Sports

Lisbon, Iowa: Where old Thoroughbreds go ... to live

Unbridled Spirits is "beautiful sanctuary" to retired racehorses

EloQuinnt, known at the farm as Quinn, nuzzles Zoey Stolba, 13, of Clarence at Unbridled Spirits Thoroughbred Retirement Ranch in Lisbon on May 1, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
EloQuinnt, known at the farm as Quinn, nuzzles Zoey Stolba, 13, of Clarence at Unbridled Spirits Thoroughbred Retirement Ranch in Lisbon on May 1, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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LISBON — When you hear someone say they’re taking care of a horse, it’s probably also the other way around.

That’s certainly the case at Unbridled Spirits Thoroughbred Retirement Ranch, 145 acres of both activity and serenity 4 miles from Highway 30. Part of what happens at the ranch isn’t easy to verbalize, but you can’t help but feel it while you’re there.

“It’s a beautiful sanctuary,” said Unbridled Spirits president/CEO Tina Norris.

“There’s an old saying that there’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a human,” said Danielle Kripner of Cedar Rapids, the resident trainer at Unbridled Spirits.

There’s something good there for horses and humans. About 20 teenage girls from Lisbon and several other area towns volunteer to work with horses at the ranch during the school year, and the number rises in the summer. The work is structured, with a strong focus on safety. The girls must take classes to learn about the horses and the tasks involved in tending to them. There is an emotional payoff.

“We didn’t design this as a therapeutic program for the kids,” Norris said. “It’s a phenomenon that we didn’t plan to happen. It’s not something where we put a template together. It just worked. A light bulb clicked, and suddenly.”

“Working in partnership with a 1,200-pound animal, it gives you confidence and self-worth,” Kripner said, “and the horses get the same thing.”

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The ranch’s 30 horses all have stories. The majority were high-level racehorses. One, is I Am Awesome, known at the ranch as Liam. He raced 114 times and had 21 wins, and earned over $325,000. Like the other horses here, it has been saved and is living a happy life in Eastern Iowa.

The ranch was founded in 2012. Norris said about 100 people have some sort of personal stake in the venture, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

“I was a horse-crazy kid,” Norris said. “I fell in love with horse racing. I didn’t have posters of (1970s pop stars) David Cassidy and Leif Garrett on my bedroom walls. I had pictures of horses.

“When Ruffian broke down, my world shattered.”

Ruffian was a glorious champion Thoroughbred that suffered two broken bones in her right foreleg in a 1975 race and had to be euthanized after self-induced injuries when she came out of surgery.

“That triggered me,” Norris said. “I began to explore more about the back end of the horses’ lives. I knew at an early age that at some point I’d run a retirement ranch for race horses. My friends thought I was crazy. It’s taken me this long to get here, but I did it.”

Retired racehorses from around the country have been sent the ranch’s way, with a waiting list of about 25. The ranch takes only at-risk horses, animals with issues that prevent them from, say, becoming a good riding horse for a family.

The kids who volunteer at the ranch help put the horses through different programs. They exercise the horses, train them, and basically rehabilitate their minds.

“The horses are still fairly young when they get here,” Norris said. “They all have roles here. The goal is to keep them busy. But they all remain here. This is a sanctuary setting, per se.”

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Norris said more people are aware of the ranch in prime horse racing states like California, Kentucky and New York than Iowa. Many fans trekked from great distances to Lisbon to see the son of a legendary racehorse.

Seattle Proud was his name, and he was the offspring of 1977 Triple Crown-winner Seattle Slew. Seattle Proud raced for a short while before retiring to stud in 1997. In 2016, a rescue organization in California bought the horse at an auction in a parking lot for $250 and contacted Norris.

The horse died of complications of chronic laminitis at age 25 last August at Unbridled Spirits, but before that it had an “accidental mating” with Lolabell, one of the ranch’s retired mares. Seattle Surprise, a baby among giants, celebrated its first birthday Wednesday.

Those giants are friendly, though. They move comfortably among people. If you’re at the ranch and aren’t paying attention, you may find a horse has quietly sidled up to you. I Am Awesome, Kripner said, “follows me around like a puppy dog.”

“Seeing how many of these guys are just thrown out and sent to slaughter, and seeing what a positive influence loving a horse made with my daughter, I got involved and continue to be involved,” said Jen Whittenbaugh of Lisbon, the ranch’s chief financial officer/vice president.

Financing is a never-ending pursuit. Unbridled Spirits survives on donations, grants and three annual fundraisers. One of the three is Saturday, a Kentucky Derby party at Jimmy Z’s in downtown Cedar Rapids.

“We’re fundraising non-stop,” Norris said, “We have nine horses that are sponsored from $50 to $300 a month. The horses pay for themselves when people meet them. But we need equipment, a skid loader, a new truck and trailer, fencing.”

The ranch isn’t intended to be a tourist attraction. It is billed as a dignified retirement option to on-track Thoroughbreds. Tours are offered, but only by appointment.

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Norris wants much more. She hopes for a day when the ranch can house 100 horses. She is encouraging horse racing organizations and owners to provide better lives for horses once their uses to that industry is done.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” Norris said. “We’re not where we need to be.

“But we have Olympic athletes in our backyard. Not a day goes by when I’m not star-struck. My heart soars knowing what we’re doing here is good work.”

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