On a warm September day, Travis Mask stood at a corral where a couple of thin, scared horses were trembling.
Mask talked quietly, and the smaller of the two, a little brown pony, cautiously made her way to the woman's outstretched hand. The pony sniffed Mask's hand and then took the treat in it.
"She'll be OK, she'll come around quick," Mask said.
Mask should know. The 51-year-old Atwater resident had a childhood that most folks only dream about.
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Born in Lancaster, Mask said her mother, Mary Mask, was the first licensed woman quarter-horse race trainer in California. Mask doesn't remember the first time she was on a horse, but she does remember sleeping in tack rooms at the racetrack and sometimes in the back of a pickup truck, falling asleep to the sound of the crowds hollering for their favorite horses.
"My older sisters were training too," Mask recalled. "When I was in about the first grade we hit the road and lived at the racetrack."
Mask remembers riding an old palomino mare that was kid-broke, galloping her all over the racetrack at the age of only 3. "I drove the trainers crazy," she laughed.
At one point, Mask got interested in mules, and actually owned the world champion running mule, a fast longear named Margaret, in the 1970s.
But in her teen years, boys took the place of horses, and Mask married young when she was just 16. Horses became just a memory, and she learned to love cars as her husband did.
Then, about five years ago, she was at the Atwater Fourth of July celebration when fate stepped in.
"I was talking with Renate Schmitz when she got a call about some horses that needed help," Mask said.
Schmitz, who runs the Last Hope Cat Kingdom animal rescue organization in Atwater, had a friend who was dying from cancer and had 24 horses. That day at the celebration, Schmitz got the dreaded call.
"I heard my friend had died, and there were all those horses to be taken care of," Schmitz said. "I didn't know what to do."
That's when Mask stepped up.
"Travis said she would help me, and she has been an unbelievable help since then," Schmitz said.
Those 24 horses were just the beginning. After getting some of them rescued, and some adopted, Mask ended up with one of the horses -- and found herself back in the horse world.
Schmitz has property in rural Atwater, so for the first couple of years after the animal rescue opened, Mask drove out to the property twice a day, taking care of the horses there.
"We had no water pipes, I had to drag hoses all over the place," Mask said.
Mask finally asked Schmitz if she wanted a caretaker, and now Mask and her 95-year-old mother live on the property, taking care of the rescue horses.
"I can sit on my back porch and look at the horses," Mask said. "How cool is that?"
A youth spent at the racetrack taught Mask all about taking care of injured horses, and now bandaging and doctoring the rescues is part of her job, but not the only part.
"I like healing them, both physically and mentally," Mask said. "I like seeing the scared ones finally coming up to me in the field, eating from my hand."
Schmitz said Mask doesn't know what the word "no" means.
"She is there for us no matter what it is," Schmitz said. "She makes time for whatever needs to be done. She is one of the most caring people I know. There's no one else in the world like her."
Call her the Horse Steadier.
Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.