When they found him, Smokey was tied to a tree. All he could do was walk around in a circle. Which he did, for months. The circle eventually became a rut, a deep one.
“You could hardly see his head,” Dennis Barwick said. There was no room for a horse his size to even lie down.
Barwick freed Smokey from the tree, pulled him out of the rut, and took him to his horse-rescue farm in Aromas. Early the next morning, he went out to check on Smokey. The horse was lying on his side motionless.
“I thought he had died overnight,” said Barwick, on the grounds of Backstretch, the 35-acre farm he manages with his wife Janece. “I called out to him, several times. Finally, he lifted his head.”
As he speaks, he gestures to a statuesque chocolate-colored horse in a spacious, shady, fenced-in pen. At Backstretch, the Barwicks have three jobs: 1. To rescue abused, neglected or unwanted horses; 2. To rehab them or restore them to health as much as possible, and 3. To find them loving homes.
Smokey may never check that third box.
“I don’t think I’ll ever let him go anywhere,” Barwick said, “because he continually reminds me of the kind of strength and resilience these animals have, that if you give them the attention they need, they’ll come back, all the way back.”
As harrowing and upsetting as it is, Smokey’s story is not unusual. Since he started caring for unwanted horses less than a decade ago, Barwick has seen too many examples of man’s inhumanity to horses.
“Sometimes, people will just lock them in a stall and leave them out there to die. Or they’ll turn them loose out on the roads, hoping they’ll go somewhere so they don’t have to deal with them anymore.”
The people who do these things, they’re not evil, Barwick said. Most of the time, they’re just desperate. For whatever reason, they can no longer take care of their animals. And they don’t know who to turn to, or what to do.
“We do tell the public, ‘Call us. Let us find a solution. We may not always have the best solution, but we’ll find a solution. We’ll work with you. No questions asked,’ ” Barwick said.
“We just rescued 10 from Hollister. They were in bad shape, drinking rain water, eating mud. One of them was already dead in the paddock. The neighbor called us and asked if we could come and get them. We made a makeshift hospital here, put two of them into surgery at Steinbeck (animal hospital in Salinas). Today, they are flourishing, gaining their weight back. It’s the most gratifying thing in the world.”
As of mid-July, Backstretch had 63 horses on its site, spread out in a serene, gently sloping landscape of oak and eucalyptus. To this point, Barwick said, he is yet to say no to a horse in need. They have quarterhorses, Arabians, Percherons, Clydesdales, even a few donkeys and mules. The smallest on site is a 131-pound mini; the largest, a Belgian draft horse that comes in at more than 2,800 pounds.
If you had known Dennis Barwick a decade ago, this whole story might be shocking. Until 2011, he had had next to no experience with horses. Yes, he grew up on a farm in North Carolina, but that was among cows and pigs. An Air Force veteran, he made his living as a real estate broker. He was well into his 50s before fate surprised him.
That surprise came by way of a momentous phone call, from a woman he knew, a nurse and horse lover who kept 20 horses in Parkfield, a couple of hours drive to the south. But life had taken a bad turn, and suddenly she couldn’t afford that many horses and she couldn’t find new homes for them. She told him she was going to euthanize 10 of them.
“At that point, I didn’t know what to do,” said Barwick, who is now 64. “But I told her I would go there and talk to her and see what I could do. But when I went and drove there, and looked in the eyes of those horses, something changed that day. I tell everyone, it was just one of those moments that I can vividly remember as if it were yesterday.”
Not knowing what else to do, Barwick took responsibility for the 10 horses. He found a facility for them. Every morning before heading to work, he drove to the facility to feed them. Every afternoon, after work, he did it again.
“I realized that I could hardly wait to get there, and that I hated to leave,” he said.
He moved his horses around from facility to facility for several years until, finally, in 2017, he and Janece jumped in on the 35-acre tract in Aromas. Of the original 10 horses he rescued from euthanasia, three are still with him at Backstretch. Two were adopted and five became part of the equestrian program at Cal Poly.
Every horse at Backstretch has a name—Pirate, Nugget, Sweet Pea, Topaz, etc.—and every horse has a story. Barwick finds himself having to do three things at once at Backstretch where he runs a rescue operation, a rehab facility, and an adoption agency. He and Janece have just hired their staffer. Otherwise, they’ve gotten by with volunteers and they’re own commitment.
“I tell people I serve more than 40,000 meals last year,” he laughed.
A place to heal
On a bright but breezy Sunday afternoon, Jennifer Fenton takes a long walk across a dusty enclosed pen at Backstretch. On the pen’s far side is a horse, a formerly wild mustang that was eventually captured and abused. Fenton is a licensed family therapist who has developed a satellite practice at Backstretch in a practice she calls EAP (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy).
The horse, she said, is still suffering from trauma. He’s given an enormous pen in which to wander alone, but he’s staying close to the far end. Before taking the long walk to meet the horse, she said she was going to approach him and say something true about herself and her own pain.
“If you’re honest,” she said, “he’ll follow you.”
In the distance, she stops in front of the horse, then abruptly turns around to walk back. The horse slowly follows.
Fenton works with a broad clientele of people, mostly women, who have been abused in domestic violence or sex trafficking situations. She is convinced that suffering people and suffering horses can help each other heal. Her passion is to help both.
She develops personality profiles of each rescue horse at Backstretch.
“That means, going into a therapy session, I have a general understanding of what the horse needs,” she said. “And my job as the clinician is to match the horse’s needs with the client’s.”
Fenton has been running her equine therapy practice out of Carmel for four years. But she’s found an ideal place to explore her ideas at Backstretch.
“I think this place is a diamond in the rough,” she said. “I have to pinch myself sometimes because I can’t believe we’re allowed to be here, but Dennis understands the importance of mental health, and he also understands that these animals have the capacity to heal people.”
Barwick has big plans for Backstretch. He gestures toward a pile of brush and declares that this will be the site of a 20-stall horse ICU and rehab center with a sea walker, a saltwater spa and a solarium. It’ll take close to a half million dollars to get it built. On top of the new rehab center, he’d like to expand the ranch’s acreage and make room for up to 200 horses one day.
It’s a big plan, and it will take fundraising and soliciting donations. Barwick considers that the worst part of the mission at Backstretch.
“Growing up in my family, we never asked anybody for money,” he said. “It’s so ingrained in me, I find it hard to be able to ask for any support. But we know without it, we can’t afford the vision of what we want to achieve in supporting these animals.”
In the meantime, Barwick is eager for visitors to Backstretch. Horseback riding is available. The community is welcome.
“Don’t just listen to me,” he said. “Come out and see what we’re doing. Walk with me. Let me show you the evidence that the lives of these horses have been changed.”
The horses are available for adoption, or just for sponsorship—meaning someone can “adopt” a horse without taking it off the grounds. In the meantime, Barwick is up at 5 in the morning feeding his horses, and out again at 11pm to check on them before bedtime.
“I wish I could say it’s a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like that. It’s just something I really enjoy doing.”
Backstretch is at 18500 Rea Ave. in Aromas. For information about the ranch, its horses and its services, visit backstretchrescue.org.