How did Celia Sciacca’s father learn that she’d finally received the horse she’d been asking for, for years? Seeing his 10-year-old ride that horse on the highway.
“I used to ride bareback through Kissena Park and the streets of Queens (New York),” she says of the palomino mare she called Hot Foot Honey because she was a prancer. “I even galloped along the Long Island Expressway. Actually, that’s how my dad found out I had gotten a horse. My uncle and dad were driving on the Long Island Expressway, and my uncle said, ‘Look at that crazy girl on that horse!’ and my father said, ‘Oh my God, that’s my daughter!’”
Sciacca’s love of horses started early and has continued in her work as founder and president of Laughing Pony Rescue, Inc.. It’s a nonprofit focused on rescuing horses, but it also rescues other animals as needs arise. Sciacca lives in Rancho Santa Fe and took some time to talk about her passion for horses and rescuing them, and her work on her ranch with Laughing Pony Rescue (laughingponyrescue.org).
Q: Tell us about Laughing Pony Rescue, Inc.
A: It is primarily an equine rescue, but we rescue whatever needs rescuing. We obtained our 501(c)3 status in 2010, but I have been rescuing for quite some time before that, using my own funds. Friends started the nonprofit organization for me when they saw what I was doing. They also saw the need for increased donations to rescue more and more equines from all over the United States.
Q: How did your relationship with horses begin?
A: I grew up in New York, and at a very young age, my mom would take me to the racetrack. I guess I knew at this point horses would always be a part of and in my life. When I was 7, I found out that they had a horse rental in Kissena Park in Queens, which was not far from where we lived. My mom would drop me off, and I would walk the horses after they were ridden.
Q: Do you remember your first horse? How old were you?
A: I remember my first horse exceedingly well. This is actually very hard for me to talk about. … Honey saved me. She was my pathway to healing and my therapy. I got her when I was only 10 years old, and she was 5. Our family was not wealthy, but every time my parents would ask me what I wanted for Christmas or my birthday, I would just say “a horse.” They kept telling me that I couldn’t have one because “You live in New York.” Honey was bought by the owner of the horse rental facility I worked at. My mom bought Honey off of the owner for $500.
She was so beautiful, a feisty mare palomino with a little star. She was my shining star. I taught her tricks, including rearing on command, which was impressive for a 10-year-old girl on her back. She could count with her hooves and also nod “yes” when asked if she wanted her favorite treat. I called her Hot Foot Honey because she was a prancer. I felt that we were bonded at heart.
Q: What happened to that horse?
A: Well, the family moved to California and, of course, I took Honey. She had to be boarded at a private ranch after we moved, though. My best friend was getting married in New York, and I was asked to be the maid of honor, so I explained this to the person at the ranch. She was in a safe area with other horses and had plenty of room to run, so I felt that she would be in good hands while I was gone. I thought the girl I boarded Honey with would take great care of her. I liked her, and I thought she was a friend of mine. What a huge shock it was for me when I got a call from my mom, explaining that when she went to pay Honey’s boarding, there was no Honey. Honey was gone. I immediately got on a jet and flew back home, found out where she was, and begged and begged the people to sell her back to me. The next day, she was gone and I was never able to find her after that. I searched for a long time, going from ranch to ranch. This was a huge eye-opener for me when it came to trust. I still wonder what happened to her, and I think about her all of the time.
Q: What led you to start rescuing horses?
A: After Honey was stolen, I did not have a horse for a while. I felt lost. … Then, a friend of mine went to a feedlot (an area where animals are fed or fattened up) and got this 18-month-old Appaloosa colt. I had not previously heard of feedlots, so I started investigating what they were about. I was horrified. I felt so strongly that I needed to do something, so I jumped to volunteer. I started with with the Bureau of Land Management and rounding up the mustangs. Unfortunately, some of those horses ended up going to people who had no business owning a wild horse. Not being able to care for a horse, especially a wild one, is one reason why a horse gets sent to a feedlot.
Q: Why do they need rescuing? What kinds of issues or circumstances are horses in that they need rescuing?
A: When horses get dumped or sold to a feedlot, it is their last chance. The next step in this process is slaughter. All of the horses that are unwanted, get rounded up into a semi-truck that puts roughly 30 to 50 horses inside. There are stallions, mares, foals, broken horses, elderly horses, donkeys and ponies. If they fall while in the truck, they generally cannot get back up and die by the time they arrive, or they’re barely alive once they arrive at their destination. Sometimes these trips take two to three days on the road, and no food or water is provided. Obviously, they are also exposed to extreme temperatures depending on the time of year.
We also help equines when the owner is too sick to care for the animal, has been placed on hospice, or has passed away. We have saved equines from many different situations.
Q: Your website mentions that some people label some horses as “untrainable.” What makes people label a horse as “untrainable”?
A: Untrainable is when you don’t give a horse enough time, or when your fear gets in the way of training, and so the horse becomes the alpha. It can also be when a horse has certain untreated medical conditions. People may call the horse “untrainable” when this occurs. It is actually very rare to encounter an equine that cannot be trained with enough time and patience.
I have gotten on horses that didn’t want to be near a human, and there are different training techniques for different horses. If they look like they are going to hurt me, I always stand my ground. If you run, they remember, and you will not ever get that horse trained. They remember everything. I like to say that when you are training a horse for something new, make sure you have enough time to end on a positive note. Don’t start something you can’t finish, and never give up and walk away.
Q: What’s been challenging about this work for you?
A: Everything is. Sometimes, it is hearing stories of what has happened to different equines all over the nation or feeling like I am begging for money to save more horses. Sometimes, it is staying up multiple nights in a row to take care of a sick horse. And, unfortunately, sometimes it is being short on volunteers, which creates more work for everyone else. Mostly, though, it is knowing and having to decide which equines get picked up by us and go on to wonderful homes, and which will go on to have a horrible death. They say money doesn’t make the world go round, but it sure changes the world for these horses. Although I hate begging for money, this is what charities have to do; it is incredibly humbling work.
Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?
A: Saving an equine. Having good people stand with me and trust me. Having therapy groups come out and seeing how their lives slowly change for the better. I get to be around beautiful horses, donkeys and ponies every day.
Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?
A: That I really do have more patience than I thought.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: This came from my brother. He told me that most people do the best they can. I think about this all the time because I work with a lot of different people from different backgrounds.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: That I have a pilot’s license.
Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: My ideal S.D. weekend would be trailering the horses out to a campsite and being able to camp out and relax with my horses.
What I love about Rancho Santa Fe ...
A: It’s horsey. (Meaning, there are a lot of horses around here.)
— Lisa Deaderick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune