Creating a safe haven for rescue horses in Andalusia, Spain

7 min.

This story starts like so many with a ‘once upon a time’ and a little girl. This little girl, Sarah, like so many, loved horses. Like so many, her mummy and daddy couldn’t afford for her to have her own horse. But the little girl had lots of lovely friends who let her play with their horses. Meet Sarah Vesey, who uprooted her life in the UK to pursue a life in Spain rescuing and caring for horses with traumatic pasts and vulnerable hearts.

Gaining the trust of the horses

Sarah lived in a beautiful place in England called the New Forest. The forest is famous in England for its wild ponies. They are protected by law nowadays and are still allowed to sleep, eat, and live wherever they choose. Back then, some of the wild ponies were allowed to be adopted by local people.

Sarah’s natural horsemanship skill shone through at an early age. She quickly gained a reputation in the area as being able to work with horses that exhibited difficult behaviors. Sarah was able to gain their trust and help them feel safe. Together, they were able to curb their difficulties, so they were no longer a danger to humans or themselves and led a much happier life.

Driving over lemons in southern Spain

When Sarah grew up, she and her boyfriend went to Spain on holiday. They visited a place that later became famous through a book named ‘Driving Over Lemons’ but at that time was still very rural and traditional. Not many people lived there, and Sarah fell in love with the extraordinary landscape of the Alpujarra region at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range.

There you will find snow in the winter and the summers can reach 50 degrees. The rugged rawness of these mountains feels like you’re going back in time. Centuries ago, the area was under Moorish rule. This Arabic influence is still apparent in the charmingly rustic architecture and topography. The Moors created ‘acequias’ that are like man-made streams, which follow the contours of the hills to bring ice-cold water from the snowmelt from the higher mountain tops to the barren Andalusian sunbaked land.

The view from horse back over the river by Órgiva. Photo: Daniëlle van Leeuwen Photography

Making of a heart home

When Sarah returned to England after the trip to Spain, she knew that she had left her heart high up in the mountains. She packed up her life and returned to Spain with nothing more than a caravan for a home, her dog, Tess, and her horse, Cole. Sarah bought a piece of land on the mountain called ‘La Chaparra’, which translates as ‘the little one’. Her little slice of heaven was 1000m above sea level with a view of a huge reservoir that changes color as the light of the seasons change too. In the Spring and Autumn, when the skies are clearest with less Saharan dust or fewer clouds, you can even see the Rif Mountains of Morocco across the Mediterranean Sea.

You may also like to read: Horses around the world: 8 of the endangered breeds

Back to the future

Twenty-three years later, Sarah still lives on La Chaparra on the same piece of land. It’s no longer barren as she has planted many trees, plants, and developed veggie patches for organic, homegrown produce. She has built little buildings in the Moorish rustic style, as her family and business grew. Tess and Cole are no longer here but five dogs have stepped in to keep their mistress company. Nine cats are now part of the gang too, as well as many chickens, silkies, geese, and horses. Oh! the horses.

Horses are not the only animals at the Caballo Blanco ranch. Photo: Cabello Blanco.

Healing the horses’ hurt

Over the years, Sarah’s reputation that she built so quickly as a young lady has spread around this rural part of Spain. Many rescue cases have come to her for rehabilitation. Many more have stayed. Sarah’s loving horsemanship style has helped traumatic pasts and vulnerable hearts heal. After careful observation, she approaches each delicate soul with techniques developed from a lifetime of knowledge. Once it is safe for both horse and human, they will start their mountain therapy.

Mountain therapy

For those whom it is suitable and appropriate, the horses can go on to become trekking horses. This means they get to explore the brutal landscape of the Spanish mountains, crushing wild herbs under hoof, and eating sweet figs from the trees as they pass by. The horses learn so much on the treks. The experience of many different riders means they become comfortable around all sorts of humans. They will occasionally experience traffic, and other hobbyists in this mountain playground, like mountain bikers and motor bikers. They experience water, like the acequias, and wildlife, like birds of prey and the wild, horned, Ibex goats that call this place ‘home’.  

Those of the horses that are suited for it can become part of the trekking family. Photo: Daniëlle van Leeuwen Photography

Changing landscapes

Over the last twenty-odd years, thousands of tourists have come to experience the breath-taking majesty of these mountains on horseback. It is an activity that links us to our ancestors. The roads were only created here as recently as the 1950s. There were mulberry trees farmed here for the silkworms that lived on them. Olives and almonds were also key crops.
Sadly, climate change has impacted the area and it is dry, far drier than could have been imagined. One of the villages in the 60s had plans for a ski resort. Now, they can expect maybe two weeks of snow a year and certainly not enough to ski on. The land is no longer farmed as the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those stoic ‘campesinos’ have moved to more urban locations, for a way of life governed by tech rather than seasons.

You may also like to read: Part 2: Horses in the world – Life as a travelling equestrian

Finding forever

When the tourists come on holiday to the Ranch, they are paired with a horse that Sarah knows will suit them from her info-gathering prior. Spending as long together as the guests and horses do, and with Sarah’s match-making skills, relationships are created that go on to last a lifetime. This is one of the ways that many of the horses go on to become adopted by people who have fallen in love. One of the few times that holiday romances go on forever.

Before heading out, it’s important to find the right match between the tourist and the horses. Photo: Cabello Blanco.

The Pandemic’s impact

When coronavirus reached Spain and began its devastation, the Ranch and the country had to go into lockdown. The horses weren’t allowed to be ridden in case of accidents and a following risk of taking a hospital bed. Lots of tourists had to cancel, many postponed, thinking they could come in the near future. This, as we now know, didn’t happen either. The Ranch lost more revenue than it bears to think about. A neighbor was able to construct a fundraising page and website that could accept donations. This and the kind generosity of those who love the Ranch allowed the horses, and Sarah and her family, to continue to eat. 

Where are we now?

The world is starting to reopen. The rules have changed many times. Many more flights have been cancelled and more refunds made. Some European tourists who have been able to drive across borders have been able to visit once more. The UK visitors are still sadly missing, overall. The American and Canadian tourists are not yet venturing back out in their previous numbers. Australia remains locked down. The volunteers that visit the Ranch to guide the treks and care for the animals are in short supply, putting pressure on Sarah and family to do as much as they can themselves. Sarah has had to get an office job to ensure there is enough money to feed everyone.

Winter is coming and many horses and other animals need help. The rescues at Cabello Blanco are lucky to
be at a place filled with care. Photo: Daniëlle van Leeuwen Photography

The forgotten ones

The horses on the Ranch during the pandemic have been the lucky ones. Due to the lack of funds and lack of volunteers able to get to Spain, there are many horses, dogs, and cats that have not been able to be helped. The reality for those animals is too heart-breaking to contemplate for long.
As the world slowly creeps back to a type of normal, we are all praying that we can also get back to the levels of support the Ranch and Sarah was able to provide. Rehabilitating dogs and, of course, the horses for people all over the world to fall in love with and give the life that all creatures deserve. One of care, affection, full bellies, and professional veterinary support when needed.

How to help the horses

If you would like to help Sarah, the Ranch, and the forgotten animals of the pandemic, please visit Caballo Blanco.
You can make a donation on the site or book a holiday to experience the stunning Spanish countryside for yourself. 

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