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Rescuing horses to help children

  • Maya Esmail, 4, with Gentleman Jim at the horse therapy Cimmaron Sanctuary in Petaluma on Wednesday morning april 9, 2014.

It's not just anyone who could quit a successful job in Silicon Valley and instead follow a love of horses and a desire to help children with autism. But four years ago, Gwen Justis did just that.

Turning her hobby into her life's passion, Justis settled in Petaluma in 2010 and founded Cimmaron Sanctuary.

Spread across three different locations, Justis rescues horses that have been abandoned or are destined for the glue factory, and provides them with a peaceful retirement. She started by having classes from Cypress School, a school for children with autism and other developmental disabilities, come out to interact with her animals and found that the results were dramatic.

"At every visit there was a major transformation for two or three kids," said Justis.

Children went from screaming in terror at the sight of the horses, to petting and feeding them by the end of the visit, laughing with enjoyment. Soon afterward, Justis began setting up private appointments for parents to bring their children to have one-on-one sessions with the horses.

She and her team of about 10 volunteers work with the kids and, on occasion, adults, to connect with the horses and learn about themselves in the process.

"It gets kids outside They get their hands dirty," said Justis. And in addition to learning respect of both the animal and themselves, Justis ensures the safety of each child by teaching them basic lessons with the horses including feeding, leading, walking and grooming the animals before even beginning to teach them how to ride.

"I never let a child just come out here and get on a horse," says Justis, stressing the safety at Cimmaron. "And the horses know to take care of the children."

Justis' ultimate goal is to one day have one central location to keep all of her animals and perhaps have other activities, such as pilates available to her clients.

On April 27, Justis is hosting a fundraiser for the sanctuary at Hansel Toyota in Petaluma in order to raise funds for her future facility.


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