“Neighcation” at Oregon’s Duchess Sanctuary
Story & photos by Julie Snyder
It was all a labor of love—heavy on the labor.
After my adventure at a spay/neuter clinic in Peru in 2017, I was hankering for another intense, short-term encounter beneficial to animals. Earlier this year, I’d signed on with the Animal Rescue Team (ART) for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and when they requested horse care help at Duchess Sanctuary, an equine refuge just a few hours from my Portland home, I saddled right up.
Typically the ART rescues animals from puppy mills, natural disasters, animal fighting operations and other instances of life-threatening cruelty and neglect. In this case, they were offering a helping hand to the Fund for Animals, an animal-protection organization founded by author and animal advocate Cleveland Amory in 1967 and an HSUS affiliate since 2005. In addition to advocacy programs, the Fund operates a trio of direct care operations, one of which is the Duchess Sanctuary, located in the Umpqua Valley of southwestern Oregon, just outside the historic hamlet of Oakland.
Established in 2008 through the benevolence of Celine Myers and the Ark Watch Foundation, the sanctuary—named after Celine’s first childhood horse—is a lifetime oasis for just over 190 horses and donkeys rescued from abuse, slaughter and neglect. Three-quarters of residents are survivors of the PMU (Pregnant Mare Urine) industry, where their wretched existence included confinement in stalls for much of their pregnancies for urine collection (hormones extracted from their urine were used to manufacture hormone-replacement products for menopausal women). The other sanctuary dwellers were rescued from public lands, feedlots, auctions and abandonment.
If any place can help erase memories of abuse for these animals, it’s Duchess Sanctuary. Sprawling over 1,120 acres of oak-studded rolling hills, it’s a horse’s—and donkey’s—dream. Most residents roam freely in small herds, while the nearly 50 who need special attention because of age, illness, disability or socialization issues are cared for in a collection of open-air shelters and barns, all exhibiting thoughtful design and diligent upkeep.
It was my first day on the “job” and I was late. I’d calculated my pre-dawn departure from Portland to land me at the Sanctuary shortly before the 7:30 a.m. workday start. Except that chores actually begin at 7 a.m. Oops! I’d disrupted the rhythm of morning feeding before even lacing up my boots.
Jennifer Kunz, the resident Director of Operations who’s lived and breathed the sanctuary since its inception, was welcoming but not chatty. There were hungry horses to feed. I dumped my belongings and food for the week in the lower level flat of her house before being scooped up by Lacy Carpenter—an animal caretaker and my sidekick for much of the week—in a noisy John Deere Gator utility vehicle.
There I was, bumping along the gravel road that bisects the bucolic property, dressed in my oldest jeans and vintage hiking boots that even horse manure couldn’t ruin, praying that my youthful mental energy would prop up my not-as-youthful physical vigor. Before committing to the assignment, I asked Jennifer if the sanctuary was up for help from an enthusiastic, fairly fit, sixty-something cowgirl at heart. She assured me that I was good to go as long as I could parcel out flakes of hay and muck manure. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to become fairly adept at both.
My husband and I lived on a 20-acre “ranchette” in northern Nevada for 15 years, pasturing a steady stream of other people’s horses, so neither the beautiful beasts nor the burden of ranch work were unfamiliar. That said, there was still a learning curve at Duchess Sanctuary. Which type of hay to feed which animals in which amounts. How to efficiently stuff a hay net and hang it up with a double slip knot. How to properly clean and fill water buckets. How to open and close and doublecheck myriad gate and stall door openings.
Oddly, I suppose, I found contentment when wielding a muck rake and navigating a wheelbarrow around a paddock. Sometimes I was surrounded by donkeys intent on inspecting my progress and impeding it in the process. Other times I was alone in an enclosure while horses grazed in adjacent fields. The pastoral peace and was idyllic.
The daily routine was cyclical—feed, water, scoop manure, other chores as time permitted, feed, water. There was precision to the process that optimized movement and therefore time without sacrificing details. Like quickly sweeping the manure and dirtied hay out of Cheyenne’s stall before feeding him, which preserved the edible hay and eased later cleaning. When my first day’s work ended at 3:30pm, I had just enough energy to shower, briefly linger outside to watch the herd grazing on the nearby hill, eat some dinner and crash before sunset, my dreams punctuated by the occasional whinny.
I started the day with a stretch routine that became an essential daily ritual. A doe and fawn breakfasted on grass just outside my door as I drank my coffee. Today, we were joined by Animal Care Specialist Casey Zarnes. It didn’t take long to detect the common bond among those who work and volunteer at the sanctuary—a deep love of caring for horses. That love and the respect it engendered spoke through every horse-human interaction I observed.
Lacy and I headed out to handle the morning hay feed, while Casey prepared buckets of alfalfa pellets with water, customized with supplements and medication as required by individual horses, to accompany the hay. When Casey was ready to head up the hill to check on the big herd, I was invited to join her in the bright orange Kubota, the other member of the utility vehicle fleet.
The herd was large in both quantity and the size of individual horses, many of them Spotted Draft mares favored by PMU production ranches. Casey knew them all by name and shared backstories as we wandered among these sturdy creatures with lush manes and long tails that often brushed the ground. I met Shakey, a 24-year-old cougar of a gal whose constant companion is a handsome young gelding named Monaco. I was dwarfed by the largest horse at the Sanctuary, a big grey beauty named Nino who measures over 18 hands—that’s 6 ft., my height—at his withers, the base of his neck.
Many of the herd will live to be over 30, said Casey, thanks to their low-stress lifestyle and quality care that includes regular veterinary checks, hoof trimming, de-worming and daily visual inspections. When horses pass on, a spot opens for another animal to be rescued. Equines at Duchess Sanctuary are not put up for adoption. Once there, they are free to just be horses with the bonus of lifetime care. This place truly is horse heaven.
After the big herd outing, I rejoined Lacy and the chore caravan. I discovered that I can still lift and wrangle 60-lb. bales of hay into a utility vehicle (my chiropractor would be horrified). I also learned how brutal the afternoon sun can be without the benevolence of a breeze. By work day’s end, I was trashed. I drifted off to sleep before 8pm, wondering how I was going to survive the rest of the week.
I’d arrived at Duchess Sanctuary with two hats—my “Adopt a Pet/Be a Hero” baseball cap and my grandfather’s gray felt Stetson that’s at least 60 years old. No one else at the sanctuary wore a cowboy hat and I didn’t want to look like a complete city slicker so I stuck with my baseball cap for the first two days. But on Tuesday I needed some magic and thought that perhaps I’d find it by wearing grandpa’s Stetson. It worked! By the end of the day I felt, well, not trashed. And I stayed awake until 9pm. I wore the Stetson for the rest of the week.
Darrell Pooler, an eight-year sanctuary veteran in charge of maintenance, joined us for first time since I’d arrived. Maintenance at a horse sanctuary includes tasks as varied as repairing fences, taming the temperamental floats in automatic watering systems, forklifting tons of hay and keeping the equipment fleet in shipshape. While I was at the sanctuary, he constructed an outdoor paddock and shelter near the main barn for the pony pals, Trina and Polly, who’d been living in a stall with an outside pen but limited room to roam. I can only imagine how happy the spacious digs made their little pony hearts. I know it did my heart good to see them trotting around their new home.
A flock of wild turkeys chilled alongside the property’s tree-shaded, spring-fed pond as we sped by during our rounds. My confidence in undertaking solo tasks was growing. My recall of horse names, eating habits and personality quirks was improving. I felt at home.
Feed. Water. Scoop. Repeat.
Work. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
As our crew convened by the equipment shed on this still morning, a stag gracefully leapt over a nearby fence. Lacy is off today. Yikes! I loaded the Kubota with hay while Casey organized the supplement buckets, then we fed the horses together. Afterward she taught me to drive the utility vehicle and off I went to water and scoop on my own, thankful for the cloud cover that lasted until early afternoon.
