Jeff Jardine

Retraining racehorses, helping people at Escalon nonprofit

Julie Baker, president and founder of the nonprofit Healing Arenas, which offers therapy with horses, pets former race horse Jimmy Diesel in Escalon on Tuesday.
Julie Baker, president and founder of the nonprofit Healing Arenas, which offers therapy with horses, pets former race horse Jimmy Diesel in Escalon on Tuesday.

When American Pharoah won the Triple Crown a couple of weeks ago, he captured the hearts of millions and created instant if only temporary horse racing fans across the nation. After all, he became the first horse since 1978 to take the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in succession, something many folks hadn’t seen in their entire lifetimes.

But for every champion horse, hundreds of others never pan out and are retired each year. What happens to them when they don’t win, don’t provide a return on their owners’ investments, are injured or simply get too old to compete?

“There’s a big push for aftercare,” Escalon’s Julie Baker said. “What do you do with these boys and girls, and especially if they are geldings and can’t command stud fees?”

She asked the question, but she came equipped with an answer for some of the horses, at least. Because for every used-up race horse in need of a career change, there are scores of people at their own crossroads, with mental and behavioral issues including grief, anxiety and fear. Some are military veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. They can help each other, these two- and four-legged types.

Baker heads a year-old nonprofit called Healing Arenas, Inc. at a ranch between Escalon and Oakdale. The organization’s mission is simple: “To provide emotional healing through equine interaction.”

She works with licensed clinical social worker Crista Swier, and their purpose is twofold: To rescue people and horses using the animals to help their human clients work through their issues. Meanwhile, they retrain the former track horses to the point at which they can be adopted out as ranch, trail, pleasure or equestrian competition horses. Eight horses have been adopted since the first of the year.

The veterans element, titled “Stable Survivors,” will be formally introduced June 25 during an event at the arena on Combs Road. Baker is working with Steve Lawson of the Modesto Vet Center, which will refer veterans with PTSD to the nonprofit also affiliated with the American Legion, Lions International and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation helps make this possible by subsidizing the cost of the horses’ feed, shoeing and veterinary services until they can be adopted out. The foundation places about 900 horses a year nationwide, Baker said. The local nonprofit also is linked to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, which trained and certified Baker to conduct the programs.

Healing Arenas experienced success through a program called Second Chances California, working with people who had done jail time and were referred by the Stanislaus County Probation Department. Four of the participants now are working at horse farms and another is a veterinary technician.

The nonprofit also works with at-risk teens through the Stanislaus County Office of Education in a program called “Stable Kids.” Working with horses, the teens make greater strides faster than in the traditional clinic settings, Swier said.

“They immediately connect with the horses,” she said. “In an office, it could take six to eight weeks to develop a relationship with a kid. Here, they can express their feelings and experiences they’ve had and work through their obstructions. They get just comfortable enough to touch a horse, and something imprints on their minds.”

The teens are sent into the arena without a rope to get the horse.

“It’s the ice breaker,” Swier said. “What’s going to happen if not the first time than the second is that they will see the horse as an enemy or a family member or a comrade – mostly the horse becomes a metaphor. The first time the horse doesn’t comply, it reminds them of something. Horses reflect attitude and may want to participate.”

In such cases, the horses become to the kids what the kids become to others. That role reversal can make a huge impact.

In one case, a teen became upset when her interaction with a horse didn’t go well at first. She went to a corner of the arena and stewed. When the horse walked across the arena and approached her, it changed her way of thinking, Swier said.

It was a lesson, Swier said, “she could take with her into the grocery store, or home or the classroom.”

“We’re happy to admit we are not the facilitators,” Baker said. “It’s the horses. (The teens learn that) if you change the way you do things, you get the result you want.”

Next week, they’ll expand the program to include military veterans and are looking for donations to help fund scholarships. Other groups, including Boots & Saddles of Ceres, have helped veterans and others through riding but mostly through caring for the animals. The one-on-one contact enables them to concentrate on the horse, which, in turn, enables them to work on their own issues.

But never forget the horses at Healing Arenas. American Pharoah, they are not. Their racing days are over, but their second careers are just beginning.

At a glance

Healing Arenas will introduce its Stable Survivors program for veterans June 25 at 7 p.m. The event is open to the public. The arena is at 31393 Combs Road, Escalon. To donate to the organization, visit