Skippy with fellow horse Brave One. Photos by Robert Eliason.
Skippy with fellow horse Brave One. Photos by Robert Eliason.

When Dennis Barwick took Skippy the horse in, he was sick, emaciated, and could barely walk. Barwick told BenitoLink that the 20-year-old horse arrived at BackStretch Equine Rescue in bad shape, abused by his previous owners.

“I think Skippy was within a day of death,” said Tracy Kerbs, an employee at BackStretch. “We had him hooked up to an IV and Dennis stayed with him in his pen all night for several nights.”

When ranch owner Barwick rescued him, Skippy’s knees were so damaged and scarred a veterinarian described them as “thick as the knees on a cow.” He was so weak a sinus infection overwhelmed him.

“It is a miracle that he is still alive,” Kerbs said. “With Dennis, his heart bleeds for these animals and he will do whatever it takes to give them the best care.”

Barwick started BackStretch Equine Rescue 11 years ago and now has 62 horses on the property, as well as a number of donkeys, goats and miniature horses. These are animals rescued from cruel or neglectful treatment, or ones that owners couldn’t afford anymore.

“The last two we got were left tied to a fence post off Highway 101,” Barwick said. “Someone called us to see if we could make room for them. We never turn one down.”

The philosophy at BackStretch is to let the horses be horses, Barwick explained. Some form permanent bonds—two horses nicknamed “the Blondes” are inseparable, always standing side by side. Another horse enjoys communing with the donkeys.

Before starting BackStretch, Barwick worked in real estate and had no experience with horses. A call from a friend changed that. She had 10 horses she could not care for and Barwick took them on. After moving the horses from facility to facility, he and his wife Janece bought acreage in Aromas and moved them there. Some of those original rescues are still living at Backstretch.

When Skippy first came to the ranch, he befriended another rescue horse named Brave One. He spent so much time at his pen that Barwick built an extension just for Skippy.

Four months later, Skippy has gained 200 pounds. He still looks thin, but he can walk now and his limp is almost gone. Still, his knees are permanently damaged and he has a little trouble getting on his feet in the mornings.

The horses appear healthy and happy in this serene setting, but looking closer, many still bear the signs of poor treatment such as deep scars above their muzzles where too-tight halters were left on too long. Often the horses that come to Backstretch are in serious need of rehabilitation.

“We get the horses well,” Barwick said. “We do an evaluation when they come in, checking to see what their teeth and feet look like. Some of them have Cushing’s disease, many have arthritis or hoof problems. We get them on a regimen to get them to be as sound and as healthy a horse as possible.”

For some horses, the stay at BackStretch is temporary. Barwick places three to five horses a month in new homes with responsible owners screened by the ranch.

“We have a personal interview with each potential person to ensure they understand the challenges of ownership and have the financial viability to support ownership of a rescue,” Barwick said. “Once that threshold is crossed, we inspect the property to see if it’s acceptable.”

Other horses will live out their days at BackStretch.

“Most folks don’t want an older horse so they will stay here,” Barwick said. “We live in a time when it is easier to discard older horses than it is to take care of them. The horse doesn’t have a choice so we give them a choice to come here.”

While the focus of BackStretch Equine Rescue is on horses, there are times that humans come to the ranch for restoration.

GI Josie brings women veterans and active service members dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to the ranch to spend time with the horses as therapy. The organization has worked with the ranch over the last three years.

“Dennis is an amazing individual and we are appreciative of his generosity,” said Laurabeth Messimer Lopez, founder of G.I. Josie. “He understands our mission and our needs.”

There are 23 women in the program at the moment and they come to BackStretch as therapy, getting the chance to escape their stress.

“Every woman has her own journey and her own approach,” Lopez said. “That might mean learning to ride, taking a horse on the trails, feeding it carrots, or just scratching it behind the ears. They may just sit quietly, getting away from their lives for a moment.”

Areas of the ranch are reserved for small retreats where the women can be alone or with a horse and no one else around. Barwick also recently cleared areas for each woman who would like a place to garden.

“Creating these set-asides allows the women to carve out their own spaces with their own ideas,” said Lopez. “It is another form of therapy.”

The Equine Healing Collaborative brings children and adults with autism, Attention Deficit Disorder or Alzheimer’s to interact with the animals. The ranch also offers services like full boarding, riding lessons, an arena you can rent, riding trails, and even full or partial horse leasing for people considering owning a horse.

Barwick has primarily funded the ranch himself, with some help from private donations. This year, he filed for nonprofit status to allow him to apply for grants to expand the rescue operation and help pay for the care of the horses. The feed bill alone is about $9,000 a month. Then there are regular visits from veterinarians to care for injuries and illnesses, and to give the animals their vaccinations.

Barwick said future plans include a rehabilitation center with an eight-horse seawalker (a type of saltwater exercising pool), a spa, solarium, intensive care rooms and a small operating room to care for seriously abused horses.

Asked what he gets out of his work at the ranch, Barwick became emotional.

“The peace and tranquility I get, bringing in one that has been discarded, forgotten, abused, and seeing them over time learn to trust and love again is indescribable. I tell everyone having the rescue will add 20 years to my life. I could never think of doing anything better than what I am doing right here.”