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?
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.
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.
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.