KINGSTON, Kitsap County — After a few calls and claps, Bailey emerged from the pasture and trotted past a hot-pink horse trailer in the direction of Toni Houck, who greeted the pinto mare with treats. Bailey was once a world champion show horse and most recently served as a lesson horse for children, but a leg injury ended her career at age 18 despite a life expectancy stretching into her 30s.
“For such a big animal, they’re so delicate,” said Houck, standing in muck boots, also hot pink.
Bailey’s owner donated her to Houck’s horse rescue, Toni’s Ponies, in February 2020 to live out her retirement. While Bailey arrived under benign circumstances, the rented 15-acre spread on the outskirts of Kingston is home to many equines who arrive emaciated, diseased and abused.
But this year, it was the rescuer who needed rescue.
After caring for 45 horses over 16 years, Houck found herself in February facing a 90-day deadline to raise $650,000 for purchase of the farm — or she’d be forced to find a new home for her herd when the property owner decided to sell.
Houck, 61, a lifelong Kitsap County resident and former rodeo princess who grew up around horses, has run the rescue informally since 2006 at this former cattle farm, where she lives on-site in a modest house, horse-themed right down to the shower curtains. She cleared acres of burrs and blackberries to create pastureland and fenced enclosures for horses to quarantine, rehabilitate and eventually thrive, with the ultimate goal of finding a new home or an adopting owner who will board the horse with Houck. A single mother of three adult children, she works as a server and bartender in Kingston to supplement outside donations that cover the costs of buying, feeding and caring for her rescue horses. In 2019, she incorporated Toni’s Ponies as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and 509(a)(2) public charity.
While Houck was aware from the outset that renting month-to-month was precarious, she had a verbal handshake agreement with her landlord that she would be offered first right of purchase in the event of a sale. That offer came Feb. 18, Houck said, at a time when Toni’s Ponies was home to 18 horses, two of them still wild and not yet cooperative with basic human handling. “I knew it would happen, but I thought we’d have more than 90 days,” she said. (The landlord did not respond to requests for comment by press time.)
That deadline set off a quixotic fundraising spree starting with a GoFundMe campaign. At the end of March, Houck held a yard sale featuring the remaining inventory from the now-closed Kingston Mercantile & Marine, where she was once a manager, and donations from across Kitsap County.
By early April, Houck had only raised 10% of the purchase price and the situation was looking dire. But word of Houck’s predicament traveled fast in the close-knit animal rescue community of Kitsap County.
“The fact that she was only given 90 days to vacate the property with her horses was fairly unreasonable,” said Sid Wang via phone from Bainbridge Island. Wang and his wife Karen run Happy Hooves Sanctuary. After negotiating with Houck’s landlord and securing a line of credit from their bank, the Wangs settled on a price of $600,000 and closed the purchase April 8, according to Kitsap County property records.
“We decided to give her a little more time to recover,” Wang said. “We share her passion for animal rescue and preventing animal cruelty. We have extreme sympathy for the situation she’s in, that’s why we took a risk to put up a down payment in order to qualify for the loan.”
Food and love
What was once a seemingly insurmountable race against the clock now has breathing room. Houck still needs to raise money to purchase the property from the Wangs — her $800-per-month rent has ballooned to $3,000-per-month to cover the new mortgage — and will continue her efforts when Hood Canal Brewery hosts a fundraiser April 24.
But with a like-minded landlord, Houck now has a pathway to stability for Toni’s Ponies. As a result, she can plan for infrastructure, like accessible ramps, and programming like equine therapy, field trips for kids who are disadvantaged and kids with disabilities, farm tourism and overnight camping.
She can also continue to focus on her core passion: rescuing horses.
Every horse has a distinct story: The family inherited grandma’s horse and decided they don’t want to bear the cost and responsibility. Parents bought a horse for a child, now grown-up and no longer interested in equestrianism. Wild horses are rounded up on public or tribal land. When these horses end up at Toni’s Ponies, they have typically averted a common fate: slaughter. Whatever their provenance, unwanted horses often end up at so-called feedlots, where they are auctioned then shipped off to slaughterhouses, where they are made into glue or dog food.
Horses on the auction block fetch anywhere from $700 to $900 — “meat prices,” Houck calls these figures — and shipping to her property from Oregon or Eastern Washington usually costs an additional $400. She goes through $20,000 worth of hay annually and $800 per month in grain, plus the cost of vitamins and veterinary care.
Why work three jobs and call on her network of 50-odd regular donors who sponsor her rescues?
“I understand there’s a need for culling animals, but I disagree with the way it’s done,” she said. “It’s inhumane.”
Houck described slaughterhouse exposés that reveal methods like cutting babies out of still-living mares, slicing leg muscles to immobilize horses, and hanging horses from meat hooks before their necks are broken.
While Houck knows she can’t save every horse, she looks at the photograph posted online by the auctioneer. “If they have kind eyes, I try to save them,” she said.
Such was the case with Old Man Winter, a 28-year-old white swayback who was Houck’s first rescue in 2009. Or Sweet Gypsy, a riding horse dumped at auction still with horseshoes on, but just “skin and bones,” Houck said. Or Jessie, who lost an eye to an unknown injury.
Some arrive hostile and only warm up to select individuals, like Ruth. “Ruth was scary, hissing, did not like people,” said Kingston resident Kristen Chandler via phone. “You couldn’t get close to her.”
In 2020, Chandler’s daughter Shelby, 15, already an equestrienne who practiced English jumping, began volunteering at Toni’s Ponies as a break from virtual schooling. “Toni noticed that Ruth has a soft spot for Shelby and offered to guide her,” Chandler said. Over a year, Shelby visited Toni’s Ponies almost daily and waited patiently to earn Ruth’s trust, eventually adopting her. Today, Chandler pays for board and Shelby rides her bike to the horse rescue after school for the afternoon feeding. On weekends, she grooms Ruth and works to get her accustomed to wearing a halter and being led.
“I feel super confident with how Toni is with Shelby, keeping her safe but also seeing the bond between the horse and person,” Chandler said.
While Houck has something of a horse whisperer aura about her, she insists the recipe to rehabilitating a horse is simple.
“All you need to do is feed these horses and show them some compassion,” she said. “Food and love. It’s not rocket science.”