Horse Play

There’s a familiar atmosphere at Sunshine Ranch I in Gilbert, as horse trailer after horse trailer rolls into its three acres on a balmy February morning.

“Looking good, girl! You lost a ton of weight!”

“At least a ton, yeah!”

“Yeah, I almost didn’t recognize you with your new horse over there! You know, ‘cause I recognize people by their horses.”

In the background of the chit-chat, on the ranch’s caged lot, a short, stocky man bustles around to set up the cones, the PA system, his own horses and, of course, the meter-wide soccer balls everyone will be rolling at their steeds until they learn to kick them back.

Meet Glenn Davis, founder and director of Southwest Horse Soccer Association. He also runs New Beginnings Paso Fino Horse Rescue out of his ranch in Surprise, combining zany pastime with serious cause to form an eccentric, symbolic business model. Davis takes in unwanted or uncared-for horses and rears them back to health at his own expense. Then he loans them out for adoption — but not before training them in the Valley’s most spectacular equine sport.

As everyone else saddles up, Davis tests out the one-speaker PA system. Cue, unexpectedly, Katy Perry.

The game goes like this: Two teams, a few horse-and-rider units on each team, try to get their horses to kick a massive bouncy ball through their goal. The rules of horse soccer aren’t complex, but that’s not the point. This is horse training made fun, and maybe even a way to relieve some stress caused by this country’s unwanted horses epidemic.

There are more than 20 people here to watch or play the game — some experienced, some not. Granted, that number includes Davis himself, along with his wife, two of his grandkids and a couple neighbors.

One of those neighbors is Hannah Bergamasco, a high school senior who’s ridden horses half her life and played horse soccer for more than a year.

Bergamasco, along with two of Davis’ grandkids and a few other neighborhood honors students, are all part of the youth horse soccer exhibition team. After teaching the sport to both her personal horse and a New Beginnings rescued animal, Bergamasco says it’s helpful when training any horse, rescued or tamed.

Besides being good exercise, Bergamasco says, soccer “makes them interact with other horses and teaches them not to be afraid.”

Arlen Petermann, who resides at Sunshine Ranch I with his wife Donna, agrees that soccer improves horses’ footing and social skills. But just as important is that the game is new and exciting for rider and mount alike, a welcome change from the usual routine of walking trails and obstacles.

“They can get sour after a while, doing the same old thing,” 67-year-old Petermann says. “So this is different, and the horses, they enjoy it.”

Horse soccer in action. Video still by Becca Bever.

Similar activities that are not only fun for rescue horses, but also teach them new skills, could be vital for a niche industry that’s struggling in a down economy. Horses are still being placed in new homes, but lately, local rescues are “hurtin’ a lot,” says Petermann.

The expenses of caring for horses add up past the obvious things like hay and stables — shoes, shots, vet visits, even dental work cost bales of moolah that many horse-lovers simply can’t afford any more.

Sunshine Ranch I has two horses of its own, Petermann says, but it used to keep a rescue horse as well. Recently, the rescue was given up to someone in Colorado.

More and more people are giving their horses away, according to Petermann, but in doing so they run the risk of selling it to someone who’s buying for less-than-humane reasons. “There’s people who’ll take the horse and go right down to the slaughter house and get their $50,” Petermann says. “It’s a crying shame, but that’s the way it is.”

He pauses and lets out as close to an audible sigh as the cowboy code allows before adding that some people still take in horses for free, because the animals’ safety is worth the cost to them.

“They’ll take on an extra horse, just to save ‘em,” Petermann concludes.

One of those people is Glenn Davis.

The 61-year-old is about 5 foot 8 inches and has titanium screws in his back from a work-related accident 17 years ago. He lives on a ranch in Surprise with his wife of 39 years and seems the typical Arizona-dwelling semi-retire.

But look again. Davis is built like a tree trunk made of sausage meat. He’s still strong, but not intimidating; he’s still chatty, but not boorish. If you recognize people by their horses, Davis would probably want you to recognize him as a Paso Fino kind of man. He seems utterly dedicated to the breed: In addition to heading New Beginnings and Southwest Horse Soccer Association (and a horse soccer ball outfit called HorsePlay), he is vice president of the regional Great Western Paso Fino Horse Association.

Davis first took interest in Paso Fino horses because the way they move doesn’t have a lot of up-down bounce to it — an important trait because of the back injuries he’s sustained.

Then he started showing horses. At a Spanish horse show in California, he saw a group of Paso Finos that had been abused and malnourished. While he wasn’t able to help that time, the moment inspired Davis to use his unique knowledge of the breed to start a Paso Fino rescue of his own.

