In June of 2020, a horse named Rooster arrived at The BackStretch, a nonprofit ranch in Aromas that aims to provide a haven for abandoned, abused and neglected horses.
The 16-year-old Quarter Horse had finally found his “forever home” after years of being a workhorse, jumping from place to place, living at 12 different locations in 10 years. At BackStretch’s sprawling 35-acre property, Rooster has thrived, settling into a relaxing, restorative retirement.
But Rooster, along with his fellow retiree Skip, still sees plenty of action. An anonymous donor recently gifted the horse to Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Santa Cruz, which pairs trained volunteers with youth in the foster care system. The ranch invites advocates and kids to come to meet the animals to learn basic horse care, allow them to get comfortable with the animals and eventually learn to ride if they wish.
“Kids will be absolutely beaming when they come here and see these animals,” said Jan Goodspeed, a local teacher and rescue volunteer at BackStretch. “Rooster and Skip, they are gentle giants … the kids know they’ll be safe with them. And it’s good for [the horses] too—they still get the attention they want and exercise they need.”
The fact that Rooster, a rescue horse, is now spending time with CASA kids is not lost on participants.
“There’s just something really poetic about a horse that has had multiple homes … working with children in foster care,” said CASA advocate Brenda Guzman. “We are so grateful to the donor who has really allowed these kids to connect with an animal like this.”
Guzman said the 13-year-old girl she is currently paired with loves animals and has had some experience with horses. The girl’s social worker was inquiring about some sort of horse therapy when CASA program director Jimmy Cook recommended Rooster.
Guzman and the girl now visit the ranch every other weekend. Each time, they go through a “ritual” of retrieving the horse, grooming him, walking and feeding him, and then finally, a session of riding.
“She takes pride in her previous knowledge of horses,” Guzman said. “When the horses listen to her, when she’s riding or leading them around … She is really confident. You can see it on her face, in her posture.”
Guzman praised volunteers at the ranch, which was founded and is still owned by Dennis Barwick. The facility includes a large, 300-foot arena, numerous stalls, paddocks, 23 acres of riding trails and more.
“The volunteers have been great—a real asset to our time there,” she said. “I’ve never been an animal person, really … but since going there I’ve found it so enjoyable. There’s something really healing about being around animals—horses in particular.”
Katie Couch, 14, has been volunteering at the ranch for two months. She said it felt “incredible” to see how Rooster and Skip interact with the young visitors.
“I was a CASA kid myself,” she said, “And I think if I would’ve had a place like this to come visit, it would’ve been amazing.”
CASA’s partnership with the ranch continues to grow, with more advocates recommending Rooster and Skip to their kids. The anonymous donor works as a liaison between the two organizations, with support from local school districts and other foster care organizations.
“It’s an effort by a lot of wonderful people and animals, all working together,” Goodspeed said.