Like a proud uncle, Dr. Richard Bowman can recite the latest accomplishments of the equine boarders who spent time on his North Dakota ranch. One is beginning a career in law enforcement. Another won an event at her very first horse show, after only a few weeks of training. And the one who broke both front ankles, who nearly died right there on the Canterbury Park track, has teamed up with a child to compete in rodeos.
Each of those former racehorses came to Bowman as damaged goods. In some other place, they might have been shipped off to slaughter or euthanized. But at Canterbury, Bowman and his colleagues in the state veterinarian's office -- Dr. Lynn Hovda and Dr. Christy Klatt -- believe that even the injured and lame can be led into a new life, a philosophy that has become their personal mission.
Over the past 12 years, the trio has rehabilitated 370 horses, covering much of the considerable cost out of their own pockets. Once the horses are healthy, they are given to carefully screened owners who use them for trail riding, polo, police work and all manner of equestrian events. Those who cannot be adopted live out their days at Bowman's 4,000-acre spread near the Montana border, where the only thing more expansive than the land is the generous heart of its owner.
"I didn't intentionally start a horse rescue,'' said Bowman, who recently received the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association's Carl Nafzger Award in honor of his work. "These horses needed a place to go. I had a place to take them. And it just kept growing.
"We've taken some pretty bad wrecks. It's amazing; some of them that can barely walk onto the trailer, a year later, they're running around the pasture. It's a good feeling to see them get another shot.''
The welfare of retired racehorses has become a national issue in recent years, since it was learned that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand was slaughtered in Japan when his stallion career ended. Last month, Ernie Paragallo -- whose stable once included Breeders' Cup champions Unbridled's Song and Artax -- was sentenced to two years in jail after more than 100 horses were found starving and neglected on his farm.
The state vets have made it easy for horsemen at Canterbury Park to give their animals a dignified retirement. Most of the horses who come to them have leg injuries or breathing problems and need time to heal. They took in only one or two horses when they first began; the number has grown steadily since, with about 50 arriving at Bowman's ranch last year.
Most require about a year to regain their soundness and shed their high-strung behavior. When they are ready for adoption -- as 26 currently are -- the vets tap a vast network of horse people to find new owners who will be a good match.
It is an expensive undertaking. It costs about $100 per day to feed the horses at his place, Bowman said, and $600 to transport a trailer load from Canterbury to his ranch. They require vaccinations and hoof care. Some need surgery or other extensive medical treatment.
Three years ago, the Minnesota Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association began contributing to the cause by collecting a $1 fee for every horse that starts in Canterbury's races. The track matches that amount, and some clients of Bowman's equine dental practice give him donations, as do some racehorse owners. The vets continue to bear much of the expense themselves, but they feel repaid in abundance by the renewed lives of the horses they save.
Bigi's Luck broke both ankles in her first race, the same injury that led to the death of Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. She had surgery and spent a year recovering on Hovda's farm before heading to Bowman's ranch, where she was placed with a young rider to compete in 4-H shows. Another mare had such a bad disposition that Bowman feared she could not be adopted; a woman who visited the ranch immediately connected with her, and the two are successfully competing in jumping events.
The recession has made it harder to find homes for horses, Bowman said, and the need continues to grow. Though Canterbury's season began less than three weeks ago, one trailer full of horses already has been shipped to his ranch. He even has taken some horses from other tracks.
The door will remain open, with plenty of room -- and plenty of kindness -- for all those with no place else to go.
"A horse like Bigi's Luck, she probably had less than a 5 percent chance of survival,'' Bowman said. "Now she's in a good home and doing really well. You see a Cinderella story like that, and it just makes you feel good.''
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org