Many mustangs at Sky Dog Sanctuary have back stories that involve abuse or neglect, but none so much as Read. The wild chestnut horse has a hole in his face. When Read was a younger, smaller horse, someone placed a halter on his head and never took it off. As Read grew, his face expanded beneath the halter, which carved a permanent gash that exposes his nasal passage. Once stranded at an Oklahoma “kill pen” where many horses are bought and trucked internationally to slaughter, Read is in the care of Central Oregon’s newest mustang sanctuary.

“I’ve rarely seen a halter injury that has gone so deep,” said founder and sanctuary manager Clare Staples-Read, who bought the now 22-year-old horse last year. She named him after her husband. “But he does so well now. He runs around and is happy and breathes OK. I don’t think he’s aware that he’s different than any other horse — they treat him perfectly normal. He’s certainly a poster child for the bad situations these mustangs can end up in.”

Read is one of 53 mustangs, or wild horses, that Staples-Read rescued by way of last-minute purchase.

Her vast, 9,000-acre ranch is southeast of the Prineville reservoir. It’s the third location of Sky Dog Sanctuary, a nonprofit Staples-Read began in 2011.

Living in Southern California, she bought a 5-acre ranch in Calabasas and another 13-acre ranch in Malibu for burros and mustangs. She trained the horses for riding.

“I realized that if I was going to rescue more horses, I was going to need more land,” said Staples-Read, 53. “This is their forever home. They’re here for life in a horse heaven on earth.”

Paved with good intentions

Many of Staples-Read’s mustangs have already passed through multiple hands. Often, even the well-intentioned can become poor horse caregivers, making horse rescues like Sky Dog Sanctuary — Central Oregon’s fourth — so crucial. New owners can quickly become overwhelmed by the costs of basic equine care, which can range from $5,000 to $8,000 a year per horse, according to Bill Inman, president of the Bend nonprofit Equine Outreach. That figure doesn’t include any veterinary emergencies, the costs of which can quickly escalate. And then there is the time commitment of feeding, mucking stalls, cleaning hooves and working the horse that rival that of a part-time job. In less than ideal settings, horses become neglected, suffer from malnutrition or starvation and even abuse.

A desperate owner may sell or give away a horse without scrutinizing its new owner’s intentions, which can often include reselling the horse at auctions held on feed lots that are called “kill pens” by animal rights activists. While horses are not slaughtered there, they’re often sold to “kill buyers” who transport the horses to legal slaughter in Canada and Mexico. Since 2012, an annual average of 137,000 American horses — mustangs and domestic varieties — are trucked across U.S. borders to be slaughtered, according to the ASPCA.

Staples-Read catches wind of those kill pen auctions online and through social media. For several hundred dollars each, she can save a mustang or burro from a slaughter that animal rights groups say is inhumane.

“(Kill buyers) think we’re crazy, emotional people,” Staples-Read said. “Conversations with kill buyers can be difficult because they’ll say things like ‘If you don’t want the horse, we’ll just kill it or put it on a truck.’… But you won’t get anywhere if you’re judgmental.”

The shrinking West

The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act declared mustangs, whose ancestors the Spanish introduced centuries ago, majestic creatures worth protecting. The act put the Bureau of Land Management in charge of overseeing mustangs and burros on 26.9 million public acres in 10 western states.

There are roughly 59,000 mustangs in the U.S., with a majority located in Nevada, according to an Associated Press report. This year, the BLM’s mustang and burro budget is $80.4 million, up more than two-fold from $36.2 million in 2008.

Mustangs and burros, whose populations grow by 20 percent each year, numbered 4,351 in Oregon as of March, according to the BLM. BLM herd management areas hold 3,600 mustangs and burros — that’s about 1,636 animals over capacity, said Mike Campbell, BLM public affairs officer. Within Oregon, the BLM operates 17 such areas, most of which are in the southeastern part of the state. The BLM and the U.S. Forest Service also co-manage two additional HMAs.

