By Francis LaBelle
Julie Baker has been a great friend to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) and many of its horses since she founded Healing Arenas in Escalon, California, seven years ago.
Recently, Baker pulled up stakes, packed up her adopted Healing Arenas’ TRF horses Viva Pentelicus (96 starts, 22-9-14, $347,494) and Roux Be Wild (39 starts, 12-2-8; $241,919) and relocated four hours upstate to Mount Shasta, where she is now the assistant trainer at VS Equine LLC.
“The TRF is extremely grateful to Julie for all her work with Healing Arenas and the contributions she made to the organization,” said TRF Executive Director Pat Stickney. “Her commitment to the mission and to the horses was unwavering. She will always be a special part of TRF’s history and will remain a good friend of ours in the years ahead. We wish Julie the very best.”
Baker always brought out her best for the horses and the people whose lives she touched. She not only excelled at finding homes for former racehorses, but designed specific equine programs to help veterans, first responders, domestic violence victims and at-risk youth to help them overcome their problems.
“I would love to thank TRF for their partnership all these years,” Baker said. “The TRF really has been wonderful. I am super grateful to those people at TRF because they always have the horses’ best interests at heart. What the TRF started way back when has come true.”
Way back was in 1983, when TRF began rescuing former racehorses from deplorable situations, including kill pens, and ensuring they’d have a good life after racing. One year later, the TRF opened the door on its Second Chances program at the Wallkill Correctional Facility near New Paltz, New York. There, students/inmates were provided vocational training in equine care and got the opportunity to put their education into practice by taking care of the horses. As the years went by, Groom Elite was added to provide a consistent method of tending to the horses, thus making the program’s graduates more qualified to find employment in the equine industry when they were released.
In addition to Wallkill, Second Chances/Groom Elite is now offered at correctional facilities in California, Kentucky, Florida, Maryland, Illinois and South Carolina.
It didn’t take much to get Baker on board.
“I had been rehoming horses here and there since the ’90s,” Baker said. “One day, I said that we needed to get some people together and figure this out. The most important thing for us was to get organized.” Baker said that thoroughbred aftercare was being talked about more and more and she and Sue Greene (who was then president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association) knew they wanted to get involved. Julie sought out the TRF in 2011 and helped find new homes for many horses, including several from a TRF satellite farm in Oklahoma. Many wound up working for the mounted police.
“Adam Christanson, who is now retired, was the sheriff of Stanislaus County (CA) and had an equine facility that had been unused for years,” Julie said. “We thought about how to utilize that facility and we pitched the idea of Second Chances as a program outside of the (prison) fence for probationers who were already out.”
Julie, however, wanted to take it a step further. She had worked as an EMT for 14 years and had become a life coach. In 2008, she became certified as an Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) Equine Professional.
“We wanted to do more than just teach people how to take care of horses,” Julie said. “We wanted the horses to help these people figure out themselves and what it was that got them incarcerated in the first place. When the chance came to work Second Chances/Groom Elite in tandem with Equine Assisted Therapy, my reaction was `Where do I sign?’”
According to Greene, Baker’s experience and enthusiasm fueled the project.
“I have always felt that there is a need in our industry for rehoming and repurposing horses,” said Greene, who owns the 64-acre Woodbridge Thoroughbred Farm in Oakdale, California. “It is also very under publicized how many people are terribly concerned about where their horses wind up after racing.”
Julie had the idea of working with the Probation Department in Stanislaus County and TRF’s Second Chances/Groom Elite, Green said. Two of those Groom Elite graduates came to work at Woodbridge Farm, which fueled Julie’s excitement.. She has has now offered Second/Chances Groom Elite programs to help veterans, human trafficking victims and victims of abuse and has found many ways to give new purpose to former racehorses.
“Julie has an incredibly huge heart for these horses and how much they love whatever job you give them, whether it is racing or packing some kid around an arena,” Greene said. “She understands that they are athletes. They are so intelligent, so talented and can do a lot more than just run fast around a track.”
For the next several years, Healing Arenas exceeded Julie’s hopes. It even paved the way for the TRF to launch a Second Chances program at the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, California, which graduated its first class last October.
Near the end of 2020, Julie decided that it was time for a change. First, she first planned a move to Montana, but while she was able to find a place for her horses, she couldn’t find a place for herself to live. She then toyed with the idea of moving to Idaho.
Suddenly, opportunity presented itself at Mount Shasta.
She has been there for a few weeks.
Baker’s main role at VS Equine is teaching, and her diverse equestrian background makes her well-qualified for the job. She started with hunters and jumpers in her youth, and later on, she galloped Thoroughbreds and worked as an assistant trainer at California’s racetracks.
Baker works with VS Equine owner/trainer Ruth Van Sweden-Altes, who has won world and national championships in Quarter Horse, Palomino, Buckskin and Morgan. Additionally, her students have shown in Reining, Working Cowhorse, Trail, Western Riding, Hunter Hack, Working Hunter and Jumping.
In addition to hosting clinics and retreats, VS Equine also provides trail tours of Siskiyou County for equestrians and hikers, and hosts weddings, corporate outings, and other outdoor events through Iron Horse Unlimited, LLC.
Mount Shasta offers plenty of action, making it ideal for Baker. With an elevation of 14,179 feet, it is the second highest peak in the Cascade Range and the fifth highest in the state. It is home to the Shasta, Wintu, Achumawi, Atsugewi and Modoc Native American tribes and figures prominently in their traditions and folk tales.
Mount Shasta also happens to be a potentially active volcano.
Julie plans to channel some of this surrounding energy and take Healing Arenas, horses and humans in yet another new direction.
“What I want to do is to target high-tech companies and have them come here for leadership training and corporate team building,” Baker said. “Those funds could then pay for a business plan that would let me provide a program for underserved veterans and the large population of Native American tribes in Siskiyou County.”
Her friends at TRF are rooting for her.