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‘Moving the problem’: Booted from SF, troubled stable relocates horses

Three horses in an enclosure; one chestnut horse in the foreground looks toward the camera, while two others are further back, grazing.
A Standard investigation published last week found long-standing evidence of mistreatment of animals and workers at the Chaparral Ranch at Golden Gate Park. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Visitors to Golden Gate Park will soon no longer see horses in the arena at the Bercut Equitation Field, but questions remain over their future and whether horseback riding should even return to the park. 

Chaparral Corporation, the company that provided horseback riding for almost five years in the park, is being kicked out of San Francisco after The Standard uncovered evidence that it allegedly mistreated its horses and employees and put children in danger.

On Monday morning, an employee who answered the company’s main phone line said its 10 horses in San Francisco would be relocated to Chaparral’s ranch at San Mateo County’s Wunderlich Park in Woodside.

A representative for the county parks department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Susan Pennell, one of the co-founders of Chaparral, declined to discuss the company’s exit from Golden Gate Park and Camp Mather, a summer retreat site in the Sierras owned by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. 

“I am not comfortable discussing any information with you,” Pennell wrote in a text message on Monday.

Mikaila Garfinkel, a member of the city’s Commission of Animal Control and Welfare, told The Standard she was concerned to hear the horses were being moved down south.

“I’m definitely glad they’re leaving,” Garfinkle said about Chaparral’s San Francisco exit. “But one of my first thoughts is: Is this just moving the problem rather than solving it? I’m concerned they’re not going to a sanctuary. I’m concerned they’re going to be under the quote-unquote care of Chaparral.”

The company, established in 2009 by Susan Pennell and Shawn Mott, started operations in Golden Gate Park in 2019. Recreation and Parks revoked its permit last week after the Standard inquired about Chaparral’s checkered track record. 

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, has pushed back against the allegations levied against him and Susan Pennell, asserting that they have offered their horses adequate medical treatment and a caring environment.  | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Records show that despite multiple employees and members of the public reaching out to the city for years with warnings and photographic evidence of horse mistreatment at Chaparral, both Recreation and Parks, along with Animal Care and Control, allowed the company to keep operating. City workers even found Chaparral’s conduct concerning at times, with one animal control officer describing a delay in retrieving veterinarian records as “suspicious” and “absurd.”

Chaparral must close operations by May 25. The city says it will start searching for another horseback riding company in June.

Garfinkle, an animal rights and welfare advocate, said she doesn’t think the city should take in another horseback riding company.

“I’m very disappointed in Recreation and Parks and Animal Care and Control,” she said. “They failed a lot of animals. And they failed a lot of people. … I just hope they take it very seriously. I’m worried they’re not.”

‘Extremely thin’

By Monday, passersby were still sending in complaints to the city about the condition of the horses.

On Saturday, former volunteer Rori Greene, who was also one of the authors of a 41-page whistleblower report describing unsuitable conditions at the site, reported a horse named Delilah to Animal Care and Control.

In a brief video of Delilah taken on Sunday by Greene, the horse is seen being walked by an employee inside the arena. In the video, Delilah appears thin and walks with a limp. Greene said she was told an animal control investigator would visit the park on Monday.

“She is extremely stiff walking (clearly does not want to move) and seems to be in pain,” Greene wrote in an email to animal control. “Her swayback and skin condition are also worse than in the past. She’s also extremely thin with visible ribs and extremely hollow haunches.”

Greene reported that staff had informed her that the animal had recently been brought back to the park after spending time at Chaparral’s Woodside location “with the full intention of putting her to work per the instructions of the owners.”

When asked about Delilah, Animal Care and Control spokesperson Deb Campbell told The Standard, “We will continue to respond to calls we receive. We only have authority in San Francisco.”

A video taken by former volunteer Rori Greene on Sunday shows a horse named Delilah walking with a limp. | Source: Courtesy Rori Greene

Stephen McHenry, a longtime horse owner who reviewed Greene’s video, said the animal appeared to be “in a fair amount of pain.”

“I see horses walk every day,” said McHenry, who is based in Morgan Hill. “That horse is not walking right. It is definitely lame.” 

Officials in Milpitas, where Chaparral also offers horseback riding, said they are looking into the company’s operations. Santa Clara County Executive James Williams told The Standard on Monday he was referring the case to agricultural and parks officials.

Chaparral was still operating at Golden Gate Park as of Sunday, according to a Standard reporter who visited the park and observed lessons taking place.

As part of the investigation published on Friday, The Standard found multiple lawsuits filed against the company, including an ongoing case of gross negligence where a woman suffered a broken back and pelvis after a horse took off running in the park.

In addition, 11 current and former employees told The Standard about concerning conditions at the Golden Gate Park ranch, where animals were overworked, underfed and did not receive adequate medical attention. At the center of the claims was the whistleblower report, which detailed horses suffering from fungal infections, open sores and physical exhaustion from overwork and sleep deprivation. 

Animal cruelty investigator Jennifer Hack previously told The Standard there’s a link between animals in pain and riders getting thrown off.

A person in a blue helmet rides a brown horse in a sandy arena, with another person observing, surrounded by lush green trees.
Chaparral Corporation is being forced to leave Golden Gate Park by May 25 after the city revoked its permit. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

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

Despite warnings from Chaparral employees and multiple members of the public who contacted the city with concerns, Chaparral Corporation had its permit renewed several times since 2019, most recently in December. The company’s latest permit was due to expire at the end of June.

In response to the allegations, the city said Chaparral met the minimum requirements for keeping horses at Golden Gate Park but not the “high standards” it expects from operators, a parks department spokesperson told The Standard last week.

Animal Care and Control said it had visited Golden Gate Park’s ranch a total of 14 times between 2019 and 2023 but never found evidence of animal cruelty.