Pam Berg, rescue woman
Old racehorses never die. Do they?
Petite Pam takes a hands-on approach to her Thoroughbreds.
Now that the rains are here and the damp that creeps into the bones, it might be therapeutic to recall a day of searing heat just a few short weeks ago. That Wednesday is burned in memory-the temperature hit 105 by mid-afternoon. We're sitting on an unadorned deck on the north slope of Sonoma Mountain, the kelly green of an algae-covered pond in the near distance, Sugarloaf Mountain in the far. Behind us and our languid conversation, horses stand in small clusters, they, too, unwilling to move much. And when one of them does lift a foot, it sets off a spiraling mini-tornado of dust. The light is white and relentless. The trees unbearably still.
And I wonder how petite Pam Berg, sitting next to me, manages the heat, the pond, the land, the horses, all of it, alone.
Just this morning, she says, a fence was down. "Every day something unexpected" that she must tend to. At 64, she looks a bit weathered, yet strong and spry despite a cast up to the knee on her right leg. But that's another story.
Twelve years ago, Pam decided to dedicate some acreage she had in Glen Ellen to rehabilitating injured racehorses, and she founded the nonprofit GEVA, the Glen Ellen Vocational Academy, also known as Glen Ellen Farms. At the time, she was an official racing steward at Bay Meadows, Golden Gate Fields, and on the county fair circuit. Hardly a day went by that she didn't see injuries on the track. While we may have been shocked or sickened by what happened to Barbaro and Eight Belles, she was not surprised. Every year at least one horse dies on our local turf at the Sonoma County Fair.
Gradually, one by one, Pam brought injured horses to Glen Ellen. Mostly they had typical track leg injuries-bowed tendons, chips in the knees, fractured ankle bones or damage to ligaments that support the ankle. Lame, a horse's value plummets. Owners see them as a burden, so they often sell them, sealing their hearts to the almost certain fact that the horse will be slaughtered-horse meat is taboo in the United States, but is a delicacy in Japan, Belgium, Quebec, and elsewhere. Outspoken and tough on the outside, Pam felt real pain when she saw one of these young horses being given up as useless when they might have many good years left.
So she started to take them home. Now she has 31, mostly Thoroughbreds, with a lucky paint and a handsome buckskin thrown in. The youngest is 4, the oldest 31. Despite the heat, I want to meet them up close and Pam wants to show them off.
Leaving reluctantly the thin shade of the deck, we jump into Arty, a recently donated rough-terrain vehicle, and we bounce into the bruising sun toward the paddocks.
Bones came with an injured ligament and a systemic infection that left him emaciated. The vet said, "Put him down"-words Pam's heard often-but Pam saw "the will to live" in his eyes. She had to give him 100 cc of penicillin each day-four injections-for 30 days. He's fine now.
The Fonz, his official name Reckless Native, wasn't able to be very reckless when he arrived with a bowed tendon. But he's lived "happily ever after," says Pam.
Light the Avenue, otherwise known as just "Light," is a very dark bay with chips in his knees. He can function OK, according to Pam, but had a bout of colic a while back that sent him to UC Davis for surgery, a $6,500 fix. Two weeks after he returned home, he colicked again, and went back to Davis for more surgery, $8,000 this time. The horse-hauling rig Pam hired (she doesn't own one) was too big to get down the road to her farm, so Pam had to walk this very sick horse up to the main road. Most horses with colic are in such severe pain they cannot stand up, but Pam and Light made it to the trailer. Today Light is a happy guy who has a care-giving relationship with Charley, Pam's oldest horse. Light waits for Charley to come down from his senior-citizen stall in the morning and then follows him around all day.
Sunday Sermon was given up because he wasn't "competitive" on the track.
Foggy had chips in both knees. He was lucky-arthroscopic surgery was donated.
Dee L. Bee has pins in both knees and was injured again being forced into a trailer. Pam was sure he "just needed time," and of course she was right. It took four to five years for "Knee" to heal.
Tiny is a retired, impressively large, Grand Prix horse. A man bought her (for $350,000) for his daughter, but one day the horse refused a jump. Thereafter he was sent to a trainer and forced to jump until he was completely broken down. And put up for sale.
