Valley News Intern
Oak Meadows Ranch is a nonprofit horse sanctuary located in Wildomar for rescued horses that have been abandoned, injured or whose owners cannot afford to care for them. Owners Craig Phillips, 55, and Debbie Phillips, 60, have been operating the ranch since 2012.
The 21-acre ranch offers riding classes, various forms of therapy and monthly family friendly events.
“The rolling hills were just beautiful. It was so rural I decided it was the right place for the sanctuary,” Craig Phillips said.
“We called it Oak Meadows Ranch because we’ve got two oak trees here that are about 200 to 300 years old,” Debbie Phillips added.
The couple began their nonprofit organization called The Blue Pearl Project in February 2012, named for the view of the earth from space. Their initial intent was to save the oceans.
“But the horses took over our lives. They owned us. So, we changed the rescue to Blue Pearl Project horse rescue,” Craig said. “We call it a sanctuary because we protect those that need to be protected.”
The Phillips’ began by buying two Tennessee Walking horses, Domino and Bodacious that needed to be rehabilitated.
“The place where we boarded them had a very good trainer who trained us how to rehab the horses. While we were learning this was when the economy crashed four years ago. A lot of people were losing their homes and ranches and couldn’t afford their horses anymore,” Craig said.
During their first two months of operation they boarded eight horses.
“People just heard about us from the website bluepearlproject.com and they started contacting us, some of them crying and afraid that their horses would be slaughtered and auctioned off. They begged us to take their horses, not to sell them but to sanctuary them,” Debbie said.
Oak Meadows Ranch now houses a colorful mix of about 75 horses, ranging from former race and police horses to mini horses. The ranch operates on donations of about $18,000 per month used to pay for feed, supplies and maintenance.
“Our goal is to put a shelter per every single horse and make sure they are comfortable, so we do need donations, every bit helps,” Debbie said. “We rescue these horses and do all we can just so they can be safe and so that people can be around horses. It’s better for the horse and for the people to be with each other.”
One of their rescue stories is about Charlie, a horse that had been starved and was 400 pounds underweight and had been attacked by pit bulls.
“He had seven holes clear through his skin. He was in serious condition,” Craig said.
“It was 106-degree weather, no shade,” Debbie added.
“When we found him he was oozing sores, no food or water… I walked up to him put a lead rope on him and he dragged me up into the trailer as if to say, ‘take me home.’ It took us three months to rehab him and when we got done he turned out to be one of our best trail riders,” Debbie said. “He’s our success story.
“His previous owner was starving him because (Charlie) belonged to his teenage daughter that had run away from home and that was his way of getting back at her. He took it out on the horse,” Debbie recalled.
“No other rescue wanted to take Olivia so we took her in,” Debbie said.
The Ranch offers multiple forms of emotional, mental and physical therapy for people by use of their rescued horses.
“You can’t lie to a horse. So we use horses to help people get in touch with their inner feeling and their inner thoughts, because they can’t fake it,” Craig said. “The bond with a horse will open up your heart. We have a fundraiser to make free equine therapy for veterans possible. Some have insurance and some don’t, if they’re a vet we can’t turn them away.”
One method offered is the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, or EAGALA method, of equine therapy that focuses on helping people with the assistance of horses, to cope with troubles they may be having in their life that may be related to issues such as stress or interpersonal communication struggles.
“People tend to live a life where they create their own prison and they don’t understand that if they’ve created it they can also set themselves free,” said Vicki Coffman, a licensed marriage and family therapist and horse specialist. She leads many of the EAGALA therapy sessions at the ranch. “I stumbled upon Oak Meadows Ranch one day while looking for another ranch and after I had seen the other one I didn’t feel it was conducive to the type of therapy we offer, so I came back here and within weeks the Phillips and I had created a partnership.”
Coffman’s reason for going into therapy is a personal one.
“I’m a retired law enforcement officer and I suffered from post-traumatic stress on the job and that led me to exploring treatment methods,” Coffman said. “I read a book about it back in about 2006, started researching it and went to the training. It has just been a phenomenal journey of helping people discover, not through sitting and talking, but just letting the horse do the work. It just takes people to a whole new level that we can’t get a lot of times in an office setting and what better environment to do therapy. If I could describe it in one word I would say it’s freeing.”
Barbara Barnaba who has been the Therapeutic Riding Center executive director and Instructor at Oak Meadows since May 2015, says the one word that describes it most to her would be empowerment.
“I do most of the therapeutic riding, working with kids or the horses and helping with whatever needs to be done around here at the ranch,” Barnaba said. “It’s so rewarding, you get to help people, horses, challenged people, veterans or children to adjust or readjust to life and social situations or learn leadership skills and responsibility. What may take some people two or three months of talk therapy we can sometimes get out in one session of EAGALA. The horses are a 1200 pound lie detector. Before you even get close to them they can tell what’s going on with you or your body. The horse chooses you, you don’t choose the horse.”
Along with EAGALA, the Phillips believe hippotherapy has been beneficial to many of their visitors. Hippotherapy is a form of physical, occupational and speech therapy that uses the movements of the horse to provide treatment for ailments such as cerebral palsy.
“I have helped a 50-year-old man with cerebral palsy that used to flop over on the horse, and now he sits upright and it helps his core strength,” Barnaba said. “I worked with a client the other day that hadn’t told anyone her problem no within one session of EAGALA we found out what they hadn’t been able to find out in three months. As soon as people come onto the property we want them to feel relaxed.”
The love for horses and people alike is the driving force for many at Oak Meadows ranch. “One of the most rewarding things is to see people falling in love with the horses, they really are a very unique creature” said Paige Kimberly Heatherly, ranch manager and vet tech since April 2015.
Heatherly was looking for a place for her younger cousin to earn volunteer hours for her graduation.
“Where I grew up, people had very expensive horses and you couldn’t even touch them. When I found out about this place I was like, ‘wow we can actually touch them and interact with them,’” she said.
Heatherly helped to build the bleachers a ramps on the property as a living space for to condo for the desert tortoises. She even stays overnights to help monitor animals who may be sick.
The Phillips have an on-site veterinarian, Dr. Charles Edgerly. Edgerly was the first volunteer and has been at the ranch for three and a half years and has been practicing Veterinary medicine since 1964. He rides five miles a day while making his rounds and checking on each rescued horse to perform exams and diagnose and treat their ailments.
“The horses are the best part of this job,” Edgerly said. “I think this is one of the best ranches, Craig and Debbie, they’re really good at what they do and very dedicated,” Edgerly said.
Volunteers are welcome during ranch hours. Holly Wilcox, who retired from the pharmaceutical field, visits and helps with tasks like grooming and stall cleaning nearly every day.
“Any one person can help. Debbie and Craig can’t do it on their own,” Wilcox said. “The more people that come out and get involved the more horses and people they can help. Any organization that helps people relies on donations and that’s really hard when the economy fluctuates the first thing to go for many people is donations.”
“There aren’t a lot of places like this out here where people can volunteer and we have many that just keep coming bad and saying thank you. We really do get so many great people out here” Debbie Phillips said.