Horse rescue group moves on after loss of its leader

TULALIP — Though Vel Moore ran a horse rescue operation for many years, she helped save a few people, too.

Sara Losey was a rebellious teenager who went to jail twice, including once for burglary.

“I was a rotten little kid,” said Losey, 21.

Now, she’s Moore’s successor as director of the Equine Rescue Association on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, supervising one paid employee and about 25 volunteers. She’s making only $1,000 a month but she has her own apartment, a high school education and a steady boyfriend.

She says it’s because she learned so much from Moore, the rescue group’s founder and guru who died of cancer May 28. She was 77.

Losey began volunteering at the operation when she was 11. When she got in trouble in her mid-teens, Moore gave her another chance.

“She is the one who actually taught me how to grow up,” Losey said. “She taught me it’s not worth it (to get in trouble), it’s really not worth it.”

Stories such as Losey’s come pouring out of people who knew Moore. She gave riding lessons to kids for a nominal fee in exchange for their help with caring for the horses. Many teenage girls would become regulars and learn responsibility.

Though Moore had a doctorate in recreation and leisure time activity from University of Southern California and was a professor at California State University, Northridge, she died in poverty.

“She put me and Sara and all those horses ahead of any comfort for herself,” said Susan McGuire of Lenore, Idaho, who worked for Moore in California and kept in touch with her afterward.

“She never had two nickels to rub together,” said McGuire, 54.

In California, Moore gave riding lessons and entered horses in shows, McGuire said. What Moore really wanted to do, though, McGuire said, was to save horses from abuse and neglect.

Moore often observed that aside from walking, horses were humans’ first mode of transportation. They were largely cast aside when motor vehicles came along, said Debra Swearengin, who volunteers at the shelter.

“That really angered her a lot,” she said.

Moore moved north and started the Equine Rescue Association in Smokey Point in 1997. There, she lived in an 8-foot by 10-foot trailer, McGuire said. She often walked the property in flannel shirts and sweat pants, grimy from working with the horses.

She also lived in a trailer at the group’s second location and carved a bedroom out of an office area in the barn on the current property, which is leased for a nominal fee from the Marysville School District.

The nonprofit operation has survived on a shoestring budget of donations and small fees for riding lessons for most of its history. Currently, 30 horses call the sanctuary home.

Moore put whatever money she had of her own toward the operation — “even sometimes giving up her Social Security check to feed (the horses) if funds were really low,” said Suzette Acey, a member of the group’s board of directors.

It costs about $5,000 a month to care for the horses, Acey said. Healthy horses are offered for adoption but many wind up staying for the rest of their lives. Horses often live into their 30s.

“Those that can’t be ridden get a nice retirement with lots of love,” Acey said.

Losey spent two years away from the operation, and when she returned in 2006, she rededicated herself, she said.

She and Moore would have long talks in the morning, about horses — a subject Moore knew inside out — and about life, Losey said.

Moore broke her leg in February. While receiving treatment she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She chose Losey to succeed her.

“She said God wouldn’t be taking her if I wasn’t ready to do this,” Losey said.

Now, the young woman faces the uphill battle of keeping a nonprofit organization going in the face of a recession and dwindling donations. The group currently only has enough money to operate for about two more months, Acey said.

At times, Losey says she still has the impulse to call or talk to Moore. Then she remembers her mentor has died.

She believes, though, that Moore is there in spirit.

“I can still talk to her. She’s still there to listen.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

Fundraising memorial

A memorial fundraising event celebrating the life of Vel Moore is planned for 1 to 5 p.m. June 28 at the Equine Rescue Association, 2415 116th St. NE on the Tulalip reservation. Pony rides for $5, raffles, a tack sale and refreshments are planned. For more information contact the organization at 360-658-5494.

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