Stanwood ranch gives ex-racehorses a new start

STANWOOD ­— Katie Merwick disappears in a crush of big brown heads, dwarfed by the dark-eyed thoroughbred horses she calls her family.

Nudging and whinnying, the horses at Second Chance Ranch in Stanwood snag bites of peppermints, licorice or coveted orange carrots from Merwick’s hands.

She knows every one of the 48 horses by name. There’s June Bug, Dreamer, Kaptain, Star and Selma. Cassanova and Katie’s Rio are standing nearby. Thor and Flying Notes are on their way over.

“There’s no truth to thoroughbreds being really hot and crazy,” Merwick said, walking through groups of horses on a sunny Wednesday morning. “You could get on any one of these guys and ride him home.”

That’s what she would like to see happen. At Second Chance Ranch, the nonprofit she started 30 years ago, Merwick retrains thoroughbreds that have been retired from equestrian sports, then adopts them out to families as trail horses or pasture pets.

“I’m different from other rescues because I work with racing and not against it,” Merwick said. “I don’t rescue them off the track. I usually rescue them after they’ve been off the track and someone else screwed up.”

Second Chance Ranch moved from Rainier to a leased 30-acre property in Stanwood this spring. Merwick, 50, is trying to find homes for all but five or six of the horses before shutting down her charity.

“I’m not getting out of horses,” Merwick said. “I just can’t take care of 50 horses anymore.”

She hopes to close Second Chance Ranch by May 2015.

“But it won’t be done until it’s done,” she said. “Everyone’s got to have a home.”

Finding new homes for horses is her area of expertise. Merwick has been a resource for Snohomish County when other horse owners or rescues ran into problems, said Vicki Lubrin, licensing and animal control services manager. For example, Merwick helped find homes for 10 thoroughbreds seized in a 2009 animal cruelty case.

“She is knowledgeable and has many years of experience in equine rescue,” Lubrin said.

Tax forms show that Second Chance Ranch has brought in just less than $200,000 per year since 2010, with the bulk of the budget going toward food, grooming, medical care and transportation for the horses. Merwick estimates it costs $163 per day to feed the herd at Second Chance Ranch, and medical bills can be up to $40,000 a year.

There are no paid employees at Second Chance Ranch. Merwick’s room and board is part of the nonprofit’s budget.

“Our huge needs right now are adoptions and funding,” Merwick said. “We’re pretty behind. But the horses don’t know. They don’t suffer.”

For adoptions, Merwick screens people over the phone, then sets up a time for them to meet the horses. Once someone selects a horse, they take it for a ride. She then arranges a short trial period for the horse to go home with its new owner.

“It’s not a really complicated process,” she said. “It just takes a week or two.”

Merwick also wants to build shelters before winter and is looking for supplies and volunteers.

“There’s this saying: You don’t know how tough you are until you have to be,” Merwick said. “I never planned to be taking care of 50 horses with a shoestring budget.”

The Stanwood community is supportive, she said. Northwest Veterinary Clinic in Stanwood has an account for Second Chance Ranch, where people can donate through the clinic. Donations can also be made at www.secondchanceranch.org, or by calling Merwick at 425-443-4638.

Merwick hopes to stay in the area after closing Second Chance Ranch. She plans to train horses, host seminars for owners, and consult for other horse rescue charities.

“I only started the rescue because I saw a need for it,” Merwick said. “Now there are a lot of rescues and I see a need for someone with experience to help out.”

Merwick grew up in Silverdale and started riding horses when she was five.

“I grew up fearless,” she said. “And since I loved and trusted them, I’ve always had this relationship with horses.”

She studied early childhood development, but found herself more inclined to work with animals than people. She was 21 when she started Second Chance Ranch.

“I don’t regret a moment of it,” Merwick said. “As challenging and hard and heart-wrenching as the job can be, it’s 10 times more rewarding. Everyone who takes a horse is going to find that.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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