Put out to pasture, Kitsap Horse Rescue Toni’s Ponies get a second lease on life
KINGSTON, Kitsap County — After a few calls and applause, Bailey came out of the pasture and trotted past a bright pink horse trailer toward Toni Houck, who greeted the pinto mare with treats. Bailey was once a world champion show horse and recently served as a lesson horse for children, but a leg injury ended his career at 18 despite a life expectancy stretching into his 30s .
“For such a big animal, they’re so delicate,” Houck said, standing in mud boots, also bright pink.
Bailey’s owner donated her to Houck’s horse rescue, Toni’s Ponies, in February 2020 to live out her retirement. While Bailey arrived under benign circumstances, the 15 rented acres on the outskirts of Kingston are home to many equines who arrive emaciated, sick and abused.
But this year, it was the rescuer who needed to be rescued.
After caring for 45 horses for 16 years, Houck found herself in February facing a 90-day deadline to raise $650,000 to purchase the farm — or she would be forced to find a new home for her herd when the owner decided to sell.
Houck, 61, a permanent resident of Kitsap County and former rodeo princess who grew up around horses, since 2006 has been informally rescuing this former cattle farm, where she lives on-site in a modest, horse-themed home down to the shower curtains. She cleared acres of burrs and blackberries to create pasture and fenced paddocks for the horses to quarantine, rehabilitate and eventually thrive in, with the ultimate goal of finding a new home or adoptive owner to come on board. riding with Houck. A single mother of three adult children, she works as a waitress and bartender in Kingston to supplement outside donations that cover the costs of buying, feeding and caring for her rescue horses. In 2019, she incorporated Toni’s Ponies as a 501(c)(3) and 509(a)(2) nonprofit organization.
While Houck was aware from the outset that month-to-month rental was precarious, she had a verbal handshake with her landlord that she would be offered first right to purchase in the event of a sale. That offer came on Feb. 18, Houck said, at a time when Toni’s Ponies was home to 18 horses, two of which were still feral and uncooperative with basic human handling. “I knew it would happen, but I thought we would be over 90 days,” she said. (The owner did not respond to requests for comment at press time.)
This deadline sparked a quixotic fundraising frenzy beginning with a GoFundMe campaign. In late March, Houck hosted a garage sale featuring leftover inventory from the now closed Kingston Mercantile & Marine, where she once served as manager, and donations from across Kitsap County.
By early April, Houck had only raised 10% of the purchase price and the situation was looking dire. But news of Houck’s plight quickly spread through Kitsap County’s close-knit animal rescue community.
“The fact that she only had 90 days to leave the property with her horses was quite unreasonable,” Sid Wang said by phone from Bainbridge Island. Wang and his wife Karen run the Happy Hooves Sanctuary. After negotiating with Houck’s landlord and securing a line of credit from their bank, the Wangs settled on a price of $600,000 and completed the purchase on April 8, property records show. Kitsap county.
“We decided to give him some more time to recover,” Wang said. “We share his passion for rescuing animals and preventing animal cruelty. We have extreme sympathy for the situation she finds herself in, which is why we took the risk of paying a deposit in order to qualify for the loan.
food and love
What was once a seemingly insurmountable race against time now has respite. Houck still needs to raise funds to buy the Wang property – his $800-a-month rent has jumped to $3,000-a-month to cover the new mortgage – and will continue his efforts when Hood Canal Brewery hosts a fundraiser on April 24 .
But with a like-minded owner, Houck now has a path to stability for Toni’s Ponies. As a result, she can plan infrastructure, such as accessible ramps, and programs such as equine therapy, educational outings for underprivileged children and children with disabilities, farm tourism and overnight camping.
She can also continue to focus on her main passion: rescuing horses.
Each horse has a separate story: the family inherited the horse from grandma and decided they didn’t want to bear the cost and responsibility. Parents bought a horse for a child, now an adult, who is no longer interested in riding. Wild horses are herded on public or tribal land. When these horses end up at Toni’s Ponies, they have typically avoided a common fate: slaughter. Regardless of where they come from, unwanted horses often end up in feedlots, where they are sold at auction and then shipped to slaughterhouses, where they are made into glue or dog food.
Horses at auction range from $700 to $900 — “meat prices,” Houck calls those numbers — and shipping to his property from Oregon or eastern Washington typically costs an additional $400. She consumes $20,000 of hay per year and $800 per month of grain, plus the cost of vitamins and veterinary care.
Why work three jobs and appeal to his network of fifty regular donors who sponsor his rescues?
“I understand that it is necessary to slaughter animals, but I disagree with the way it is done,” she said. “It’s inhumane.”
Houck described exhibits from slaughterhouses that reveal such methods as cutting off babies from still-living mares, slicing through leg muscles to immobilize horses, and hanging horses on meat hooks before their necks are broken.
As Houck knows she can’t save all the horses, she looks at the photo uploaded by the auctioneer. “If they have good eyes, I try to save them,” she said.
Such was the case with Old Man Winter, a 28-year-old white swayback who was Houck’s first rescue in 2009. Or Sweet Gypsy, a riding horse dumped at auction still with horseshoes, but just “skin.” and bones,” Houck said. . Or Jessie, who lost her eye to an unknown injury.
Some arrive hostile and only warm up to select individuals, like Ruth. “Ruth was scary, whistled, didn’t like people,” Kingston resident Kristen Chandler said by phone. “You couldn’t get near her.”
In 2020, Chandler’s daughter, Shelby, 15, already a rider who practiced English show jumping, started volunteering at Toni’s Ponies to take a break from virtual schooling. “Toni noticed Ruth had a thing for Shelby and offered to mentor her,” Chandler said. For a year, Shelby visited Toni’s ponies almost daily and waited patiently to gain Ruth’s trust before adopting her. Today, Chandler pays board and Shelby bikes to the horse rescue after school for the afternoon meal. On weekends, she grooms Ruth and tries to get her used to wearing a halter and being led.
“I feel very confident about how Toni is with Shelby, protecting her but also seeing the connection between the horse and the person,” Chandler said.
While Houck has something of a horse whisperer aura about her, she insists the recipe for rehabilitating a horse is simple.
“All you have to do is feed these horses and show them compassion,” she said. “Food and love. It’s not rocket science.