Connemara Ranch threatened

Matt Willmont, Kajsa Vikman and John Heaston ride through Zuma Canyon on federal parkland that adjoins Connemara Ranch.

A place of healing for people and horses for 15 years, the Connemara Ranch faces an uncertain future.

By Carolanne Sudderth/Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu will lose more than its last rental ranch if the Connemara Ranch falls victim to developers. Connemara has been a refuge for horses that nobody wanted and a place for adults and children to turn their lives around.

Connemara’s owner, Talley Willmont, has watched sale signs go up and escrows fall through on the land she leases. She has already had to move once. Willmont and her husband, Ray, a counselor at Malibu High School, formerly leased the property next door to the one they hold today. Now, they live on half of what they used to call home. And that property is up for sale for a second time. The first deal fell through on the site, but the property is currently in escrow, scheduled to close on Jan. 15.

There are 32 horses living at Connemara. They are healed horses that arrived as victims of abuse, starvation or general neglect. Many of them would have otherwise been sent to a slaughterhouse.

Willmont has had horses on her property since 1979, but it was a horse named Promise she took in 15 years ago that turned the ranch into a place of second chances. Promise would have been euthanized because his previous owner, Willmont’s boss at the time, did not want to deal with a bone problem in Promise’s leg.

“The owner’s thinking was, ‘Just put him down, cut her losses,'” Willmont said. ” But I’d spent a lot of time with him. And I didn’t see any reason to do that.”

The owner was reluctant to give the horse away, but she finally agreed to sell Promise to Willmont for one dollar. The large, black gelding remains on the ranch today, healthy and happy. After Promise was sent to Connemara, more horses began to arrive. At that point, Willmont began to teach people how to ride them. With the beautiful trail next to the ranch, there is much room to gallop.

Willmont doesn’t limit her work to disadvantaged horses. She also offers at-risk children and adults recovering from drug addictions a way out through equine therapy. Willmont knows how powerful this treatment can be, as she looked to horses as a way of recovery from the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.

“The basic way that equine therapy works is that the horse triggers the person on a mental and emotional and physical level so that whatever the issues might be, they’re suddenly dealing with something they need to resolve and bring more balance to,” Willmont said.

Connemara is one of the few places that offer inner-city youths an equine experience. This includes the chance to splash paint on the horse’s flanks, just as the Native-Americans once did. The horses don’t seem to mind the cosmetics, with their noses happily buried in nearby feed boxes, which the artists keep filled with carrots and other treats.

Willmont said her dream is that someone would buy the property who is open to the possibility of keeping it as it is now. Last summer, actor Brad Pitt offered to help keep the dream alive with a $100,000 contribution toward buying the half of the property she then occupied. Willmont met Pitt when he spent a day at Connemara with a terminally ill child from the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Willmont was able to raise an additional $300,000, but it was not enough. She returned the money, but Willmont said the scenario still gave her optimism.

“[It proved] somebody else believed in what I was doing, and that this was worth saving,” she said.

Willmont said she is not sure what her next move will be. She said she will explore all the possibilities, but added she does not believe it will be possible for her to relocate. The move would mean having to board the horses, costing as much as $8,000.

“If I could do that, I could afford to buy a million-dollar piece of property.”