Jim Gath: Horses are always talking to us

After giving up his job as a founding member of USA Today, and holding a succession of stressful jobs, Jim Gath found his passion helping horses.

After giving up his job as a founding member of USA Today, and holding a succession of stressful jobs, Jim Gath found his passion helping horses.

After a hard-charging life as a founding member of USA Today, and followed by a series of pressure-cooker career choices and setbacks, Jim Gath sat down beneath a tree in 2003 at a crossroads of a life with great highs and lows, all pointing him toward horses.

It had been a wild ride up to that point. On the upside, he was flying high at USA Today, topping out as the head of advertising sales, overseeing a $240 million annual revenue goal. And he went on to hold other lofty positions in the world of advertising and entertainment. But by the time he sat down to contemplate his life’s trajectory, he had suffered many losses, including the breakup of his marriage and had entered rehab.

As he thought about his life and loss, childhood memories of horses began to take shape in his imagination.

“I was sitting there thinking about what made me the happiest, and I remembered that horses made me happiest as a kid.”

So Gath stood up, dusted off his jeans and went on to found the Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary in Arizona, a judgment-free zone where horses of all breeds, predominantly Thoroughbreds, get cared for by this ad exec-turned horse whisperer, and his cadre of volunteers.

In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A, Gath discusses his nonprofit sanctuary, reveals the meaning of the name, and discusses one very special Thoroughbred ex-racehorse in his herd.

Q: How did the Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary get started?

At his Arizona ranch, all breeds of horses are welcome.

At his Arizona ranch, all breeds of horses are welcome.

After realizing how much horses had meant to me as a kid, I went and got a job at a horse summer camp, which eventually led me to teach lessons in Los Angeles, and to eventually move to Scottsdale, Ariz., to continue with horses. By this point, it was 2004 and I figured I’d be there a few months.

I never left.

I had three horses at the time, and was boarding them. Then my friends started sending me horses who had nowhere else to go. There was a point in all this when I had 11 horses of my own, and I was complaining to a friend about it and she said something that has stuck with me ever since. She said, “Jim, you’re all they’ve got.” It hit me like a gunshot. After that, I decided to take in horses who have nowhere else to go.

Q: Please tell me about the meaning of the name Tierra Madre?

It means Mother Earth. Mother Earth is one of our higher powers, and everything here that lives on this ranch is welcome. I don’t like rattlesnakes, and I kill cockroaches, and I don’t allow mice in the tack room when I’m there at the same time.

We’re on about three acres, and it’s on a dessert. It doesn’t sound like much, but we have plenty of room for everybody. All the horses have plenty of turnout and they tend to live to be quite old. We lost a mare recently; Akira lived into her 30s.

Q: There are plenty of Thoroughbreds in your paddocks.

Coloreado, nicknamed Iron Man, had 112 starts before retiring with Gath.

Coloreado, nicknamed Iron Man, had 112 starts before retiring with Gath.

The Thoroughbred is the predominant breed, and we have about a dozen. Eleven are ex-racehorses, and several were retired off the track to our farm with injuries from races or morning workouts. We had one guy who broke his knee in a race and was laid up for two years. Now he’s one of the fastest horses at the ranch. He’s close to 10 now.

Q: Who in your herd has the most remarkable story?

We have a horse whose race name is Coloreado we call him Iron Man. This horse had 112 races in his years on the track. He began in Chili, then ran in Hollywood Park, and eventually ended up in Arizona. He earned over $100,000 the hard way and was a multiple stakes winner.

That horse ran every two weeks for nine years. He never had a month off. Until finally, in his last race in 2009, he just stopped in the stretch. It was his way of saying he couldn’t do it anymore. Shortly after that I got ahold of his owner and made a deal to buy him. The first night he was here at the ranch, I walked up to him and said, “Iron Man, what do you think?” And I imagined he asked me what those things in the sky were. He’d spent so much of his life in a stall. And, I told him, “Those are stars.”

Q: You take a holistic and horse-whisperer approach at your ranch.

Iron Man whispers to Gath.

Iron Man enjoys a little nibble.

I try to teach everybody to learn Equus, the language of the horse, because when we realize that these are sentient spirits, and we connect with them on their level, we’re able to work together in harmony.

I authored a book titled, “I Hear You Horse,” based on the language of the horse. I was 50-years-old before I realized they’re always talking to you, with their eyes, ears, neck and tail. This is something my grandfather Newt Jaekle always told me. My grandfather was the first mounted trooper with NY State Troopers in 1917, and he was also a trick rider. He could stand on two horses and do just about anything. And my uncle Johnny Jaekle was a pretty well known jockey, racing mostly in New England, Maryland and Florida.

My grandfather was really a horse whisperer though. When I was a kid, and we were out looking at horses, he could point to one and say, “See that horse? He’s going to go off.” Sure enough, a few seconds later, that horse would just explode, and take off running and bucking.

Q: How did you learn to listen to horses?

