Hope Through Horses

Photography by Amber Sigman

Luna gazes over the valley with a 360-degree view span as she stands near a sandy old pickup truck. Bo and Skyler run by, hurrying to lie in the shade while Luna watches over the valley. The sun doesn’t seem to bother her.

Her hooves rise up as she rolls her body back and forth, covering her coat in glimmering sand and golden specks of mica. She kicks up dust. Luna struts on a three-acre ranch nestled between an estuary and the Pacific where ranch owner Dawn Stephens ’78 helps Luna learn to trust again.

Stephens, a California native, grew up caring for horses on her parents’ ranch. She didn’t realize she’d go 40 years without having them in her life, as she pursued a career in sport psychology. After obtaining her Ph.D., she taught at University of Iowa for 14 years. A spring break trip to Baja California, Mexico, brought her back to ranch life.

Luna, photographed at Tina Jo’s Promise. When Luna was rescued, she was wild, pregnant and deemed worthless by her owner. She was fated to be sold for meat after her baby was weaned.

Now she dedicates herself to helping horses like Luna live better lives through Tina Jo’s Promise Equine Rescue on her land in Baja California. Named for her wife and a beloved horse named Promise, the organization provides care and rehabilitation to neglected or abused horses and other animals.

Next, she wants to expand her scope help teens from local orphanages learn trades at the ranch.

In the Beginning

Dawn and her wife, Tina Jo Stephens, started their rescue in 2010 with a horse they named Lover Boy. They found him tied up on the side of the road. He was skin and bones, and covered in scars.

Together they rescued a few more horses, including a mare named Promise. She came from the mountains, and was dying of complications from an old gunshot wound. Tina Jo comforted the horse in her final moments promising her that her life wouldn’t go in vain, that they’d continue to help horses in her memory. The idea led to what would become Tina Jo’s Promise.

Nathaniel Stephens, 8, learns to care for the horses at the ranch.

Dawn Stephens tends to goats and horses in the early morning.

The Stephens’ initial goal was to start a horse hospital, but they couldn’t get it off the ground. So they kept it as a horse rescue ranch to bring food, shelter, and love into the lives of traumatized horses.

They tried equine therapy for kids with physical and psychological disabilities, and for children from orphanages and impoverished homes. Dawn recalled a moment when Jem, a giant spotted white horse, gently leaned his head down to comfort a child survivor of abuse during a session, as if to say, “I’m here to comfort you.”

The children with physical handicaps were able to sit up on the horses, giving life to muscles they otherwise wouldn’t use. Dawn watched one child with a brain injury, who couldn’t walk or sit up-right, be able to do so on his own after only his third session. His parents cried in astonishment at their son’s unexpected achievement.

“One year I thought my mission was to rescue horses, but it turned out my mission was to rescue horses to rescue kids,” said Dawn.

The equine therapy classes came to an end after a year due to funding and location changes, but she didn’t give up hope.

“It broke my heart though,” she said. “I had fallen in love with these kids and the good that we could do.”

Luna watches Dawn Stephens clean the corrals at sunrise.

New visions

Her strong sense of giving keeps her motivated despite dreams that may have eluded her.

“We looked at what we can do,” Dawn said.

The Stephens plan to give teens from local orphanages new opportunities by starting a trade school on the ranch. Kids will be offered workshops to better prepare them for life beyond the orphanage, like welding and repairing, writing, art, sewing, and photography. Locals and expats can volunteer their expertise teaching.

“It’s going to be everything you should have learned being in a family, so they’re on equal footing with people who come out of a traditional family setting,” said Dawn. “They’ll have people believing in them.”

Grayson sneaks hay as Sergio Nares Torres makes his rounds feeding the horses.

Dawn Stephens cleans Dusty’s corral. Dusty was found underfed and in low spirits when he was released by his owner.

She envisions each teen graduating with their own equipment, such as welding masks, tool kits, and sewing machines, so they have a better start into the world on their own. Kids from the orphanage can opt to take basic language courses in English or sign language to enhance their life skills and opportunities if they choose.

Sometimes, Dawn said, she wonders why they still struggle to get financial support for the program, but the horses and her desire to help kids keep her going.

That desire to help is why singing to the horses and cleaning their corrals in the early morning bring Dawn great joy.

In those corrals Jem, the giant gentle horse, waits for his breakfast under a pink sunrise sky making room for Dawn as she tidies his stall before the buttercream clouds roll in.

“I just have one of those hearts,” she said. “I have dedicated my life to them.”