MIAMI - These days, when Victor Cutino puts his hand under 6-year-old Dreamer's stomach, he no longer grips both of the thoroughbred's sides at once.
A former racehorse who had competed under the name Remainstobeseen, Dreamer was 300 to 400 pounds underweight when she was rescued in January.
Dreamer, along with a 16-year-old broodmare named Haven, was discovered standing in several inches of feces and urine in a tiny stable. The woman who found them persuaded the owner to give them up, Cutino said.
Both horses are still thin, but their hair no longer falls out in dull clumps when he touches them.
Each has gained about 250 pounds since their arrival at Peaceful Ridge Rescue, the Davie, Fla., ranch Cutino founded in December to care for abandoned horses.
"The way they eat, they don't come up for air," he said. "And they look at you and it's like their eyes are saying, 'Thank you.'"
Cutino, a "concrete guy" from the Bronx, moved to Davie 14 years ago to be the CEO of Home Medical Equipment in Aventura, Fla.
He didn't have any horses and did not want any.
But his wife, Ann Cooper-Cutino, did.
"That was my dream, to have horses," she said.
And Davie, with its extensive trail system, is horse country.
So they fenced in the yard and got a white Arabian they called Baby Girl.
Then they got her a companion, and in 2004, Cutino stopped working full time at the medical equipment company to found Horse Tales Ranch, where he begins his days with 4 a.m. feedings, working until 9 at night.
Word soon got out that he had land and barn space and wouldn't turn away an animal that needed a home.
"I've picked up horses when they're nothing but a skeleton," said Cutino. "People lose their homes, so they take their furniture, they take their kids, and they leave their horses in the backyard. And they don't tell anyone."
People started coming to him with the ones they couldn't afford to keep - not only horses, but rabbits, goats, pigs, chickens and the dogs that bay when a visitor pulls up to the ranch.
Cutino took in eight rescued horses his first year, and spent about $15,000 of his own money on their care.
More came in after the economic downturn, and by the time Cutino founded Peaceful Ridge Rescue last December and set aside pasture space and stalls in Horse Tales' hurricane-proof barns for the rescue ranch, he'd already taken in more than 50.
Since January, he's rescued another 10.
The economic crisis didn't only hurt people, it also hurt their animals, said Valerie Pringle, equine protection specialist with the Humane Society of the United States.
Across the country, cat and dog owners moved to apartments that wouldn't take pets, and horse and cattle owners lost their land or couldn't pay for their animals' feed.
"There were a lot of people in a position where they had to give up their pets, and that includes dogs, cats and horses," said Pringle. "With a horse, they might not be able to afford board, or if they were on a farm, they might have lost the farm."
Horses are expensive animals to keep, said Cutino.
At Peaceful Ridge, he said, each horse costs about $2,500 per year in feed, shots and hoof care.
The rescue ranch makes up the cost through donations, horse sponsorships, riding lessons and adoptions.
Costs can be steeper for horse owners who don't have their own land and need to pay monthly stable fees.
"Cutino just has his heart in this," said Davie Mayor Judy Paul, who attended the ranch's grand opening earlier this year. "It's a great operation. They're doing their part to keep Davie an equestrian, green community."
Cutino works in jeans, a T-shirt and cowboy boots that bear a light coating of stable dust in the best weather and a rim of mud in the worst.
Two rescued pot-bellied pigs, Pumba and Pebbles, snore beneath his bedroom window every night, and a rooster roams his backyard.
Some of the horses Cutino rescues are afraid of people, he said, and can't be ridden when they arrive.
They cower in the far end of their stalls or trot to the opposite side of a pasture when anyone walks toward them.
"Rehabilitation is difficult with an abused horse," said Peaceful Ridge volunteer Karen Baldwin, 73. "Some have been beaten and burned with cigarettes. You have to gain their trust."
Baldwin spent most of her adult life working with horses.
She'd loved them ever since she was a little girl, and when she could not have one, she put reins on her bicycle and pretended.
At Peaceful Ridge, she mends fences, cleans stables and, sometimes, teaches a horse that's terrified of human touch to love it.
It's a painstaking process. Baldwin sits near the horse for hours until it is used to a human presence.
She does it every day, sometimes for more than two weeks. It doesn't always work, she said.
Some horses never recover, but Peaceful Ridge keeps them anyway.
Late one afternoon, Cutino went to check up on a thoroughbred named Adele.
She was very wary, he said. When he got her in mid-January, she fled every time he tried to get near her.
But Baldwin and other volunteers have been working with her.
Now when Cutino walks up to her paddock, Adele, a chestnut with a white stripe down her muzzle, walks toward him and puts her nose over the gate.
"I couldn't do this before," Cutino said, as he touched the side of her face.
Cutino stroked the horse for a minute, and patted her on the side.
Leaving the barn, he checked the time. It was evening, and tomorrow would begin at first light with the smell of horses and hay.
Distributed by MCT Information Services