On a quiet, open piece of land on the border of Manatee and Hardee counties, 29 horses nibble the grass on 23.5 acres of pastureland. There is a barn with stables, but nobody is in them. A shaggy white horse patrols the gate, hoping for carrots.
This place is Sixteen Hands Horse Sanctuary, run by Robin Cain, a Sarasota resident who travels over an hour from her home to look after the rescued horses in her care.
"His name is Primo," she said, patting the white horse's friendly snout. "He came to us on New Year's Eve."
When Primo first joined the sanctuary, he had to be lifted with the help of a sling. The bedsores on his side are still visible, and he can't always get up unassisted. Cain has been staying in a trailer on the Ona property just to make sure Primo doesn't get into any trouble.
Cain is a Michigan native and professional animal handler with training in the Parelli style of horsemanship. The Parelli philosophy teaches people how to train horses based on the way they naturally relate and communicate rather than through "force, fear and intimidation," explained Cain.
"You use praise and positive reinforcement," Cain elaborated, adding that if the horse is displaying unpleasant behavior, such as crowding, rather than using a physical rebuff, the trainer would simply do something that irritates the horse and causes him to move away on his own.
"It's not all about carrots and hugs, either," Cain joked.
Cain has always been a horse lover but has experience with a menagerie of critters from monkeys and lemurs to parrots, alligators, wallabies and more. She worked for 21 years as animal department manager at Sarasota Jungle Gardens, a zoological garden that she helped transform from a roadside "zoo" into an educational animal rescue center.
Her success in her career allowed Cain to do one thing her family couldn't afford to do when she was growing up — own a horse. She bought a couple of horses, and then acquired a couple more. "In one month we brought in 10 horses," said Cain. That was when she launched the nonprofit Sixteen Hands Horse Sanctuary in 2007 so that she and her helpers could raise the funds to care for the abandoned animals.
Cain's horses often come to the sanctuary malnourished, with sores, overgrown hooves or poor dental health. A horse whose feet aren't cared for properly will not be able walk correctly and may be in pain. Failure to provide regular dental care can result in malnourishment since the horse may not be able to chew its food enough to free up the nutrients it needs.
Many of the horses have emotional problems as well, said Cain. They may be aggressive, claustrophobic, afraid of people or just plain wild. Cain said too much time spent in a stall can create mental health issues. So can mistreatment and neglect.
Cain said many of the owners who surrendered their horses to her simply could not afford to care for them any more. Some were planning to shoot the animal or were letting it languish and starve to death in a field. "Some of them were just plain ignorant and didn't realize the horse needed more than they could provide," she said soberly.
But Cain loves the graceful creatures that somehow find a way to live with humans even though we are predators and they are prey.
"The main thing is they never lie. They are what they are. They don't try to give you false impressions," said Cain quietly.
Cain said when she got her first horse she "had this dream of getting a horse and riding it off into the sunset." But horses have a mind of their own and distinct personalities; a horse owner needs to learn horse behavior and how to work with their unique animal.
At the sanctuary, Cain runs a sponsorship program whereby individuals can donate $100 per month to sponsor a rescued horse, which covers basic needs such as feed, hay and medical care. Sponsors can come out and visit their horse by appointment and even interact with the animal unless it's wild. Currently, 20 horses still need sponsors. An open house is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 10 at the sanctuary, located at 712 Roy Moore Road in Ona.
Cain's other love is her blue and gold macaw, Jericho, who she adopted 22 years ago from a breeder visiting Sarasota Jungle Gardens. "She's my baby. She's my child," said Cain affectionately.
Talking about her bird brings a sparkle to Cain's eye. Their relationship brought with it a big surprise: "I thought she was male for the first 15 years of her life. Then she laid an egg."
For more information on Sixteen Hands Horse Sanctuary, visit www.sixteenhandshorsesanctuary.com.