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'Heaven' needs help 

Who will care for horses while the rescue owner battles breast cancer?

Sitting in a chair, with medical-grade poisons coursing through her body, Susan Schwartz was scared—but not for herself. In the dazed agony of her first chemotherapy session, she kept returning to the same question: How am I going to care for my horses?

click to enlarge HORSE HERO :  Susan Schwartz was diagnosed with cancer in November and spent the next month frantically searching for someone who could help run her horse shelter while she undergoes treatment. A caretaker recently stepped up to the task but wishes to remain anonymous. - FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • HORSE HERO : Susan Schwartz was diagnosed with cancer in November and spent the next month frantically searching for someone who could help run her horse shelter while she undergoes treatment. A caretaker recently stepped up to the task but wishes to remain anonymous.

As the founder and operator of Heaven Can Wait Equine Sanctuary for Healing and Learning, Schwartz manages the daily corralling, feeding, and cleaning of 27 horses. Some were once abandoned and starving. Others were racehorses too old to be useful, and some simply belonged to people who could no longer afford to feed and care for the animals. All were headed toward slaughter or rot until Schwartz gave the horses a home, a place where they could spend their last days happily munching hay and running as a herd over 14 acres of grassy hills in the outskirts of San Miguel. The facility opened in 2002 with three horses and grew rapidly.

Volunteers regularly help with the daily chores, but many of them have special needs, developmental disabilities, or post traumatic stress. For them, caring for horses is an important form of therapy. For Schwartz, it’s a labor of love she’s obligated to perform 365 days a year.

But mucking stalls is hard work, far too hard for a cancer patient. In November, Schwartz was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Doctors caught it in the early stage and were able to fast-track Schwartz into a chemotherapy regimen. After six sessions, the growth should be small enough to remove surgically, and doctors expect a full recovery with the help of further radiation treatments, Schwartz said.

“I’m not trying to have anybody feeling sorry for me,” she explained. “There’s a lot of people in far worse situations than mine, but I need somebody to help with these horses, and I need them yesterday.”

Schwartz uttered those words on Dec. 14, and by Dec. 17, she had found her caretaker.

“It is an answer to my prayers and is a great situation for them as well,” Schwartz wrote in an e-mail to concerned friends. “It was a wonderful Christmas present for [my husband] and I.”

According to Schwartz, a member of the Central Coast Dressage Association put the word out and was able to find a family who recently relocated to the Central Coast from Missouri and hadn’t put roots down yet. They owned a big RV that they could park at Heaven Can Wait, and the wife is a nurse with vast amounts of horse knowledge, a perfect fit for Schwartz, who said the family didn’t want any public acknowledgment for their good deed.

Finding the family wasn’t easy. All told, Schwartz expected she’d be out of commission for about 10 months, and the timing is pretty awful. Her husband works as a tax consultant and typically lives in Los Angeles during the frenzied filing period between Jan. 1 and April 15, leaving Schwartz alone with the animals. Nancy Koren, a frequent volunteer at Heaven Can Wait, said that many people sympathized with Schwartz’s situation and the horses. They wanted to help, but they couldn’t make such a long commitment.

Schwartz wouldn’t directly answer questions about what would have happened to the horses had she been unable to find a person who could care for them at Heaven Can Wait. She did say that no one wants to take 27 horses at once, but a friend agreed to take five of her ponies in the worst-case scenario. Somehow, if pressed, Schwartz said, she would find a way to keep the horses healthy and safe.

“I love these guys, and I will do everything in my power to keep them together,” she said. “These are horses that have been together for a long time. They have feelings, too. They’re family.”

Although the primary caretaker has been found, Schwartz said the shelter is still in dire need of financial assistance and volunteers. According to Schwartz, the experience can be rewarding and even therapeutic, despite the fact that the work is physically demanding.

“These animal are wonderful,” she said. “Being out here is a piece of peace.” ∆

Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached at npowell@newtimesslo.com.

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