One of our first — and most enjoyable — official orders of business as DPFF was to pay a field visit to the Tamaya Horse Rehabilitation program in San Ysidro, NM. For anyone who’s never visited the Tamaya, a Hyatt Regency resort just northwest of Albuquerque, it is a serene oasis located on Santa Ana Pueblo native lands, with beautiful bike and walking paths winding along the Rio Grande through lush cottonwood trees. To the east, the Sandia Mountains are striking — they somehow look even bigger, more regal at that distance and the little known “Abraham Lincoln” of the mountains, only visible from that angle, gazes peacefully at the wide-open New Mexico sky. One warm (let’s call it hot) and sunny afternoon in May, we loaded up the car with carrots and apples and rode out to Tamaya to meet with owner and founder Connie Collis — and of course, to feed and nuzzle some of the 90 horses in her care.
The resort itself is a comfortable retreat with saltwater pools, a restaurant and bar, cozy rooms and conference centers for large events. But one of the biggest draws of the Tamaya, for overnight guests or locals visiting for the day, are the stables, run by horse enthusiast and — in our opinion — guardian angel, Connie. Having connected deeply with horses for most of her life, Connie was asked to head up the stables at Tamaya in 2008 after they took notice of the woman running the nearby CWW Feed Store, with a growing herd of beautiful horses and steady trail ride business. Recognizing that the location and increased clientele would allow her to provide for her horses more easily and share her passion for riding with more people, she jumped at the opportunity.
Visiting the stables and getting to meet Connie for the first time, it was obvious that this is her home, these horses are her family, and both the stables and the animals are loved and cared for in a way that only Connie could accomplish. Well, Connie and her staff, along with 35 volunteers that she calls nothing short of amazing. Hearing her describe the growth of the volunteers — some of whom had never worked with horses before — under her employ is a testament to her patience, passion and leadership. Connie has a big, bright energy, apparent from the moment she says hello. We were excited to learn the story of the woman behind the Tamaya Horse Rehab program, and how she went from rider to rescuer of more than 160 horses since the inception of the rescue program in 2012.
This is what we learned:
The Call to Rescue
The stable business was going strong under Connie’s leadership, and people continued to take notice of her big heart and obvious love for these majestic creatures. So much so that she became the woman people in the community turned to when they came upon animals who needed help. One day, Connie received a call from what is now the Galloping Goat in Albuquerque, saying that there was a donkey that had been abandoned in the city. Due to noise ordinances, they couldn’t take it. Connie didn’t hesitate to go pick it up, and when she did, she found goats and chickens as well. Connie says she soon learned this wasn’t a one-off incident, people abandoning animals, but an endemic issue in the area (and across the country). The more she learned about the statistics of domestic animals — especially horses — being abandoned or abused, and wild animals being round up due to overpopulation and loss of habitat, she realized that the problem was daunting. And while it would be impossible to curb the problem through rescue alone, Connie knew that the rescue and rehabilitation of even a small number of these animals was worth it. And she was well equipped to do it.
Connie approached the Hyatt and in 2012 launched their own rescue and rehabilitation program for horses (and these days, chihuahua dogs as well). Her initial rescue efforts focused on purchasing sick and abandoned horses from sale barns — places where abandoned and wild horses that have been round up are auctioned off. Buying a horse from a sale barn rescues it from being shipped off to kill barns in Mexico, where a shocking number of horses are sent for slaughter each week. “But my soap box is not about kill barns,” Connie says, not until we have the ability to shelter and care for the overwhelming amount of horses in need. For Connie, it is all about giving a home and love to the horses that she can, educating people on how to take care of horses and celebrating the remarkable intuition, communication and healing skills these animals have, especially for people in pain.
Growing, Growing, Gone
While Connie continued to receive horses from sale barns at times, her growing reputation as the horse rescuer kept her in the loop when it came to local animals in need. Many of the horses come to her as a result of concerned neighbors, people who become aware of horses that are being mistreated or neglected, or those who are “orphaned” when their owners pass away and there’s nobody to take the animals. She also at times finds horses abandoned at her CWW Feed Store by owners who couldn’t bear to take them to a sale barn and hope that Connie has the resources to take them on. She’s the go-to phone call for veterinarians in the area who come to work to find horses tied up in their parking lots for the same reason.
