RANCHO SANTA FE – Amid the upscale equestrian estates of the wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, a horse rescue continues its mission to save the horses, donkeys and other farm animals everyone else has abandoned.
With a network of volunteers both locally and throughout the western United States, all led by founder Celia Sciacca, Laughing Pony Rescue has rescued over 1,200 animals kept in feedlots and due for slaughter, as well as others who have been overlooked or abused in the rodeo industry.
While the number of horses sent to slaughter for human consumption has declined over the past two decades, thousands of horses still face this fate in Canada and Mexico. About 24,000 horses in the United States were shipped internationally for slaughter in 2020, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Sciacca founded Laughing Pony Rescue in 2010 after being deeply disturbed by what she learned about the industry, particularly how animals are often kept in cramped spaces at feedlots, forced to pass days without food or water while being shipped to slaughterhouses, then die painfully once they arrive rather than be euthanized.
“That’s what I’m called to do,” Sciacca said. “The reason we’re doing this is one less horse or donkey suffering.”
There are currently 14 horses, four donkeys, a sheep and a goat in the rescue’s care, several of which were initially terrified of people and require specific diets and medical attention. Many have been there for years, but the goal is to pair them with a loving home.
life on the ranch
Every day at the ranch there are a million things to do. Sciacca and a team of dedicated volunteers feed and brush the animals and treat any ailments they may have, while raising funds to save other animals awaiting slaughter in the feedlots.
Contrary to popular belief, horses and other farm animals are not given away for free, Sciacca said. The organization must pay between a few hundred and more than $1,000 per animal, and since they can be shipped to slaughterhouses at any time, they must act quickly.
The organization’s work extends beyond California to Texas, Washington State and Nevada, with volunteers constantly working to identify animals that can be saved. Jenna McKenzie, a volunteer based in eastern Washington, speaks frequently with Sciacca and sends photos of potential animals that could be rescued from feedlots and their asking prices.
“I relay information to Celia, and we select between five and 12 [horses] per month and we fundraise for them,” McKenzie said. “We will go anywhere and help anyone.”
Much of the fundraising is done through the Laughing Pony Facebook page. As of May 10, the organization was trying to raise the remaining $300 needed to save six horses from a feedlot, including two pregnant mares and two foals.
The animals currently in Laughing Pony’s care run the gamut from former feedlot horses, ponies with broken legs from years of roping, and a donkey named Dyn-O-Mite that carried explosives as part of the US Army training.
A horse named Barbie has been rescued from a ranch in Canada where its estrogen-rich urine was used in the development of the menopause hormone replacement drug Premarin. According to Sciacca, she was continuously kept pregnant at the ranch, suffered from a broken nose, and was often dehydrated in order to concentrate her urine.
Now safe at Laughing Pony, she is the mother of two other survivors, Johnny Cash and Gino, the latter of whom shares her striking blue eyes.
Another horse named Amigo was rescued from a New Mexico feedlot underweight and covered in cuts, and requires a special diet and allergy treatment. Like many ranch animals, he was terrified of humans, but has since learned to trust the people he sees every day.
“They had no contact with humans. There was nothing nice or nurturing about it,” volunteer Barbara Todd said of many Laughing Pony animals. “It takes a lot of patience.”
The hard work of the association does not go unnoticed. At the end of April, Sciacca was removed from her busy daily routine and called to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chambers to receive official recognition, with supervisors also declaring April 26 as Laughing Pony Rescue Day in San Diego County.
Although generally opposed to being in the spotlight, Sciacca said there was a need to raise awareness about the rescue and hopefully raise more donations to continue their work.
“I’m not a caring person, but it’s good to spread the word [about Laughing Pony]she said. “We need donations, and if we don’t have donations, we can’t pay for the horses at the feedlot. We can only save a certain amount.”
For McKenzie, it’s devastating when a horse they were working to save ends up being shipped off before they can raise the funds. Fortunately, there are many success stories, with around 100 animals saved per year.
“Even on the toughest days, these horses need us, because if we don’t, who will?” McKenzie said.
Education and awareness are just as important to Laughing Pony as the actual rescue work, with youth camps held each year and field trips offered to local schools. On Tuesday, a class of preschoolers from the Jewish Academy of San Diego visited the ranch to learn about the different animals and brush up on some of the horses, with more of their classmates expected to come in the following days.
For more information about Laughing Pony Rescue, as well as volunteer and donation opportunities, visit laughingponyrescue.org.