One big thing that's been missing at Equine Spirit Sanctuary near Taos since early March when a pandemic took hold of New Mexico – the sound of children laughing and greeting the horses, ponies and volunteers.

"The worst thing about being shut down this summer is we miss the kids," said Ruth Bourgeois, founder and executive director of the nonprofit that rescues horses and provides therapeutic riding lessons.

There have been no pony rides. No workshops to help horse owners learn better equine care. No children reading to Bindy the miniature donkey. And few volunteers to help with cleaning pens, exercising the horses and maintaining the property.

"Typically in the summer we have visitors from all over and regulars from here," Bourgeois said in a phone interview from the ESS facility.

She had watched the news as a novel coronavirus rampaged through China, then Europe and finally landed in the United States. A week before the first cases were confirmed in New Mexico in March, Bourgeois had already decided to shut down. "We saw what was happening and decided it was not worth the risk of people getting sick," she said.

She canceled with clients who were scheduled for therapy sessions and asked the dozen or more volunteers who usually help to take a break. And for weeks, she handled caring for the horses and donkeys at the property on Los Caballos Road almost entirely alone.

As New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham began to loosen restrictions, Bourgeois allowed some volunteers to return, while keeping to the state's mandates. "We've been closed to visitors pretty much the whole time except by appointment to look at adopting a horse," Bourgeois said.

Although closed, Bourgeois and a couple of helpers tackled some projects they wanted to do but for which "we never had time or energy when we were open. We built another pasture on two acres. We fixed fences. We had a trainer working with a couple of neglected horses that came to the shelter. And we've done more rescue work. In one week in May alone we took in four horses. It's unusual for us to take that many in."

But the calls increased from people reporting neglected horses or from desperate horse owners who could no longer afford to keep their animals as they dealt with lost jobs, she said. "We've been getting a lot of calls. People are having a hard time," she said.

At the same time, "interestingly we've been getting a lot more calls from people who want to adopt."

Animal Protection New Mexico, a statewide nonprofit, has a fund set up to help horse owners in dire straits.

"We have been busier than ever before trying to provide emergency feed assistance, one of the direct service pieces of our Equine Protection Fund, to families and communities all over the state," said Laura Bonar, APNM chief program officer.

"In the second quarter of 2020, we helped feed 864 equines, nearly 90 times more than we fed in the same time period the year before - 10 equines in the second quarter of 2019. The harsh drought, combined with people sick from COVID, and families reeling from the economic impact of shutdowns to save lives, are very real in New Mexico."

In total, the fund helped horses belonging to 261 people from April through June, compared to nine the same time period in 2019. "The need is extremely serious for many families still and we have been able to work with some growers who have generously donated to help stretch our dollars," Bonar said.

ESS is one of a dozen nonprofits in the state that rescue, rehabilitate and adopt out horses under regulation by the New Mexico Livestock Board, which also manages a horse rescue fund. The Taos sanctuary is the only one that combines the equine rescue efforts with programs offering equine therapy to children and adults with special needs.

ESS has been at its current location, once a former equine veterinary clinic, since 2008. When COVID-19 hit and the state went into lockdown, Bourgeois didn't know what that would mean for the sanctuary. But the many people who have visited the facility and its inhabitants over the last dozen years stepped in to help. "People helped us with donations," she said. "It surprised me, the support we had."

It costs about $600 a week to keep the half-dozen donkeys, several older horses in permanent retirement and several therapy horses plus a couple of miniponies at the sanctuary in hay, grain and supplements.

"Our biggest thing right now is we are looking at making changes. How do we work on sustainability in light of all of this? It was pretty scary when we thought what would happen when we can't do our [equine therapy] programs," she said. That's because equine therapy can't be done by Zoom or remotely since it is the physical interaction between a client and a horse that is so important.

She said they are watching closely what the schools are doing in regards to bringing students physically back to classrooms.

"We've been prepping so that we can reopen when they are ready. We are consistently working with the horses, working on our programs."

How you can help

Sign up for Smith's Inspiring Donations program, AmazonSmile program or put your donation poker chip at Cid's Market into the ESS jar. You can also sponsor one of the ESS horses. Find out more at equine-spiritsanctuary.org.

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