The Heroes of HiCaliber Horse Rescue

"I'm human. We all are." -- Michelle Cochran, Founder, HiCaliber Horse Rescue

HiCaliber Horse Rescue
HiCaliber Horse Rescue team members. Photo: HiCaliber Horse Rescue

Editor's Note:  One of the thousands of businesses I follow on Facebook is HiCaliber Horse Rescue in San Diego County, California.  I have never met HiCaliber's founder, Michelle Cochran, but feel as if I have known her all my life.  Her life story bears striking resemblance to my own path, but that's not what makes me feel connected with her and her organization.  It is her posts, updates, and videos rich with poignant moments, heartbreak, and a combination of unfiltered honesty and human hilarity that draws me, and her nearly 7,500 followers in to see how "our" horses are doing.

With sometimes brazen (but delightful) transparency, she invites us in to see the good, the bad, and the ugly and in doing so, we are made to feel part of the story - a story we then feel compelled to help write by getting involved. 

We put our heroes and heroines on pedal stools, but try to do that with Michelle and she will tell you she'd rather be down in the trenches in the muck than lofted up. Despite being a strikingly beautiful  woman, I have never seen a single "glamor shot" in her updates - you will, however, see Michelle and her team covered in horse poo, mud, torn pants, dripping makeup, and looking bedraggled.  It is about the horses, the HiCaliber team, the donors, not about her, and she never lets us forget that.

She teaches us that strong women hurt.  They stumble, and break down in moments of weakness just like the rest of us do.  But they get back up again, and when they do, mountains move.

And now, I am pleased to share Michelle's thoughts with you about why you need a safety net and a supportive board to ensure the success of your nonprofit.

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Rescue is hard. The highs are highs and the lows are low. It sucks the life right out of you. Just when you think you can't go on anymore, you find a second wind and push on.

I had a meltdown in the parking lot of The Yellow Deli today. I sat there sobbing, waiting for our food - I was way too tired to cook...for the 7th day in a row.

The magnitude of the Fallen Horses case finally hit me.

[Added by editor for clarification: On Valentine's Day 2015, HiCaliber took in 31 horses who were  almost all in grave condition.  The horses belonged to another organization (Fallen Horses Rescue)  that lacked the funds to properly care for the horses.  HiCaliber's team did was rescuers do:  they rallied the village and took on the enormous task and financial burden of caring for what amounted to literally a large herd of horses, none of which were healthy.]

In 2002, I began privately rescuing horses. I had no Facebook page, no crew, no drama, and no desire to get "big." Dr. Grove, a veterinarian who shares my passion for horses, and I did our thing - horses in need would come to me, he would treat them and I'd find them homes. Call it rescue, flipping, trading - whatever you will, but the needs of the horses, even if just one or two a year, always came first.

In 2010, I suffered a head injury and I was never cleared to go back to work as an animal control officer. I slowed my operation but was in denial about my situation.

My horses and kids were all I had left. By August 2012, I was out of money, out of hay, and had a balance with Dr. Grove that was through the roof. I was in over my head.

I swallowed my pride and on August 22nd, 2012 I posted this ad on Craigslist (yes, I still have it):

I'm in Escondido, a newly single mom recovering from a brain injury. I've been struggling to keep my horses knowing that things will eventually turn around. I've always fed them before myself but one missing check sent me into a tail spin. They haven't missed a meal yet. They are fat and happy, I'm just down to my last bale and am panicked. I promise you, I am not a neglectful owner or a con. Just fighting to hang on to my babies. Anyway, they eat alfalfa. EDD swore my check would be here by Saturday. I go through a bale a day, but anything will help. I have everything of value for sale and am pawning my wedding ring today.

I promise you, I will either pay you back or pay it forward.

A woman named Ansley Marlow replied. She drove me hay, we hit it off, she showed up daily and helped me when I had no one else.

She was Facebook savvy, knew the in's and out's of rescue and she saw something in me, even when I didn't. I'd try to give up, roll over and throw in the towel. She wouldn't let me. She knew there was something bigger.

She convinced me to rescue a horse with her - Ben - a skinny old dude. She offered to fund him and help with labor if she could just use my ranch. Together we saved Ben, Ringo and countless feedlot horses. She gave me a purpose again.

While my little project was called HiCaliber back then (named after my first rescue horse), it didn't resemble much of this massive operation we now know as HiCaliber Horse Rescue. You gotta start somewhere, right?

So, what's my point?

My point is: I've been in Traci, the President of Fallen Horses, shoes. I was disabled, medicated, divorcing, broke, overwhelmed, and tired. I wanted so badly to hang on to my crumbling dreams. Thankfully, I didn't have all of Facebook watching me struggle.

The difference is, I asked for assistance...and it sucked doing it publicly...but it was offered and I accepted. I took that help and I promised to pay it forward.

I don't have all the answers. I screw stuff up all the time. I suck at organizing, I forget deadlines, I miss messages and drop balls.

I'm human. We all are.

As a rescuer, I'm sad for Traci. I can't imagine what she's going through. I'm disappointed that her team is throwing her under the bus. They were all responsible. She should have been able to struggle privately and know her board would pick up the pieces until she was back. Even if there was lies and deceit, even if she is the horrible person many claim, her team should have been there, should have asked for help, should have stepped in sooner. If not for Traci, for the horses. What happened out there was criminal and her troops jumped ship.

I know what it's like to be at your rock bottom. I've been there more times than you know about. I've been there in the last 6 months...but you guys never knew because my team carried me when I couldn't go on.

They showed up, cared for the horses and knew I'd dust myself off and be right back on top.

We all have those moments in rescue and in life. It's okay to struggle, but for pity's sake give yourself and the animals in your possession a safety net. Build a team of incredible people like Christina - who went to the store for me today to get food for my family so I didn't have to.

Build a team of Bree's who booked me a house cleaner this week because she knew the stress this case brought on left no time to vacuum. A team of Bev and Richie's who take my kids and play grandparents to them so mom can rest. A team of Niki's who lets me cry and say stupid things like "I don't want to do this anymore" knowing I'm just spent and the exhaustion got the best of me.

I'm sure there are people out there who will knock me for letting my team do those things, but maybe if more people rallied around Traci and offered her a little help, those horses wouldn't have ended up in the position they did.

I wasn't afraid to ask for help back then and I'm not too proud to accept it now.

Rescuers, keep yourselves healthy. Rest. Let people help you. I ran myself into the ground this week. It landed me nowhere but in the parking lot of The Yellow Deli with snot and tears running down my face.

Thank you, to my friends and team members who saw me hit the wall today and reached out.

Thank you to Ansley (and Jim) who answered that email in 2012.

Thank you, to our supporters, who keep us going. We know you come to our Facebook page to support the rescue of horses... but sometimes you rescue us too.

-Michelle

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On Valentine's Day 2015, HiCaliber Horse Rescue took in 31 starved and emaciated horses from the now crumbling Fallen Horses Rescue. This was an enormous logistical task and the financial burden of caring for what amounts to a large herd of horses, none of which were healthy upon their intake, will remain long after the media storm surrounding this case has died down.

To help support the massive expenses associated with this case, or to sponsor one the many horses in their care, please visit www.hicaliber.org/donate or send donations via PayPal to: hicaliberhorses@yahoo.com.

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