A group of developmentally disabled adults arrived for a tour and left with big smiles on their faces. Duchess Sanctuary is not open to the public, but tours can be arranged. While I was there, a volunteer or two popped in nearly every day to help out—primarily with barn and paddock cleaning—and dispensing lots of horse-and-donkey love in the process. The sanctuary volunteer corps includes about 30 regulars and another 15-20 per year who do short-term stints.
One volunteer regularly helps reduce horse stress with the Japanese relaxation technique, Reiki, adding to the positive energy vibe already in abundance at Duchess Sanctuary.
During my first solo feeding this afternoon, Beatrice and Rosa, the big beautiful girls in Sydney’s Barn, aka Dry Lot 2, didn’t shy away from me. The power of an armload of hay. It costs in the neighborhood of $115,000 a year to feed the residents of Duchess Sanctuary, not including supplements, vitamins, medications and salt blocks. When I shed my work clothes later that day, I felt a little badly about how much hay had come home with me.
The early morning air wore the crispness of early fall. No Lacy or Darrell today, but I worried not. I jumped into the Kubota and confidently made my rounds, then tackled two small pastures with my muck rake. Captain, Anna and Katrina checked in periodically as I cleaned up their recent and past business. Blind Maya and her guide horse son, Spirit, were oblivious to my efforts until I was finished, or so I thought. Spirit left me a farewell present.
I chugged up the hill to fill the water trough for the three amigos, a trio of feisty mustangs living the good life in an oak forest enclosure.
A masseuse came by today to work on some of the older horses, a helpful therapy for keeping old bodies comfortable.
I stayed awake long enough to view the sunset for the first time all week.
My pal Lacy returned and we sailed through the morning feeding together, performing the hay loading, gate opening, feed-bag stuffing, hay-box filling, water-bucket cleaning and trough filling in synch as if we’d been a team for months instead of a few days. Then we parted ways, me to my muck rake and manure-studded paddocks, and Lacy to jobs above my pay grade. Emptying my last wheelbarrow load came with satisfaction and a little sadness.
Our next task was cleaning the enormous trough frequented by the Upstairs Old Ladies, one of the sanctuary’s handful of herds. The challenge: don’t get stung by the wasps who live in the neighborhood. We emptied and scrubbed and refilled, unscathed. On the way down, we visited the light herd, a handsome gang with a few friendly faces who approached us for some petting of their velvety noses.
We picked up grooming supplies and fly spray and headed for the Ark Watch Barn, an open-air shelter with six horses. Spa day! Each horse was brushed to a shine, its mane combed out before a thorough application of fly repellent. The sanctuary team is manic about fly control. All of the horses and donkeys under direct care receive fly treatment every few days. The fly population is also kept at bay by persistent manure collection, natural fence hanger traps, and strategic placement of fly predators—tiny wasps that arrive by mail and devour fly larvae. I’ve never spent time at a horse property with so few flies.
The evening sped by with clean-up and packing, but I did linger outside before bed one last time, taking in the big herd on the hill as they munched their last grass of the day and pricking up my ears for their gentle nickers.
My last morning began with a wildlife trifecta—grazing deer, gobbling wild turkeys and a loping jackrabbit. Friendly to more than equines, the sanctuary offers a safe habitat to native wildlife, from deer and elk to foxes, bobcats, cougars, skunks and bears, most of which have been captured on wildlife cameras. I was perfectly content not to have encountered the last two during my stay.
After feeding and watering, I joined Lacey and Jennifer in Marie’s Barn where Lady Jane, a blind donkey, received soft white leggings to protect her vulnerable legs. Then our utility vehicle caravan headed up the hill, where we squeezed five 90-lb. bales of timothy hay into the compact bed of each mechanical workhorse. Once we unloaded our fragrant, scratchy load in the Silo Barn in preparation for upcoming feedings, it was time for me put Duchess Sanctuary in my rearview mirror and mosey home.
It was all a labor of love—heavy on the love.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.
Delightful reading, old Nevada friend Julie’s post “Neighcation”!
And I so admire her ongoing dedication to the tossed-off critters we humans should be responsible for.
Thanks for publishing it. Nice counterpoint to the luxury often highlighted in your newsletter.