Romance farm takes on underloved horses

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published November 25, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 23, 2012 at 9:45 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Sandy Kirby works with Bob at Sunshine Acres Ranch in Romance. Kirby works with malnourished and mistreated horses to restore them to health.

— This summer’s drought was difficult for many across Arkansas.

For some, it meant charred grass and crops. The cost of feeding livestock skyrocketed. For Sandy Kirby, owner of Sunshine Acres Ranch, it meant more horses in need of help.

“Hay went from $23 to $68.50 a round bale,” Kirby said. “It’s higher than it’s ever been.”

While many owners in the state had been able to let horses graze in years past, the drought left fields nothing more than weeds. Unable to afford hay, desperate owners have been abandoning their horses.

“People are dumping them out in parks or trying to dump them with wild horses on preserves,” Kirby said. “You used to worry about people stealing horses on certain trails. Now, there are signs saying, ‘Make sure you take your horse with you when you leave.’”

With a love of horses going back to when she was just a kid, Kirby began offering horse-rehabilitation services and taking on neglected horses just a few years ago. Since the start of the year, Kirby estimates she has helped rescue around 20 horses from situations where they might otherwise have been taken to a sale barn and likely sent to slaughter. Occasionally, owners who are no longer able to care for their animals call her directly. Other times, it’s local law-enforcement personnel who reach out when they’ve found a neglected horse.

Five months ago, men with the White County Sheriff’s Office brought her Blaze, who had been leg-deep in mud. The horse came in with his ribs jutting out and with open sores on his face from abuse.

“They found him down in Sheridan in a small pen with wet, moldy hay,” Kirby said.

In a large indoor round pen on her 127-acre farm, Kirby, 58, keeps injured horses active and properly fed while working on their balance and fear. She works with a team of six volunteers and hired helpers, along with vets and farriers (specialists in horse hoof care). The staff spends as much time with the horses as possible. Feedings alone take hours a day, but the staff devotes a lot of time to working with individual horses.

“Horses can get lazy, and if it hurts to move, they won’t,” Kirby said. “We slowly work them up to doing little jumps and get them used to noise and sudden movements.”

Having free-roaming chickens often walking in and out of the round pen helps the horses get used to loud noises. Kirby will often kick large inflatable balls around the pen while walking a nervous horse, helping the horse gradually learn not to jump at the unknown movements.

To combat what Kirby describes as “the hay crisis,” the ranch began hydroponically growing sprouts and grass in a large trailer on the property in September. The system, known as a fodder system, was installed at the urging of Kirby’s son, Steven, who is currently deployed with the U.S. Coast Guard. Though he couldn’t be there to help his mom on the ranch, Kirby researched a way to help relieve some of the financial pressure of the hay shortage. Eventually, Kirby hopes to grow enough sprouts and grass on the farm to use 750 pounds of the feed a day. The sprouts, Kirby said, have many health benefits over hay, including helping to prevent ulcers, as well as respiratory and joint issues.

In addition to working with what the horses eat, how they move and building their muscles, Kirby is certified in equine-sports-therapy massage and incorporates it into her rehab work.

“If you’ve had a massage, you know how good it feels, and it’s the same for them,” Kirby said. “It’s about being able to make a horse relaxed.”

Her way with horses keeps people coming back to Sunshine Acres Ranch when they find a horse in trouble. When he was working with the White County Sheriff’s Office, Doyce Dougan of Prattsville brought Blaze to Kirby.

“She can do just about anything with a horse,” Dougan said. “She can take a horse that is limping and massage it and get it healed up. She can take on one that’s just rebellious and work with it until it can walk around calm.”

Though Blaze’s condition brought tears to Kirby’s eyes, Dougan knew she’d be able to bring him back.

“She’s a great person, and you can tell she just loves [the horses] like I do,” Dougan said.

Kirby’s care for the horses extends to the dozens of animals she has on the ranch, which she’s owned since the ’80s. Though she worked as a dental hygienist in the area for years, she now works on the ranch full time raising chickens, rabbits, goats, sheep and horses. The ranch offers riding lessons, a petting zoo, bonfires and birthday parties.

After a cancer diagnosis in 2003, Kirby recovered fully through what she describes as God’s healing. After the ordeal, she became a minister and now runs Romance Roundtop Ministries from the ranch once a month.

Every part of her work, she says, is out of love.

“Seeing that what we do makes a difference is great,” Kirby said.

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Staff Writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or emily@syncweekly.com.

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