A Tail Of Love
story: Jamie Weil photo: Brent Van Auken
SUNSHINE SANCTUARY FOR KIDS & HORSES
Following the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High, Christina Nooner took Jane Paulie’s advice to heart: “Teach kids to be nice to kitties, and they learn compassion for all others.”
Substituting horses for kitties, Nooner created a landscape on her 20-acre farm where kids and horses learn responsibility and compassion from one another. Here, she works tirelessly on her passion: mentoring children and horses.
The sanctuary is tucked behind Lassen View Elementary School in Los Molinos. A natural relationship has blossomed between students who peek at Nooner’s horses from their soccer field and the horses that graze next door. Students in after-school programs come to the sanctuary to learn about horses and help with projects, such as mural painting. Over time, word has spread about the special horses and people living at Sunshine’s Sanctuary for Kids & Horses. Each child signs a contract agreeing to be kind, responsible and respectful, both on and off the property. Known as Sunshine Kids, they are expected to keep their grades up and listen to their parents.
Sunshine Kid Shantel Owens, 22, started coming to Sunshine’s Sanctuary nine years ago.
“I came on my 13th birthday. I was horse nuts so my mom gave that gift to me as a present. I absolutely loved it. I’ve been coming ever since,” says Owens.
On Owens’ first visit, Nooner did what she often does with new visitors: She assigned Owens a horse named Sonny to call her own. Since that time, Owens has fallen in love with many horses. She now brings her 2-year-old daughter, Ashlyn, to the sanctuary so she can learn similar values.
“Out here, you don’t worry about things like being popular. You learn to get rid of that selfish aura that teenagers get by caring about something outside of yourself,” says Owens.“ When you love somebody, you’ll do anything for them. Here, you put all of that love into your horses.” This is not hard to do at the sanctuary. Each horse has a distinct personality. There’s Wings, who has a penchant for 7-Up and rolls his eyes back in his head when he tastes the lemon-lime goodness.
And, of course, there’s Sunshine. The sanctuary’s namesake demonstrates the same perseverance and survival that Nooner gently teaches each child (many high-risk) who comes to the sanctuary. When Nooner was called to rescue Sunshine, the two-week-old cremello filly’s survival looked unlikely. Abandoned by her mother, she was barely conscious when two ranch hands discovered her. Nooner and several children picked her up and rushed her to UC Davis, where Dr. Karen Blumenshine gave her a 1 percent chance of survival.
With the help of Nooner’s nursing background, and the children who volunteered to help with feedings every two hours for months, Sunshine recovered. Now flourishing, she recently celebrated her 11th birthday with a party hosted by Nooner and the Sunshine Kids.
Just before Sunshine was born, the herd lived on Santa Cruz Island off the California coast. However, the 15 horses were evicted because island management wanted to convert the island into a national park. Hollywood voices Bo Derek and William Shatner fought alongside Blumenshine and others to keep the horses in their native habitat. They suspected the horses were the Heritage Herd, which many believed to be extinct. Due to genetic testing limitations, they were unable to prove this link, and the horses were relocated to Shingletown. Soon after arriving in Shingletown, genetic testing proved the horses were direct descendants of those brought over in the 1800s from the Iberian Peninsula of Spain; they were the last 15 in the world.
Notable characteristics set them apart from other horses. They have a unique bone structure which yields a smooth gait. They also have an uncanny connection with humans, especially children. This trait makes them equine therapy masters, and they have historically been used in therapeutic venues.
Under Nooner’s supervision, the horses have increased their herd size to 30. They love and are loved by the Nooners and volunteers who frequent the sanctuary grounds. Nooner says angels live at the sanctuary. This Valentine’s Day, take a drive out to Los Molinos and see for yourself.