When Kathy Castro’s beloved horse Santana died in 2004, she was heartbroken. The animal had a mind of its own, which made him challenging to train and ride, but he also taught Castro so much about herself.
“That horse was just amazing,” she recalled. “He taught me about trustworthiness and how to be patient. He was hyperactive, too – never connecting his body and mind together – but he was the most wonderful friend and companion.”
To honor Santana, Castro established the Santana Center at her home in North Kingstown, a non-profit organization that rescues horses destined for slaughter and works to place horses in loving homes. Last year she rescued and found homes for 11 horses, which helped her win a $10,000 grant from the ASPCA through its Help a Horse contest. Through the first three months of 2019, she is already well ahead of her winning pace.
The problem, according to Castro, is that there are just too many horses in the United States. “We don’t need to breed a million thoroughbreds,” she said. “We have too many racehorses, too many quarter horses, too many wild horses. It also becomes too expensive for many owners to keep their horses. And when a horse gets old or sick, they don’t know what to do with it.”
As a result, about 100,000 horses are sent to Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered each year. Congress is now considering a bill to ban the shipping of horses to slaughter, a practice many consider barbaric, but if the bill passes, it will result in an enormous number of homeless horses.
“Horse rescues like the Santana Center are a Band-aid,” said Castro, who works as a fisheries scientist at the University of Rhode Island. “I’ve found homes for 40 horses, but 75,000 died. We’re only addressing the side problem. The bigger issue is who’s giving up horses and how do they end up in the slaughter pen. Is there a way to address that so people can keep their horses?”
When she started the Santana Center, Castro worked with the Rhode Island SPCA and the state to conduct a survey to determine how many horses resided in the Ocean State. The result – between 6,000 and 7,000 – was far more than anyone had guessed. Yet a national study found that there are plenty of homes available for horses. It just takes some effort to find them.
So Castro took that as a sign. She started visiting the websites for horse auctions – the horses that aren’t sold are sent to slaughter – and began identifying animals she thought she could find homes for.
“We see these horses online, and we fall in love with them,” she said. “It’s the look in their eyes. We fix them and then we adopt them out.”
Like Luna, a beautiful paint that Castro’s daughter took a liking to. They started raising money to purchase her from the auction house, when a woman from Michigan expressed interest in her.
“We didn’t need to keep Luna, so we worked together to save her,” she said.
As she saves more and more horses from slaughter, Castro is building a nationwide following for the Santana Center.
“People take notice that we’re pulling horses from the auctions, and they start fundraising for us and talking about us – people I’ve never met. It’s a big network,” she said. “Just about every horse we’ve adopted out in the last year has found a home through word of mouth.”
Castro has found homes for her recently rescued horses in California, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., as well as in Foster and Middletown, R.I., and elsewhere. And she still has 12 horses in residence at the Santana Center awaiting homes, including Kyah, a 17-year-old Belgian quarter horse; Maverick a 16-year-old quarter horse; Beau a yearling quarter horse; and Ivy, a 12- year-old thoroughbred, not to mention two mini-mules, Sam and Frodo.
“It’s hard to stop from taking more. I get calls from horse owners all the time who say they have old horses they’re trying to get rid of, but they’re not horses I can place somewhere,” she said. “We’re not a sanctuary, so we need to take horses that are placeable, horses I can move once I fix their problems. Two came just last week, and now we’re in an economic hole that we have to crawl out of because they need vet care.”
Luckily, Castro has many great volunteers – high school girls, families, older women, URI students, and others who have any number of reasons for committing themselves to the cause. And she enjoys financial support from numerous donors and grants. The latest support comes from After the Finish Line, a California-based group that helps thoroughbreds find new careers after their racing days are over.
“What we really need to do is solve the problem of horse overpopulation,” she concluded. “I love rescuing horses, but I don’t need 12. I know what to do with the horses; I can fix them. And if I can’t, I can find the people that can. But we need to fix the unwanted horse problem.”
“For me to go out of business because we don’t need to rescue any more, I would love that,” she said. “And then I would just ride.”