Text by Mara Pyzel
Images by Cody James
From sunup to sundown, Clare Staples is hard at work, dedicating her days to the wellbeing of the Skydog Ranch and Sanctuary’s mustangs and burros. When in Malibu, she readies herself through morning meditation before fueling up on coffee and flying out the door for a day of feeding rounds, mucking stalls, mending fences, and all that accompanies maintaining its 11 acres.
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans for the day,” is the saying Staples summons when asked about her daily routine. As founder of Skydog Ranch and Sanctuary, which has 9,000 acres of ranchland in Oregon and the Malibu sanctuary, she begins each day with an open mind, which is pertinent to the nonprofit’s success—and an intrinsic part of life on a ranch.
Rescued equines like Poppy and Moonshine are the source of that joy. After a harrowing journey crisscrossing states from Kansas to Oregon to Kentucky, the pair finally found their forever home with Skydog. Their formerly matted manes flow freely, and their coats gleam in the sunlight. Initially part of a wild herd, they were removed from their land and corralled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, adopted, and then abandoned. Their story follows a pattern of purchase and abandon before finding their way into the open heart of the team at Skydog, which also brings rescues home from BLM pens.
“This is such a sustainable happiness, to see these incredible horses, to be able to dedicate myself to helping them come back to health and watch them live these beautiful lives,” says Staples. “There is such a deep joy in it.”
According to Staples, wild mustangs and burros are deemed a threat to more lucrative endeavors such as mining, agriculture, and livestock, and are rounded up and forced out of their home habitat. (The BLM frames this as the herds “[outgrowing] the ability of the land to support them.”)
“I found such a spiritual connection with horses,” Staples says. “They filled the void in my soul that I’d been filling with other things,” reflecting on a fast-paced, hard-partying past, with nights at clubs and private parties alongside Hollywood A-listers. “From the outside, I was living the dream life, traveling on private jets and yachts, hanging out with famous people. But it actually was really a very painful time.”
When her life began to unravel in a blur of addiction, materialism, and a tabloid-strewn divorce, Staples sought solace in riding. In the throes of early recovery, she encountered a strong, young horse, branding marks evident along his neck. She recognized in the animal something she also identified within herself—inherent strength. “I didn’t know a thing about … what was happening to wild horses,” she says of their forced removal. “Buddy taught me all that.” Shortly after seeing the stallion, Staples adopted him from his rescuer.
Staples had found her calling, and Skydog Ranch and Sanctuary came to be. The ranch and sanctuary were launched through her own means, but volunteers keep the program thriving, pen-pal-ing with sponsors, sending postcards from the ranch, and doing deep dives into the background of each horse, hoping to reunite four-legged families. The foundation also has an online rescue foster program. Gerard Butler, Darryl Hannah, Whitney Cummings, and Julianne Hough have all been generous supporters of the rescue’s mission, according to Staples. “Even just $5 makes me cry,” she says. “I think about the person who sent it sitting down, writing that check, putting it in the envelope, putting the stamp on it and taking it to the mailbox. That’s a huge sense of responsibility for me. That money was sent to help.”
Skydog is now home to 170 mustangs and 45 burros, but it has just as powerfully served as a place of salvation for Staples and others who look at the horses and burros and see their greater purpose. “The mustangs know on a very deep level what we’ve done for them,” says Staples. “Looking into their eyes and being able to have that connection … it’s profound.”