I’d sit down and watch my horses for a couple of hours at a time. I’d study how they interact with each other, and the little cues they give to each other. Like, if they want one to move. After you watch them and really study them, it’s as clear as a bell what they’re saying. So now I’m smart enough to know that it’s the hungry ones, the ones who tell you with their eyes, “Jimmy, I want a treat,” that you’ve gotta watch out for!

Q: You do so much for your horses. How has this work helped you?

It’s made me happy and spiritually sound. We live life on life’s terms around here. We ask for little, we’re self-sustaining, and we’ve found the more we give, the more we get back.

15 responses to “Jim Gath: Horses are always talking to us”

  1. Ginny Sawkins

    Do you accept volunteers to help you at your farm?

  2. Karen L. McSparren

    Thank you for rescuing horses and listening to them…

  3. Lisa Spangler

    So Happy to see Jim is still at it! I volunteered there for a while before moving back to Ohio…. The days of Min, Sweet Boy, Hudson, Johnny B Good and of course Akira….
    God Speed Jimbo! Miss you and all your wisdom! You gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever had…. You told me once that you can’t save them all, but you can find your own little piece of dirt and make it the best that you can….. I have done just that…. And will forever be grateful!

  4. Janet Rieben

    I am a former teacher, mother, equine owner and lover. I moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia with plans to start a farm animal rescue. I can’t do it alone and am seeking help. I really need a benefactor who is driven as I am. If you feel inclined to have a satellite location I would love to hear from you. I want to give the abused, neglected ones the life they have never had. Help me help them, please.

  5. Margaret Connelly Stewart

    Thankyou Donna, you’ve helped restore my faith in the ‘Independant Scot that can’t do without the English.

  6. Tracy Swanson


    I would love to speak with you. I’m in Scottsdale, trying to start a non profit ranch for veterans with PTSD. There are 22 suicides a day in the US. I’m a grieving mother. Horses have been the only thing to help me, transform me. I would love to speak with you!

  7. Donna G. Portree

    Horses have a long association with the Celtic peoples – in Scotland; there is an ancient “charm” birthed in the craft of “horsemanship”, after the aprentice turned 18 he was taught “the horseman’s word” that gave him power of the horses. My Grandpa learned his craft from his Grandfather; a coachman in (London) – he could charm any horse & taught all his children & grandchildren about the horses he loved…Being a Scot we aye ken the family tree & we have had a love affair with horses going back over 200 years…of course they do speak a language as do the dog or cat …many humans have forgotten how to listen to what the animals say to us…Donna

  8. Michelle Y.

    What an amazing life Jim has lived! And now to give back to the horses and in turn to have found his calling, that is living a life as it should be lived. We all should aspire to that. I followed the link and ordered his book and was pleased to see all proceeds from his books go back into the sanctuary!

  9. Louise Martin

    Jim, one day I would like to meet you! I have had my OTTB mare for 30 years…she has saved my life in so many ways. I LOVE your story. You have written so much of what I feel and what I have tried to tell those who just do not understand my feelings….. I am a photographer and raise money to support TB Rescues…All I can say is thank you so very much for being you!!

    Thank you Susan for another wonderful story!! This one really hits home!

  10. Leslie M. Bliman-Kuretzky

    I feel very honoured to have Jim as a Facebook friend. He is an amazing Human Being and the world really needs more people like him.

    1. Stacey DIeck

      Please tell him thank you from the bottom of my heart for what he is doing to help horses! I really appreciate it if you tell him personally! I am a Wild Horse Advocate and Horse Rescue follower. I have always loved horses and I love the people who are stepping up for them and finally giving them a voice!!!
      Thank you so much!
      Stacey Dieck 🙂

  11. Ruth Plenty of Harmony and Hope Horse Haven, Portal Ari8zona

    Hello Jim – enjoyed your story; thank you for being there, for what you do.
    Just put out hay; I have permission to stop for a cup of coffee. Will go back with grains in a few minutes. The start of a beautiful morning – indeed, you have said it, “life on life’s terms”. Does not get any better.

  12. roseann cherasaro

    I had no idea how Jim had come to the rescue world of horses.This is a great story and yeah Jim listens to horses that’s a smart man.Well done Jim!

  13. edna

    Horses have played a major role in my life, too, from a very young age. I agree with Jim, horses are always talking with us. My mare always has something she wants to communicate, whether it be that she doesn’t like the dog coming up to say hello to her when she is in the aisle in cross ties or that she needs her forehead rubbed. Or that she wants my attention when I’m talking with someone.

    I’m now at a barn that is more about collaboration and teamwork then competing against one another in and out of the show ring. My mare feels the difference and so do I. We’re on our way to happy and sound.

  14. Patricia Diers

    Jim is a Facebook friend and a staunch champion of the retired race horse….he is not shy about giving his thoughts —More people should be like him—keep doing what you do, Jim! We love you for it.

Leave a Reply