It's raining sideways. The temperature is 45 degrees. Eighteen Willamette University students huddle together in a small, metal barn stuffed with saddles, blankets, buckets and other equine paraphernalia. On one wall, a battered sign reads "Cougar Creek Ranch: Horses for Youth and for the Young at Heart."
"We take in abused horses here," Bev Blamer says to the students. She's a diminutive woman in her 60's who owns Cougar Creek Ranch, a horse rescue operation located just north of Silverton, Ore. "A lot of these horses have been starved or beaten. They come to us with health and behavior problems. We take them in and keep them from going to the slaughter house."
Blamer leads the students through the barn and stands next to a corral that houses a single mare and her new colt. "When we got this one, she was so skinny we didn't even know she was pregnant," she says. The two-toned baby, who has one brown eye and one startlingly blue eye, kicks up his heels and gallops across the corral, stopping suddenly just before the fence. Moments later, he gambols back and edges up against the fence. Several of the students reach over to scratch the tiny horse's neck. He lets them, gently nibbling at their coat sleeves. The horses at Cougar Creek are accustomed to plenty of loving.
"Where do you get the horses?" a student asks.
"Oh, we hear about them," Blamer says, moving toward the larger barn across a barnyard scattered with picnic tables. This is where the children from the YMCA camps eat their lunches during the summer horse camps Blamer conducts for abused children. "People call us when they know about an abused horse. Or the guy who takes them to slaughter calls me when he's got a good one."
The rain has subsided, leaving mud and large puddles to negotiate. The students follow Blamer through a gate and across a stretch of boot-sucking mud. "Walk in my footsteps," she instructs. Her rubber boots leave relatively dry places in the muck. Most of the students are wearing running shoes, which are soon covered in mud and manure. None seem to mind.
Along two sides of the large barn are 14 portable box stalls each housing a horse. Blamer walks along the rows, introducing each horse. "These are our special needs horses. This is Zeus; he's 5 years old and a former stud. Joker here came to us at eight months old because he's got a severe overbite called parrot mouth and he's clubfooted. Dove came from Madras with severely abscessed feet."
The students follow Bev outside into a smaller hay barn. "Now who's going to shinny up there and throw down some bales for me?"
Several girls scramble atop the hay and begin tossing down the 45-pound bales. Most of them are wearing car coats and parkas that look more appropriate for the ski slopes. Soon both clothing and hair sprout pieces of hay. Two students hustle in wheelbarrows and the group loads hay bales. Some of the students pick their way along a muddy track to throw hay to 20 or so horses who stand in a large grassless pasture. "Let's give them some alfalfa too," says Blamer.
As the feeding winds down, one student jumps into a wheelbarrow while another pushes her through the mud. The cold air fills with their laughter.
"I love horses," says Lisa Frost, a sophomore from Vermont who's majoring in environmental science. She tosses the last of the hay over the fence. "This is a great opportunity to help Bev out becase what's she's doing for these horses is really incredible."
Blamer pays an average of $500 for each horse. Some of them require expensive medical treatment. Many need special diets and supplements. All of them eat three times a day and are given warm blankets and a dry place out of the weather. The 44 horses, 30 of whom are rideable, earn their keep with money from YMCA horse camps and other non-profits. It's not big money, but it keeps the doors open.
Back at the special needs barn, the Willamette students are mucking the stalls. They scoop out the soiled shavings and manure and haul it in wheelbarrows to a growing mountain of old shavings in one corner of the barnyard. Once the stalls are clean, they spread clean shavings into each space.
Naomi Corwin, who's a senior majoring in studio art, is one of the few students wearing tall rubber boots. "I didn't bring these boots," she admits. "They were in the bathroom in the other barn and Bev offered them to me." She tosses a scoop of shavings into the wheelbarrow. "I've never mucked stalls before, but I'm really excited about working with the horses."
Outside the rain showers come and go. When the rain lets up for a moment, a group of students form a line and begin scrubbing the mud and manure off plastic water and grain buckets. "Should we scrub the outside of the buckets too?" one of them asks. The air is cold. The wash water is cold. The students don't seem to mind. Laughter and chatter fill the air.
Jill Summers, a senior sociology major from Tacoma, Wash., scrubs a blue bucket with a brush. Her cheeks and hands are bright red. "A couple of summers ago, on a road trip in Montana, a friend and I stayed at a house where they had horses," she says. "It was great because we got to catch the horses, walk them and help saddle them. That's what I'm hoping for today."
What's Summers think about bucket scrubbing detail? She grins. "It's important," she says. "All the work we do is important."
With the stalls mucked and cleaned and the buckets replaced and refilled, Blamer hands out grooming brushes and curry combs and assigns two students per horse. Students who are more experienced with horses are given animals like Count, a gangly racehorse who is blind in one eye. His training and his injury make him skittish. Other students with little or no experience are given calmer horses like Leo, a 25-year-old who suffers from worn teeth and a sway back.
Like most of the students working here today, Susanna Bee, a sophomore who volunteers with Willamette's Circle K service organization, has little experience with horses. She strokes her horse's side with a brush. "I used to do barn work with my best friend in Oregon City," she says. "It's a lot of work, but I really miss it. This makes me want to have a farm when I grow up."
Count, the racehorse, is circling his stall, making it difficult for the students to groom him. "Tie him to the wall with that lead rope," instructs Blamer. "You've got to remember that he has a little different attitude. He loves his neck brushed. Yes, just brush him hard there."
Drew Herbert, a sophomore economics/sociology double major, is grooming a horse with sophomore Adam Elwood, who helped organize today's community service at the ranch. Community service is a regular part of the fabric of student life at the University. "I really like volunteering," says Herbert. The horse he's grooming is small and Herbert, who's well over six-feet, towers over him. The animal, obviously enjoying the attention, stands stock still while Herbert combs out tangles in her mane. "I like hanging out with horses, so this is a really awesome opportunity."
Blamer strolls through the barn, handing out brushes, casually dispensing advice. She's worked with kids and horses for a long time and it shows. "Don't forget to talk to your horses," she says. The rain has resumed, beating steadily on the metal roof. Blamer raises her voice to be heard. "I don't care what language you use, as long as you talk to them and communicate with them."
The work has settled into a comfortable rhythm of students brushing, combing and talking softly and animals standing quietly, absorbing the attention and the affection. After lunch, if the weather allows, the students will take the horses out for a ride on the BLM land that surrounds Cougar Creek Ranch.
Across the barn, Susanna Bee and her partner have finished grooming their horse, a paint named Cisco. Bee has removed the horse's halter and lead and is expertly looping the rope into a braid to make it easier to hang - make a circle, pull the end through part way, loop again and pull gently. She looks at her work and smiles with satisfaction. "You know, there's nothing better than waking up early on a Saturday and mucking horses. This has been a blast."