By Sarah Sikandar
Signal Staff Writer
In “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” Laura Hillenbrand calls a thoroughbred racehorse, “one of God’s most impressive engines… His mind is impressed with a single command: ‘run,’” and, “In flight, he is nature’s ultimate wedding of form and purpose.”
A galloping glory, a race horse can exceed 50 mph, weighing half a ton, making strides with most of its body in midair, with a jockey on its back. Horse racing is an exhaustive sport, horse rearing a taxing job, and C.J. Wilson knows it well. She is the founder and lead trainer at the nonprofit Win Place Home at Birtwick Park Equestrian Center in Canyon Country.
Raised among horses, Wilson’s childhood memories of her grandfather are intertwined with race horses. She doesn’t remember not being around horses. Soft-spoken and beaming, Wilson’s short blonde hair glows in the morning sun as she walks around the stable in a dark blue zipper jacket inscribed with “Win Place Home.” She introduces each horse by name and personality. As she moves from one horse to another, they stride toward her, extending their muzzles for a quick hello.
Win Place Home is both a rehab center and a retirement home for thoroughbred race horses who cannot compete because of age, injury, or sheer neglect. The nonprofit retrains and rehabilitates these horses with the goal of giving them homes and training them for off-track living. It also facilitates individuals and organizations interested in adopting or sponsoring these horses for purposes other than racing.
“We only take in thoroughbred race horses, who were born to run. They’re bred to race at the track, and when they’re done with their racing career, they usually need help learning and in finding a good spot to land, and so that’s why we’re here to help them,” Wilson said.
The 4-acre property, about a mile from Highway 14, Win Place Home has everything a horse needs – stables with ample feed, riding arenas and a team of trainers and volunteers. Since 2015, the team has helped almost 80 horses, and adopted out 55. Most of the horses there are from either Santa Anita race track in Arcadia or Golden Gate race track in Albany.
Places like Win Place Home rescue horses from abuse, euthanasia and abandonment once they’re unable to race. The Humane Society of the United States reports that the largest numbers of animals who are abused in the U.S. include dogs, cats and horses. This is because of weak protection in state cruelty laws, also responsible for unreported animal abuse. Win Place Home serves both as a sanctuary for abused horses, as well as a training school to help thoroughbred horses achieve their full potential through productive activities. Horses that are not returning to the track call it their permanent home, Wilson says, standing next to Spongebill, a dark bay.
“He’s 23 and his old owners wanted him to retire and stay with us. They gave us grant money every year to keep him here for the rest of his life.”
Before they accept a horse, the organization makes sure they have the budget for it. While some horses stay for a short transitory period, many retired horses also need extended care, owing to injuries. Wilson says they make sure they have at least $15,000 available for one such horse who needs care in various capacities.
Training a race horse, especially those who have gone through trauma, is no easy feat. The transition from being a race horse to a riding horse entails many steps and takes time and proficiency. “It’s like teaching them a second language,” Wilson adds. “They understand because they’ve been at the track, and they understand how to be ridden and how to ride. We have to shift their mind a bit and help them understand how to be ridden for their adoptive families. We do it step by step so that in their mind, it’s an easy transition.”
The step-by-step approach also means commitment and fortitude. And Wilson is the right person for the job – she’s been riding for nearly four decades. Her body – having undergone multiple accidents over the years, including being stepped over, a dislocated hip and a broken shoulder – speaks of her grit.
Her determination to work with horses got Wilson her first job when she was 17 years old. She started out at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in 1997. At Santa Anita and Golden Gate tracks she found it hard to find someone willing to give a young woman a chance. “I went every morning trying to get a job and finally, after a month, a trainer said, ‘Come to my barn.’” She didn’t mind doing little things for him and in two weeks, she was his assistant trainer. In her 10 years on the track, she has done it all – looking after horses, training them, picking out races and jockeys for them.
In short, Wilson knows her horses.
Starting a nonprofit for abandoned and mistreated horses posed a challenge. Even after she registered for Win Place Home in 2015 with her first horse, it took her one whole year to raise enough money for a second horse. Today, Wilson is proud of what she has achieved. She, and her team of volunteers and helpers, start their day at 7 a.m., working round the clock catering to each horse’s specific needs. A board with a schedule is constantly updated to maintain a timetable.
Even the basics, Wilson says, like grooming and brushing, are opportunities for these horses to learn. “Even if we’ve been bringing them out to groom and brush, that’s a learning opportunity for them to learn how to stand and how not to paw. No matter what stage they’re at, we’re always trying to make them a better horse, every day.”
Horses have maintained a grip over human imagination forever – mythology, wars, adventures, and pioneering, and pop culture (Shania Twain and Beyonce have famously used thoroughbreds for their videos). But once these glorious animals are past their heyday, they’re left on their own and that’s where charities like Win Place Home come in.
Wilson has said goodbye to many horses over the years who found homes. “I look at it as not saying goodbye for forever. It’s like they’re going off to college. I want them to go and be successful and make good choices.”