him.

Moreover, as Finbar regained his strength, he required more skill — and courage — to handle. Even as a horse lover, Peirce doesn't mince words: Stallions can be dangerous animals when agitated, and their 1,000-pound-plus frames can cause significant injuries to people who aren't used to predicting their emotions or adept at dodging.

It took about two years of constant walking, feeding and other rehabilitation to bring Finbar up to ideal health. By then, he had learned to relax around his minders as well. Recently, Peirce found a photo of him when he first arrived at the stalls and broke down crying.

"I forgot how horrifying he looked when he came in," she said. "Now he's so strong."

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A quiet new sanctuary

The property in Chino Hills, which Red Bucket officially acquired May 31, promises a different environment than the equestrian center: smaller and more private, with less noise and fewer distractions.

Equestrian center owner Mary Behrens, who has housed Red Bucket in her stalls since 2009, said the new location might be more beneficial to the approximately 85 horses that will move there.

"It is great to be able to rescue horses and find them homes, because there are horses out there in need," she said. "But I think also a public facility isn't a really good place to have a rescue [service], because there's so many things involved in rescuing. I think it's good that they have a private facility to go to and bring horses to if they need to."

Earlier this year, equestrian center management asked the nonprofit to move out to make room for paying customers. Peirce, who noted that management had extended its May deadline to move out, said there were no hard feelings.

"We are really grateful to have had an opportunity to be in Huntington Beach," she said. "We've been able to really garner the support of the community. You hear a lot of people talk about the horses, and they say, 'our horses, our horses.' I think we've become a big part of the community, and so have the horses."

Peirce said her group bought the land from a private owner. She would not say how much the property cost, but said donations from Orange County residents had covered the down payment. A business on the property, which will pay rent to Red Bucket, will also contribute income.

Even still, the nonprofit will need a steady flow of donations to stay afloat. In addition to fundraisers and horse shows, Red Bucket plans to offer a program in which individuals or groups can sponsor a horse for $600 a month. One of the incentives: a trading card featuring the horse's picture, vital statistics and personality traits, plus monthly updates on its condition.

At one of those shows, Peirce hopes to introduce Finbar before the crowd. The former stallion, who is now a gelding after being castrated, has trained steadily at jumping fences. Furthermore, his brawny physique could show the audience how much a rescue service can do for an animal who once looked a step away from death.

But even if Finbar doesn't become a performing star, Peirce is proud of her bond with him. And at times like Thursday morning, when he fought to stay at the home she created for him, she knows that the feeling is returned.

"When you save a horse and you're with them every day, they know," she said. "They're grateful."

michael.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

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