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Broken horses: Investigation uncovers years of injuries, mistreatment at Golden Gate Park

After The Standard inquired about troubles at city-owned stables, a horseback riding company’s permits were revoked in San Francisco and at Camp Mather.

Collage with a ranch theme, including images of an elderly woman, a man, several horses, and a textured background with ranch-related elements.
Illustration by Clark Miller for The Standard; Photos by The Standard; Courtesy Rori Greene

Nestled within the greenery of Golden Gate Park and just a short trot to the Pacific Ocean lies a bucolic portal to the past. At Bercut Equitation Field, horses are the primary form of transport and the smell of manure overpowers the park’s usual eucalyptus scent.

But the idyllic setting masks an uglier reality, as revealed by a three-month investigation into Chaparral Corporation, the horseback riding company based out of San Francisco’s most beloved park.

After the Standard uncovered long-standing evidence of mistreatment of animals and workers and injuries that, in one instance, resulted in an ongoing lawsuit, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department said this week it had revoked Chaparral’s permits to operate in Golden Gate Park and Camp Mather, the family summer camp near Yosemite run by the department. 

In interviews with The Standard, employees and volunteers described inadequate care and a grueling work environment for horses that may have endangered both the animals and riders at the sites run by Chaparral.

Workers and concerned members of the public said they tried to alert city agencies about problems with Chaparral and were baffled that the company was allowed to continue operating, even after employees submitted a 41-page whistleblower report to the city describing unsuitable conditions at the site and claims surfaced that the company could be putting children at risk.  

A chestnut horse stands inside a pen, looking directly at the camera, with a black bucket near a metal fence in the foreground.
A horse stands by the fence of an enclosure at Bercut Equitation Field operated by Chaparral Ranch in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on Wednesday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard
The image shows an arch labeled "Bercut Equitation Field" at the entrance to an equine field framed by trees, and a weathered banner for "Chaparral Ranch" in the foreground.
Chaparral, which offered camps, lessons and trail rides at Bercut Equitation Field, was accused of providing inadequate care for its horses and running an unsafe operation. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Complaints about the company did not stop Recreation and Parks from renewing Chaparral’s permit multiple times over about five years until The Standard reached out in May to the city with questions about the company’s track record.

In response to The Standard’s inquiries about Chaparral, the parks department said this week it revoked the company’s permit. On Friday, the company informed its customers in an email that it will vacate the property within 10 days. 

Chaparral will also be kicked out of Camp Mather and will no longer be considered for plans to bring horseback riding to McLaren Park, the department said. The city says it will try to find a new horseback-riding company starting in June.

“While an investigation determined Chaparral met the minimum standards for horse care under the law, we no longer believe they meet the high standards we expect from our park operators,” parks department spokesperson Tamara Aparton wrote in a statement.

‘The animals were there to make money … and that’s it’

Patricia Hontalas, who grew up riding horses with her sisters in Golden Gate Park, took a job helping run Chaparral’s camp in April 2020, early on in the pandemic, when her day job as a real estate agent became difficult. 

Chaparral, which began operating in the city in 2019, was the first horseback riding company to enter the park in years. 

Soon after starting the job, however, Hontalas observed filthy stalls, high employee turnover and punishing work schedules for the horses. In addition to long days carrying riders, many of whom were children, the horses were often taken out during the evenings and for private lessons, Hontalas said.  

A horse named Jack collapsed and defecated on himself at Chaparral Ranch at Golden Gate Park in 2021. | Source: Courtesy Rori Greene

“Honestly, the horses never got a day off,” she said. “And these are the end-of-life kind of horses, the ones that should be turned out and not ridden, you know, six days a week.” 

In September 2020, Hontalas was riding a horse named Beamer when a tree branch fell on a nearby car, spooking the horse and causing it to rear up. The animal fell on top of Hontalas, landing her in the hospital for three days with an injured ACL and leaving her with a $6,400 bill and pain that lingered for months. 

Adding insult to injury, Hontalas said Chaparral stiffed her on her final paycheck—a claim echoed in a class-action lawsuit filed in 2022 by former employees who accused the company of wage violations. (That lawsuit was settled in March for about $151,000. Chaparral denied the claims in the filing and told The Standard it had settled to avoid expensive legal fees.)