“I decided, ‘Why should you be breeding horses when there are so many out there that need to be helped?’” he says.

New Beginnings doesn’t sell horses so much as find foster homes for them.

The rescue charges an adoption fee; this way, Davis retains rights to the horse, as a protection against negligent adopters and deterrent to what he calls “killer-buyers.” (You can guess what this is. Horsemeat is eaten in Europe; America has an unwanted-horse epidemic and there are horse slaughters in Mexico and Canada.) He bases his adoption fees on the horse’s weight to make sure someone trying to buy the horse for slaughter won’t be able to turn a profit on the meat alone.

Does all of this seem depressing yet? Well, nothing like a rousing game of horse soccer to cheer things up, right?

Actually, this may make some sense, at least within the multifaceted operation that Davis wields. New Beginnings tries to educate people on the abilities and versatility of rescue horses and the Paso Fino breed. And Davis says the horse soccer workshops aid these missions greatly.

The idea came to him four or five years ago, after watching YouTube videos of Paso Fino owners in Colorado using horse soccer to train their horses.

Davis was intrigued: “I said, ‘I’ve gotta give this a try.’” So he got a ball and started working with his own horses, who loved it.

“It’s good for their mind, good for their body,” Davis says. It’s something the horses, once trained, can do by themselves with a soccer ball and a big enough pen.

Davis says he uses his six personal horses to promote the Paso Fino breed, and the rescue horses to promote the positive effects of training via horse soccer.

If a rescued horse can play horse soccer, he reasons, it shows they can learn new skills and be fun to own. Hopefully this makes them more adoptable, he adds, “because now they have a job, instead of just being a hay-burner out in the backyard.”

Take Rex, for example, a 6-year-old from Alpine, Texas. His owner moved closer to family and could no longer care for him, but she wanted to be sure Rex found a good home. Since October 2009, he’s lived at New Beginnings. His previous owner donated all her equipment and some money to the rescue to keep him there.

Davis says Rex is an “at-risk” horse: It has no history of injury or abuse, but because its owner can no longer care for it, the horse’s future well-being is uncertain. (“Rescue” horses, on the other hand, are those that have been saved from already abusive or neglectful situations.) He was okay to ride, but skittish and unskilled.

Rex is still a little rough around the edges — “He’s got to get used to socializing” — but Davis says the horse serves as an example for what his unique combination of horse rescue and horse soccer can do.

“He’s a good ambassador for the breed,” he says. “He’s a great ambassador for the rescue. Here’s a rescue horse that’s now a great trail horse, and he knows how to play soccer.”

When Davis talks to people, he uses his hands haphazardly, occasionally squatting to illustrate his point in the dirt with his finger.

When Davis talks to horses, his voice raises an octave and softens considerably (“Yes, I know! You’re just a lovely little boy!”), and his beefy hands turn maternal as he pets their long noses.

Surreal or not, evidence is everywhere that horse soccer is a labor of love for Davis. First, his attire: New Beginnings hat, New Beginnings t-shirt, Southwest Horse Soccer Association belt buckle and thick denim jeans.

Next, the big, roomy stalls that Davis takes pride in. It means he can keep fewer animals, but that each has a better life. New Beginnings doesn’t take in too many horses, but also doesn’t turn down a horse just because it needs medical care. This seems to be realism on the part of Davis, both emotional and financial.

“I can’t save all the horses. Nobody can save them all,” he says. “I’ll turn horses down, but I never want to put this facility in a position where somebody has to come and rescue the horses from me.”

Finally, consider that after caring for these horses, some of them for many years on end, Davis will eventually need to find them another home. But knowing that the work he’s done allows the horses to have a new home is comfort enough, he says. “I hate to see them go, but they have to go.”

Other than fundraisers, New Beginnings doesn’t profit off its rescue efforts. The horse soccer clinics help out some, but after gas and equipment, probably not that much.

The horse ranch “is not where I’m making my money,” Davis says. “It’s where I’m spending my money.” He uses his own equipment and does most of the manual work himself; as a rescue, he could technically charge adopters and boarders for labor costs, but doesn’t.

“I don’t get paid for anything that I do. I’m here because to me, this is relaxation and enjoyment. This isn’t work. I’d much rather spend 12 hours here than six hours on a job.”

Glenn Davis stands next to one of his horses in the middle of his personal horse-soccer arena. He squints at an oversized soccer ball of his own creation, set atop a racing barrel, glowing like a pedestal in the afternoon sun. He and two of his grandsons are about to go out for a trail ride. He pets his horse on the nose.

“You see the results here. You see them every day.”

Reach the reporter at trabens@asu.edu