These and the rest are in wine country horse heaven at GEVA. It's hot and it's dusty, but they're with their pals-Pam's nine paddocks each holds horses that get along together-they're well fed and carefree, except for the flies causing them to flick their tails and make the afternoon's only breeze. Pam has a word or a croon for each one of them as we circle around their enclosures. Lazily they sidle toward the fence to greet us, sleepy and docile like cats. Their serenity is contagious-we are both getting drowsy. But Pam's next story snaps me awake.
Last May at 9:30 one morning, she was leading Macho, a big Thoroughbred, up from a lower pasture when, without warning, he collapsed and fell against her-all 1,200 pounds on her right leg now pinned beneath him. The horse jerked slightly as death overtook him-he'd had a heart attack it was later discovered-and Pam was able to pull her leg out from under his ribs. She knew instantly it was broken, and she wouldn't be able to stand.
The green hills around the farm floated off to the horizon, ominously silent. Pam's first thought was to yell for help, while knowing that no neighbors were very near and that hearing her would depend on a favorable wind direction. After several minutes, she knew no one was coming.
Inch by inch she dragged herself uphill to the barn and to a phone. Punching 9-1-1, she was put on hold. Finally she reached her vet: "I've got a dead horse and a broken leg!" Eventually the trusty Glen Ellen fire department rattled down to her rescue.
The day we met, in August, she had just gotten free of the full-leg cast and been given clearance to drive again.
During the time she was laid up, she heard the distinct sounds of a loose horse in the night. On crutches she slowly made her way, in the moonlight, out to the track that encircles the paddocks, and standing there, looking straight at her from the wrong side of the fence, was Chunky. She swung herself toward him, but the crutches scared him off and he backed away-again and again. It was a long night, but not an unusual one. Like a young mother, Pam sleeps with one ear open.
After all, these are Pam's children, family and extended family all rolled into one, or thirty-one. She has stayed up all night time and time again, what with one thing and another.
She says the horse is a perfect creature in motion, beautiful to look at, but "the good Lord didn't make the insides quite right. The intestines are too long and the legs are too thin." The lengthy intestine can easily get blocked up and twisted. That's called "colic," and often requires surgery. The legs of a racehorse are slim, and they have to hold up a strong muscular body that exerts enormous force on each hoof as it hits the ground. Ankle injuries are common and don't heal easily.
But Pam has loved horses since her first, Rebel, acquired when she was eight years old. Many young girls go through a horse-crazy phase and then get over it in their teens. She didn't.
"I've never had a mean horse," she says. "They're all individuals and I love them all." We lean now on a low fence overlooking the whole bunch of them. She points to different paddocks: over there the "four bachelors"; to the left "soap opera" revolving ménage à trois; in front of us Barking Shark with the two fillies who boss him around (unimpressed by his career earnings of more than $500,000); way over to the right, the two stallions who take turns doing the "alpha horse" thing; Posy, who plays with a plastic ball; and all by himself at the edge of the trees, Rio, who despite, or maybe because of, his good looks, "doesn't get along with anyone."
I finally ask Pam what I've wondered all day. Why does she do it? The work is grueling and physical, funds are tight (only three owners have ever contributed toward their horse's care), she's been injured more than once.
She pushes away the question, joking, "I'm insane." And in a way she is-insanely in love with this ragtag herd of children who never leave home. She thinks again, and says softly, pausing to choose the words carefully, "They're sensitive, smart, social, honest, responsive, forgiving."
And she needs them as much as they need her. Is she ever frightened up here alone? "No, I'm too busy." Every day people call or e-mail asking her to take another horse, and it kills her to turn them away, knowing full well what that means.
Now it's five p.m., and the temperature has finally begun to drop. We're up at the stalls, home for the sick and the elderly. Pam limps over and helps Charley learn to use his new feedbag, pushing it toward his mouth so he can get the last crumbs. Then she moves to the next stall, where lame, big Dissy is convalescing, and starts shoveling manure. She's so short that she thrusts the full shovel under Dissy's belly to reach the bucket. He doesn't seem to mind a bit-he knows he's in good hands. Maybe he knows that she's got a bum leg too.
Note: It costs over $5,000 a month to care for the horses. Pam Berg does her own fundraising. Donations are always welcome at GEVA Inc., P.O. Box 2101, Glen Ellen, CA 95442.
From the winter 2008 issue of SONOMA