Hontalas is one of 11 current and former Chaparral employees and volunteers—many with years of experience in the equestrian industry—who spoke with The Standard and painted a disturbing picture of a company that prioritized the bottom line above the care of its horses, staff or riders.

Some of the employees’ claims were documented in an anonymous whistleblower report that was shared with the Recreation and Park Department and Animal Care and Control in 2021.

The 41-page report, which includes photographic evidence and screenshots of emails, raised concerns such as a lack of shelter, equipment, hoof care and health care at the Golden Gate Park site. Among other issues, the document said that the horses were sleep-deprived and physically exhausted, sometimes falling asleep in the middle of riding lessons. 

Pictures included in the document show horses with fungal infections on their foreheads and hindquarters, sores on their bodies from ill-fitting saddles and hooves that were chipping away.

Two close-up images of a horse's skin lesions: one is a dry, scabbed area; the other shows a wet, possibly infected wound.
Health issues documented by Chaparral employees in 2023 included a wound on the leg of a horse named Rex, left, and a saddle sore on a horse named Stetson, right. | Source: Courtesy Sierra Healy

“They were cheap,” said Sunny Hibbits, who worked for Chaparral for about a year starting in July 2020, in an interview. “They didn’t care.”

Some of the former employees and volunteers who spoke with The Standard said they resigned because of what they saw as neglect of the horses’ well-being. 

“The animals were there to make money,” said Sara Esquivel, who worked at one of Chaparral’s South Bay locations for about five months in 2021 after about two decades of experience managing private barns, “and that’s it.”

Employees who resigned from Chaparral as recently as last month said conditions haven’t improved. 

Sierra Healy, who joined the company in April 2023 as an instructor and said she has been working with horses her entire life, called Chaparral’s practices “really unethical.”

“They were forcing us to use these horses four to five hours straight very regularly,” Healy said. “And when I say working, I mean lessons with kids and rides on Ocean Beach. Intense work. 

A woman with curly hair, wearing a striped shirt, stands under an archway, looking thoughtfully to the side, with greenery in the background.
Sierra Healy, who worked at Chaparral’s Golden Gate Park site, resigned after growing concerned with the company’s operations. | Source: Gabriel Greschler/The Standard

“Because of that, the horses weren’t able to keep any weight on. You can see their ribs. They have no muscle mass,” Healy continued. “We had a couple of horses that would lie down and start rolling with a kid on their back. It’s mind-boggling that they’ve continued to operate like this for so long.” 

Chaparral’s owners, Susan Pennell and Shawn Mott, maintained that they tried their best to operate in a park that can sometimes present chaotic or difficult situations for an equestrian company.

“I don’t feel like fighting for it anymore,” said Mott about his business dealings with the city. “I’ve been doing it for 50 years. I know what I’m doing. All the professionals, veterinarians, doctors, animal control people, government agencies, entities, they asked us to be at these places.”

In a roughly hour-and-a-half-long interview, Pennell and Mott pushed back against the allegations levied against them, asserting that they have offered their horses adequate medical treatment and a caring environment with enough food, water and shelter. 

A senior man in a cowboy hat and blue jacket stands outdoors, looking pensive. In the blurred background, a person rides a horse.
Shawn Mott, co-founder of Chaparral Ranch, said he tried to maintain a safe and caring environment for his horses. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard
An elderly woman in a plaid shirt adjusts a horse's halter near a metal fence, with trees in the background.
Sue Pennell, co-founder of Chaparral Ranch, started the company with Shawn Mott in 2009. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Longtime employee Jenny Bryant backed Chaparral’s owners, saying the company gives the utmost attention to its animals.

“We treat these horses like the employees that they are,” she said. “They deserve care. They deserve food. They love being ridden.”

‘The video, honestly, was quite disturbing’

Chaparral was co-founded by Mott and Pennell in 2009. Both of them said they have been around horses since their childhoods: Pennell’s father got her a horse when she was just 5 years old, while Mott has been in the business since he was 10.

The company oversees a variety of riding experiences, including trail and pony rides, lessons and children’s camps. Aside from its soon-to-be-closed operations at Golden Gate Park and Camp Mather, Chaparral has three locations in the South Bay and one near Monterey Bay.