Auctions are held at such holding locations, and mustangs, whose bids begin at $125, go for much less than the value of the horse’s meat if slaughtered — which is illegal in the U.S. Safeguards against such sales include background checks, provisions in the bill of sale and subsequent compliance checks. Still, some mustangs are swept up in an international pipeline that ends in their human consumption.

It takes a village

At Sky Dog Sanctuary’s recent open house, Staples-Read and her husband Chris Read invited the public to tour their facility and visit their collection of mustangs, burros and some other rare mixed breeds, such as a zonkey, which is half donkey and half zebra.

“Look at Zizi! Everybody loves a zonkey!” Staples-Read said as she shuttled some visitors through the property in her pickup truck. Zizi and Cassidy, a miniature horse and donkey mix, stood with a dozen mustang mares, in a 50-acre pasture. Staples-Read rescued the rare animals from a fate that would have likely involved them being hunted for sport in an exotic game hunting operations in states such as Texas.

“Cassidy thinks all the mares are his girlfriends,” said Staples-Read in a south English brogue infused with a slight American twang. Originally from Surrey County, southwest of London, Staples-Read has lived in the U.S. since she was 18.

Linda Hadley drove from Prineville to check out Sky Dog Sanctuary. Wearing a pink T-shirt that bore the embroidery, “I’m that crazy old horse lady,” Hadley, who has rescued five mustangs with her husband, said Sky Dog Sanctuary was up to snuff.

“Sky Dog is better than some others,” she said. Hadley was impressed by the irrigation that funnels water from an 80,000-gallon cistern to stock tanks throughout the ranch. Spring boxes, which are fed by nearby springs and creeks, also help hydrate the mustangs and burros in each of the eight 30-50 acre, fenced-in pastures that are threaded by bumpy roads. Along with 7-foot wire fences, the water system is a convenient hold-over from the elk farm that previously sat on the grounds.

“It’s not crowded here the way some other sanctuaries are,” Hadley said. “Here, they have room for the horses — they’re not pent up. Sky Dog Sanctuary is about quality over quantity.”

Bill Inman, president of nonprofit Equine Outreach, was similarly impressed with Staples-Read’s operation. Its size dwarfs Central Oregon’s three other horse sanctuaries, which include Inman’s, 3 Sisters Equine Refuge and Mustangs to the Rescue. He toured the operation with Staples-Read and said he looked forward to trading notes and planning some collaborations between his 20-acre, 80-horse rescue and Sky Dog Sanctuary.

“People in the horse world don’t realize how many horses don’t have homes, need homes and are in bad situations,” Inman said.

Staples-Read is in the process of relocating part-time to Oregon, due to recent water shortages in California and her fondness of Oregon’s mustangs.

“Central Oregon has an abundance of water (sources) and the sorts of habitats these horses grew up in, so I thought it was ideal,” she said. “I started looking for land in Central Oregon because I love Bend.”

While life seems idyllic, if demanding, for Staples-Read and her entrepreneur-by-day husband, a dark cloud rumbles on the horizon. The Trump Administration recently proposed a $10 million cut to BLM funding in 2018, which would curtail contraceptive measures for mustangs and burros and safeguards to ensure they aren’t sold for slaughter, according to the AP.

“(Now) is a really bad (time) for mustangs. For pioneers, a horse was their only source of transportation, and now it seems like such a betrayal,” she said. “I feel we owe them a lot more than the deal they’re getting at the moment.”

The gentling effect

Since she was a girl, Staples-Read dreamed of having a horse. Now she has 53 mustangs in her custody — six are foals born at Sky Dog Sanctuary by mares that were pregnant when she bought them.

“If you treat them with love and respect, and they see you bringing their food everyday… There is one mustang I thought I would never touch, and one day he was right there and he wanted to be scratched. Once you get that first scratch, they’re yours and they’ll follow you around,” Staples-Read said. “I think horses want a connection. They’ve just had a really bad experience with humans. But they kind of want to give it another go — they just do it on their terms. When a horse comes and puts its nose on me … I feel like it’s a gift. Mustangs are incredibly forgiving. They don’t stand around and dwell.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816,