It’s not that people are bad, Connie tells us, but sometimes they can’t live up to the responsibility of animal ownership, and sometimes, they just don’t understand what a horse needs to live a happy life. She told us the story of Hoss, a horse she rescued three years ago who had been living alone in a small stable for five years. He wasn’t shod, had rarely been touched and was well undernourished. Upon receiving a call from a neighbor, she contacted the owner and went out to visit. The owner, and older man, has been feeding him a bale of hay a week (enough for about two days), simply because he didn’t know any better. The owner was happy to let Connie visit the horse, and she did — traveling 30 miles each way, twice a day, for a week to feed Hoss and socialize with him. At first he was shy and scared of contact, but after getting some strength back and getting to know Connie over a few days, she says he would dance when he saw her truck pull up. Connie was desperate to take the horse but didn’t have the money to support it at that time, so she just kept visiting. Then she received a donation from a family who had come to ride at the stables and loved what she was doing there — the DePontes. With that money, she was able to adopt the horse. Today, he lives in a pasture outside of her home (with 37 of his good horse buddies) and greets her happily first thing every morning.
In total, Connie cares for 90 horses at this time. “I never expected it to grow like this,” Connie said, “But there’s always another horse that needs rescuing.” And Connie doesn’t say “no” if she doesn’t have to.
Prior to Covid, the riding business was nearly enough to finance the rescue horses, most of whom are not trained to be ridden, some of whom are wild and need to be broken in order to work or get adopted. But once Covid shut down the resort, she had to declare all of the horses in her care as rescues and learn to apply for grants. “All of a sudden, I was the one doing the begging,” she said. “It was really difficult.”
The day of our visit was the first day the resort had opened for business since being shut down by the pandemic, and we were happy to see the parking lot had a surprising amount of cars. Connie is hopeful that business will pick up to normal levels with riding lessons, trail rides and business from the resort guests. And hopefully an influx of riders after the resort is featured in a reality television show airing in June. We’re not at liberty to share details yet, but we’ll just say love was in the air, at the stables and at Tamaya.
Dreams for the Future
We asked Connie what some of her challenges are now, aside from Covid, and how grants and donations are put to use. Training is a big one, she said, adding that many of her riding horses are getting old and need to be replaced by some of the rescue horses. She estimates about 20-30 horses need training before they could go to work as riding horses or be adopted into a good home. At this time, there is no in-house trainer at the Tamaya (though Connie is actively seeking an experienced trainer to help at the stables), so she sends her horses out to be trained. The process takes 3-4 months and costs $1000 a month per horse — a price that she says sounds steep, but when you look at the cost of horses today ($30,000-$100,000 in some cases) it’s much cheaper and more ethical to rescue and train a horse in need that buy a newly bred one.
Connie dreams of a time when Tamaya can hold their own horse sales, with horses that are so desirable and sought after due to their top training and clean bill of health. The sales could find the rescue horses in loving homes, opening up stable space and funding the program to save more horses in need. It would do wonders for the sustainability of the program.
She also dreams of getting into the area of horse therapy. She emphasizes that horses are tremendous communicators and connect with people deeply — especially those they can feel are in pain. “Veterans, people with illness, they can all benefit from interacting with the horses,” she says, adding that she’d like to start a program that gives these people access to her stable. At the same time, they can play a part in training some of the horses, a symbiotic relationship of healing and life enhancement. It would allow Connie and her horses to be in service in another way, and it is clear to us that being of service, to animals and people, is a major purpose in Connie’s life.
The idea of purpose is something that drives Connie’s efforts. “Everyone needs a purpose,” she says. “The same is true for horses.” Connie and her team are doing a tremendous job of giving purpose to the horses she rescues and to the people who come to interact with them. With the support of DPFF, other grantors, donors and riders, Connie hopes to see her efforts continue to grow. We are so excited to be a part of that dream.
You can read more about the Stables at Tamaya and Connie’s incredible rehabilitation program on their website, Facebook and Instagram. The details are below. Don’t miss a chance to reach out and say hello to Connie and her herd. And if you’re in the Albuquerque area, make sure you stop by to take in the beauty of Tamaya and visit with the incredible people and animals there. You won’t regret it!