In San Francisco, the company operated out of the circular field just off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and housed its animals inside stalls just a quick walk to the west. Rides and lessons can cost up to $125, depending on length and type. Camps cost up to $750 for the week. In San Francisco, the city collected 5% of the company’s revenue under the terms of the permit.

A chestnut horse lies on the ground in a sandy arena, wearing a blue halter, with a purple lead rope attached, relaxed and eyes closed.
A horse named Beamer exhibited declining health during its time at Chaparral, according to employees. | Source: Courtesy Rori Greene

Not long after Chaparral began operating in Golden Gate Park in 2019, problems arose. Emails unearthed through a public records request show that multiple members of the public reached out to the city with concerns about the operation in 2020. 

By 2021, a veteran animal cruelty investigator named Jennifer Hack was in touch with the city about Chaparral’s track record after the whistleblower complaint came to light and a video surfaced involving a horse named Jack.

In the video, which was obtained by The Standard, Jack is seen repeatedly struggling to get up after lying down and defecating on himself. The videos and a two-page memo from a volunteer were sent to the city’s Animal Care and Control department.

“The video, honestly, was quite disturbing,” said Hack, who has been involved in animal cruelty investigations for over 40 years. She noted that Jack’s elevated respirations, which are apparent in the video, indicate a horse in pain. 

“I mean, there are some things—and I go back to Jack again—that definitely, in my opinion, fall within the animal cruelty laws,” she said.

Documents show that Chaparral kept Jack working despite concerns about his health.

On Aug. 5, 2021, an unnamed animal control officer visited Chaparral and reported finding Jack wearing a saddle, indicating that he was working. They instructed an employee on-site to remove the horse from any duties. After the officer ordered Jack to receive veterinarian care, they inquired with Chaparral’s Pennell about any of the other animals needing care. 

Horses stand in a sunny, open-air stable with metal bars, beside stacks of hay and variously colored feed buckets.
Animal Care and Control said it inspected Chaparral's Golden Gate Park location following complaints about the site. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
The image shows a worn poster with a map and text advertising "Chaparral at Golden Gate Park" in San Francisco, featuring trail rides and camps.
After its permit was revoked, Chaparral told customers that it will vacate the San Francisco property within 10 days. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

“[Pennell] said, ‘I don’t know!’ and told me how busy she is doing payroll,” the animal control officer wrote in their report.

On Aug. 8, 2021, emails show animal control officer Rebecca Fenson writing to Hack, “I am in touch with San Jose Animal Services and Peninsula Humane Society about Chaparral’s Milpitas and Woodside facilities. My first concern is ensuring that Jack is not working anywhere.”’

Emails show that both Fenson and Brian DeWitt, a property manager at the Recreation and Park Department, expressed concerns about Chaparral after discovering Jack’s condition. 

On Aug. 13, 2021, Fenson wrote that she was “alarmed” to hear that Chaparral was trying to get permits to run a horse-drawn carriage operation in Golden Gate Park. A couple weeks later, Fenson emailed DeWitt saying she had unsuccessfully tried to get Jack’s veterinarian records from Chaparral, describing the situation as “suspicious” and “absurd.” 

The city eventually received veterinarian records about Jack in September. The parks department also implemented a reporting system in which Chaparral was required to submit monthly health assessments. 

Those assessments, which were reviewed by The Standard, included checklists for each of Chaparral’s horses that were completed by the company’s own staff.

When asked whether the self-evaluation system posed any conflict of interest, a spokesperson for Animal Care and Control said the department had provided the company with the University of California Davis Center for Equine Health’s horse care guide.

“It is entirely appropriate for facilities to use for self-evaluation,” wrote Animal Care and Control spokesperson Deb Campbell. “[The agency] refers to this document, for example, when scoring body condition. As a reminder, these guidelines are not laws, so we cannot enforce them.”

When asked by The Standard about Jack, Chaparral’s management said they did not recall putting the horse to work after the video of him on the ground was taken. 

“What happened with Jack is this sand [at Golden Gate Park] is very deep,” said Bryant, the longtime Chaparral employee. “So when he lays in it, sometimes it was hard for him to find footing to get up. All you have to do is kind of give him an extra pull. He was born in ’87. So he was older than me.”

