In February 2020, a county animal control officer, accompanied by a veterinarian and sheriff’s deputies, served a warrant to seize neglected horses from a property in Winlock, Washington. The scene rescuers faced upon their arrival was nothing short of horrific: Thirteen emaciated horses plus the skeletal remains of three more, including a skull with a halter still attached inside a garbage can. Of the horses officers rescued that day, two were in such poor condition they were later euthanized. Among the 11 survivors, the average body condition score was just 1.5, and experts warned foster caretakers that the animals might not make it.
But one year later, Mac Daddy J, a bay gelding rescued on that fateful afternoon, carried his new owner around her first-ever jumping competition and helped her qualify for the Washington High School Equestrian Team State Championships. Before meeting “Mac,” Navea Dunn, 15, was a confirmed western rider—but her partnership with the 19-year-old Thoroughbred (Demons Begone—Two Step’n It, Defense Verdict) has proved to Dunn that when you trust your horse, anything is possible.
“I just want to keep jumping now, because that’s my favorite thing,” Dunn said. “It’s pretty crazy; I like it better than gaming now. When he jumps, you’d better hold on.”
In June 2020 Dunn’s mother, Genoa, noticed a post on her daughter’s Manely Horses 4-H group page about a Thoroughbred in need of a rider. They had been looking for a potential new mount for Navea, so Genoa set up an appointment to meet the gelding, who was 30 minutes away from the Dunns’ home in Chehalis, Washington.
“We didn’t know anything about Mac except that he was an off-track Thoroughbred,” Genoa said. “We went out there, and he was really sweet and liked the attention. He seemed big to us because I’ve never had a Thoroughbred before.”
Mac’s owner at the time, Jonni Cournyer, had been on site the day he was rescued and was instrumental in pressuring Lewis County authorities to act on the case to begin with. At the time of rescue, each animal was assigned a name corresponding with a letter of the alphabet; Cournyer was given horse “D,” whom rescuers called “Doug.” It was only upon reading his tattoo that she later discovered Mac’s true identity.
“The vet told her that Mac was only a week away from dying,” Genoa said. “His body condition score was a 1. She had to deworm him several times and give him grain three times a day. For the first five and a half weeks, he wouldn’t lay down. She thinks he knew he wouldn’t have the energy to get back up.”
But little by little, Mac showed signs of recovery. Cournyer set up a small grass turnout for Mac using hot wire to separate him from her cows in a larger neighboring field, and while she watched, Mac sailed over the fencing to join the cows. She knew then that not only was Mac feeling better, but she also had a true athlete on her hands. With three other horses already, she considered next steps for Mac.
“She wanted him to go to a kid who loves him,” Genoa said. “And he really did get that because Navea absolutely loves him.”
When the Dunns met Mac, he had been with Cournyer for four months. His weight had increased, but his frame lacked muscling; Navea remembers his “shark-fin wither” as being his most prominent feature.
“They didn’t know what he was like [under saddle],” Genoa recalled. “But Navea put him into a trot, and he was so nice; he just dropped his head, and then went into a slow lope. It was so beautiful, just like he wanted to be doing something and loved the attention. After that, we were like, ‘We’ll take him.’
“We took him home, and we tacked him up western. We didn’t know if he’d ever been tacked up western, and we were kind of walking on eggshells because we didn’t know how he’d behave. But every time we did something with him, he was just beautiful. The more we did with him, the more we could sort of tell he’d had some training.”
Genoa began searching the internet and discovered that Mac had competed through training level eventing at venues such as Rebecca Farm (Montana), Caber Farm (Washington) and Inavale (Oregon) under the name MacIntosh. They found a photo of him jumping cross-country, which inspired Navea to take Mac into their back field and pop him over some hay bales.
“She hadn’t done a lot of jumping, just some real basic stuff in 4-H,” Genoa said.
“I wasn’t interested in jumping before, but when I figured out he was an English horse I started riding him English more,” Navea said. “I had never liked to ride English; I actually despised it. But that was what I knew he liked, and I knew he was good at it. So I decided I better get good at it too. It was totally out of my comfort zone.”
Navea began her freshman year of high school in fall 2020, making her eligible to participate in WAHSET for the first time. Her team, the Chehalis Bearcats, has riders competing in performance and gaming events as well as traditional western contests such as cow sorting and roping. With no one representing the Bearcats in the equitation over fences classes, Navea decided she had found her niche. She started taking jumping lessons in December 2020, with the goal of competing over fences at the first WAHSET meet of the year in February 2021.
“I was only jumping about 1.5 feet with him in December,” Navea said. “For WAHSET, the highest jumps are 2’9″ oxers. That is a lot when you haven’t been jumping for too long!”
“She was a little apprehensive about it, but she’s had a few coaches help her evolve with her jumping,” Genoa said. “Lea Elder is the performance WAHSET coach, and she started her out. Then we found Janelle Rich—all she’s ever ridden is Thoroughbreds and she still events. She’s been amazing and really helped Navea fine tune everything.”
On Feb. 20, 2021, almost one year to the day after his rescue, Mac and Navea traveled to Tacoma, Washington, for the WAHSET meet. There, the new partnership finished first and qualified for the state championships.
“I was crying because I was so scared,” Navea said. “But I know he won’t hurt me. He has never refused a jump in my little over one year of jumping him.”
But that doesn’t mean learning to jump Mac was easy. In general, he is a forward-thinking horse and can get quick on course. The first time Navea took him out on a true cross-country course, Mac was so excited that the only fence they could manage to safely jump was a log.
“I learned you can’t fight a horse ‘cause you’ll never win,” she said. “I stopped trying to fight him. And then we ran around the half mile track they have.”
“It has been lots of growing as a rider,” Genoa said. “Lots of growing as a person.”
At the WAHSET State Show in June 2021, Navea entered the ring for the hunt seat equitation over fences class with one goal: to stay on and complete the course. While they still have a lot of work to do, she achieved her goal.
Within WAHSET, Navea has also used Mac for dressage, trail, showmanship, working pairs and versatility, and the pair have been experimenting with mounted archery. Looking forward, Navea plans to continue to develop her skills and hopes to try Mac in some jumper classes—a discipline she believes will suit his style.
“He would be an absolutely magnificent jumper horse,” Navea said. “He’s fast, he’s speedy, and he looks good in beautiful colors. And he doesn’t knock anything over.”
To see Mac now, well-muscled and with a glossy coat, it is hard to believe he was once at death’s door. But for Genoa and Cournyer, the memory of the neglect hasn’t faded. The women, who have become good friends, continue to advocate for more effective intervention by county animal control and humane agents in cases of suspected neglect.
“The sad thing with this case was that Jonni called repeatedly, as did other people in the county, saying these Thoroughbreds are starving and emaciated, but nothing was being done,” Genoa said. “It took a long time to come and pull these horses off, and meanwhile they sat there and suffered. We are really trying to bring awareness and make change.”
Do you know a horse or pony who has been rescued from a dangerous situation to become a healthy, trusted competition partner today? If you think you have a good candidate for “From Rescue To Ribbons,” let us know by emailing email@example.com.