Every day after school, junior Sophia Cluff-Thompson drives across a series of dirt roads that lead to the Collins Horse Facility just west of Ojai, a sprawling collection of paddocks bordered by emerald fields of tall grass.
Chickens and goats roam freely here and horses happily graze in their enclosures, but that all changes when Sophia shows up halter and lead rope in hand. One-by-one the horses eagerly trot over to greet her, shy at first but then filled with affection, nuzzling up next to her, almost as if giving thanks.
Each of these horses has a story. There are some here with legs once broken, no front teeth, split hooves, and tumors. They all share the common lot of having been abandoned over time. And they share one other thing — Sophia has helped train and rehabilitate them all and each has become part of her extended equine family.
“I’ve never been able to turn down a suffering animal,” Sophia said. “When I see horses abandoned, I always want to help.”
For Sophia, that desire to help can be traced all the way back to when she first started riding at age six. At first she spent most of those early days riding Arabians, but she changed course after finding the program focused too much on winning and not enough on developing the connection between horse and rider.
Sophia wanted a different approach. She started focusing on horsemanship, working on riding and training while dedicating herself to letting her horses keep their personalities
A few years ago, Sophia was working at a ranch with her rescue horse named Pearl when she met trainer Tiffany Colohan, who runs a horse rescue and rehabilitation program. Colohan invited Sophia to work with those horses, and she has been doing so ever since.
A horse named Flash was her first and most successful rehabilitation story. Flash had suffered a severe knee injury and a broken leg, and was scheduled to be put down. However, with Sophia’s help, the horse was able to recover from her injuries and live six more years.
That was only a couple years ago. Since then Sophia has been working with the same six horses, heading out to the Collins ranch at least six times a week. Two of those horses, Cody and Zin, are her own.
At the end of her freshman year, Sophia bought Cody when he was 13. From being an obese, green horse who was barely trained, Sophia worked with him and got him jumping up to three feet, riding bareback, and going on trail rides in a matter of months.
Zin is Sophia’s newest horse who she got from an owner who sent him away for training. Zin is much younger than the other horses, but was trained by a former Olympian for advanced show jumping. However, the young horse was trapped in a small stall, away from other horses, and had become hostile toward people. Sophia took him in, put him out in a pasture with other horses, and started to work with him intensively every day. In just a few weeks, he became a friendly, happy horse.
“Zin was in a small, dark boxstall going crazy before I got him,” Sophia said. “They said he was crazy, but he hasn’t acted out once since I kept him in a pasture with other horses and started riding him without heavy equipment. Once he was treated like a horse instead of a dangerous being, he began to act normal.”
Currently, Sophia is working with horses that have been abandoned by their previous owners.
One horse she’s working with is Odin, a large draft paint horse who was supposed to be police horse before he injured his leg and couldn’t do that job. Sophia’s trainer bought him, and they both started to rehabilitate his leg and ease him back into riding. Now, he is a dressage horse.
Rogue is another horse Sophia trains. An adorable and sweet racing quarter horse, she has a white chemotherapy scar on her cheek and a large tumor over her left eye. Sophia has trained Rogue to do Western barrel racing and to take trail rides with only a halter and no saddle. Once Rogue gets surgery for her eye tumor, Sophia plans to turn her into a children’s lesson horse.
All of these horses, some of who who were neglected by their previous owners, were all in dangerous conditions, but they are now all living contently together. Each one of them is on the road to full rehabilitation or is already there, and they have Sophia to thank for that.
Working with challenging horses is never an easy process, and it sometimes takes months to see progress, but Sophia said the end results are always extremely rewarding.
“It is amazing to see how they transform when you treat them with care because every horse has a different personality,” Sophia said. “When you let them heal on their own time, you will be amazed at what they can do.”