A person's hand with a ring touches dense, reddish-brown curly fur or hair.
Curly, who is a part-Bashkir Curly breed, is petted by longtime Chaparral Ranch employee Jenny Bryant at Bercut Equitation Field. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard
Three women ride horses on a sunny trail, one smiling, one serious, and one focused, casting shadows over a dusty path.
Chaparral began operating in Golden Gate Park in 2019, and members of the public began raising concerns about its horses soon after. | Source: Paul Chinn/SF Chronicle/Getty Images

Both Fenson and DeWitt deferred questions to their department spokespersons. 

Animal Care and Control spokesperson Campbell said her department had visited Chaparral a total of 14 times between 2019 and 2023, most of the inspections unannounced. She said the department never found evidence that would result in a referral for an animal cruelty case to the District Attorney’s Office.

Recreation and Parks spokesperson Tamara Aparton said her agency “immediately” got in touch with Animal Care and Control after the 41-page whistleblower complaint emerged and implemented the monthly health reporting system.

“We were aware they had some issues, but our understanding was deepened by the documents you sent and some of your reporting,” Aparton told the Standard. 

‘It could have been so much worse’

It wasn’t just employees raising concerns about the condition of horses in Golden Gate Park. 

Since at least 2020, records show that members of the public lodged additional complaints about Chaparral after observing animals seemingly in distress and alarming incidents involving children riders. 

In February 2020, an email with pictures attached from a resident claiming to be a former horse owner told Animal Care and Control they saw “inches of feces and urine” at Chaparral’s Golden Gate Park stables and animals’ food covered in their own waste.

In July 2020, a woman named Carole Holt emailed Animal Care and Control with pictures of a horse she saw in Golden Gate Park with an open wound. 

“Please help these poor horses,” she wrote. “It breaks my heart.” 

Two horses in a sandy enclosure, one facing forward and the other facing away, surrounded by lush greenery and a white fence.
Chaparral employees alleged that the company's horses were being overworked and underfed. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard
A weathered bull skull hangs below a wooden sign reading "Mather Corral, Elev. 4520, Pop. 5" surrounded by pine trees in warm sunlight.
Chaparral will cease operations at Camp Mather following The Standard's inquiries about injuries and horse care. | Source: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

In 2023, a woman named Amber Santiago, who worked at Chaparral’s Camp Mather location during the summer, reported that children as young as 3 had been bucked off horses and that a horse with a broken leg had been left untreated for nearly 24 hours, among other incidents. 

In March 2023, a woman who brought her children to Chaparral sent a message to Supervisor Connie Chan’s office and Recreation and Parks about two incidents she witnessed in Golden Gate Park. 

The woman reported a young girl riding an out-of-control horse with “nobody at Chaparral” intervening until the child’s father grabbed her off the animal. In another case, she said a group of girls who had been thrown off and abandoned by their horses in the park were discovered unsupervised by police officers.

Patricia Rossello, whose young daughter attended a Chaparral horse camp in Golden Gate Park in April 2023, described a similar incident in an interview. 

Her daughter, who was 7 years old at the time, was on a trail ride with a group of other children when her horse got spooked and bolted, according to Rossello. Her daughter fell off the horse and into the dirt and was “abandoned” by the Chaparral employee leading the ride, she said. Bystanders discovered the girl and called the police. 

“She was crying. She was shaking. It was terrible,” Rossello said. “It could have been so much worse.” 

Two women viewed from behind, leaning on a fence at a park, watching a distant scene, surrounded by trees. One wears a beige coat, and the other a grey hoodie.
Patricia Rossello said her daughter fell off a horse in Golden Gate Park and was abandoned by Chaparral staff. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Chaparral’s Pennell and Mott disputed the account, saying an employee did stay at the scene of the incident.

Rossello’s daughter sustained a large bruise along her side but had no major injuries. Others weren’t so lucky. 

Christine Kendrick, who took a beginner horseback riding lesson in Golden Gate Park in May 2022, suffered a broken back and pelvis after a horse named Spirit abruptly took off running, according to a lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court last year. 

Kendrick was hospitalized for more than a week and is still undergoing treatment for her injuries, according to her attorney, Ryan Vlasak. 

Kendrick’s lawsuit accuses Chaparral of gross negligence and argues that the city was aware of dangerous conditions at Bercut stables but allowed the company to operate anyway. 

“Rarely do we file a lawsuit and immediately receive so much support and corroborating information from the public,” Vlasak said. “We learned Chaparral did not provide adequate rest, shelter, or veterinary care to its own horses, nor did they establish an adequate shelter where their horses could sleep. … And when horses are not cared for adequately, they become much more dangerous to ride.”

Jen Kwart, the city attorney’s spokesperson, said the permit agreement the city entered into with Chaparral shields the city from any liability with regard to the horseback riding operations in Golden Gate Park.

“The City does not bear responsibility in this matter,” Kwart wrote. 

The case is currently set for trial later this year.

Pennell said Kendrick lost her balance while riding the horse and alleged that she walked away from the scene and “claimed the injuries later.”

Pennell added, “We always check our clients. We don’t let them get off the ground or do anything until we know they’re OK. That’s super important.”

Hack, the longtime animal cruelty investigator, said that horses experiencing pain and discomfort can be more prone to bucking off riders.  

“We’re dealing with a lot of horses with saddle sores or rubs from the girth, any of which obviously can cause pain,” she said. “It’s very possible that a lot of the issues of people getting bucked off have been also a pain-related response.”

‘I couldn’t handle the horse stuff and lying to the public’

Rori Greene, who took the video of Jack, volunteered at Chaparral’s Golden Gate Park site between September 2020 and June 2021. Greene saw it as a way for her to ride, get more experience around animals and support the return of horses to the park.

Greene said she was shocked by what she saw at the site, describing dirty stalls and infrequent visits by a farrier—the person responsible for trimming and shoeing the horses’ hooves—who are supposed to service the animals every eight weeks.

But the last straw for Greene involved Beamer, the horse involved in the accident with Hontalas.

“When I started, [Beamer] was beautiful and healthy,” said Greene. “Over a number of months, she looked worse and worse. She looked like she had stomach ulcers because she was getting thinner, biting at people when being tacked up [with a saddle] and struggling to perform during lessons.”

Greene said Chaparral’s owners “routinely dismissed” health concerns raised by staff and that Beamer was working seven days a week in the midst of her health issues.

Beamer’s condition started worsening in June 2021, after “several weeks of weight loss,” according to staffers’ written account of the incident. Then, toward the end of the month, workers witnessed Beamer collapse in the middle of a camp session. 

A girl leads a small pony, watched by an older man in a cowboy hat, near other horses and logs in a rustic setting.
Chaparral CEO Shawn Mott denied the allegations of inadequate horse care at its San Francisco sites. | Source: Paul Chinn/SF Chronicle/Getty Images

“She laid down repeatedly, despite efforts to keep her standing and walking, which is evidence of extreme duress,” a staff account states. 

Chaparral’s Mott said Beamer suffered from a case of colic, a term for abdominal pain in a horse. He said that Beamer was brought to a hospital after she collapsed but had to be euthanized shortly after.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” Mott said. “And these poor girls, they’ve just never seen death before. And God bless them. It’s not easy.”

When asked whether horseback riding should continue in Golden Gate Park, Mott answered in the affirmative, saying the animals had offered San Franciscans a vital resource in the middle of a city.

“I think it should be able to blossom and be shared,” he said. “I think there’s wonderful people here that need horses, and they need horses to better manage themselves and others, and these frickin’ horses can teach you that.” 

But Greene said employees at Golden Gate Park left after feeling they were complicit in something wrong.

A woman in a gray hoodie stands looking at a green fence enclosing horses in a rustic setting with trees.
Patricia Rossello said her daughter fell off a horse during a trail ride at Chaparral Ranch and was abandoned by Chaparral staff. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
A woman in a red plaid shirt gently touches the nose of a brown horse with a white mark, standing by a fence in a lush green setting.
Sue Pennell said that Chaparral tried its best to operate in a park that sometimes presented difficult situations. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

“I think the whole staff just felt guilty because, despite our individual efforts, we were part of a company that we felt was abusive towards the horses,” Greene said. 

Fallon Ramirez, who quit her job with Chaparral in 2021, said she grew uneasy about questions from the public about why a horse looked skinny or whether an animal was a good fit for a beginner. 

“I couldn’t handle the horse stuff and lying to the public and covering it all up for them,” Ramirez said.

For animal cruelty investigator Hack, the city’s decision to revoke Chaparral’s operating permits comes as a relief.

She wrote in an email this week in response to the news: “I’m glad they got shut down.”