Magens Bay Authority Board Says No to Beach Access for Horse Sanctuary

The barn at Golden Age Ranch withstood both Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. (Source file photo by Bethaney Lee)

The Magens Bay Authority board of directors has denied the Golden Age Ranch Horse Sanctuary access to its park property for beach trail rides at Smith Bay on St. Thomas.

The board, which manages Smith Bay Park on the east end of the island in addition to Magens Bay beach on the north side, issued its decision in a letter dated Sunday.

“We’re all just devastated,” said Tiffany Muse, vice president of the Golden Age Ranch’s all-volunteer board of directors. “Our income is shattered. We’re about to have to make some tough decisions.”

The ranch, founded in 2012, has for years led riding tours on the beach to help fund its rescue operation that rehabilitates abandoned, neglected, and surrendered horses, many of them racehorses whose owners cannot afford to keep them since the St. Thomas track has remained closed following hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

The Magens Bay Authority ordered a halt to the tours on Sept. 14, citing conflicts with three former ranch workers who led the rides, complaints about dogs accompanying the tours, horses defecating, and a neighboring property owner who asked that the rescue stop using their land to reach the beach along a private gravel right of way.

Without access to about 100 feet of Smith Bay Park property along that right of way, the ranch has no way to reach the beach west of the park, Muse said. Though Golden Age Ranch also offers birthday parties and riding lessons at its location across the street from the park to help generate income to feed and care for the horses, the beach rides brought in the most money by far, said Muse.

A former racehorse called Ultra tips its head over the newly installed paddock at Golden Age Ranch. (Source file photo by Bethaney Lee)

The ranch is home to 24 horses, six of which it was planning to rehome on the mainland. But without beach tours to support that mission, it “is facing the tragic decision to have to put the horses down due to lack of funds to feed and care for them,” Muse told a meeting of the Magens Bay Authority board on Friday, where the issue was discussed but no decision made.

While Muse acknowledged the past infractions, she told the board that the ranch had worked hard to correct them, including firing the workers who created conflicts, ensuring dogs were contained at the ranch, reconstructing the board of directors, hiring a new managing director, and putting new rules in place for employees.

Additionally, Golden Age Ranch offered to enter a memorandum of understanding with the authority, secure liability insurance, ensure horses wear diapers, pay a fee, and to resume the rides on a trial basis.

Board member Barbara Petersen, who signed Sunday’s letter of denial as the board’s newly appointed chairperson, said during the meeting that horse rides on the beach didn’t fit the Magens Bay Authority’s mission.

“Miss Muse, I understand your request, but honestly, I’m not inclined to grant the request as you’ve proposed, only because of what the Magens Bay Authority and the beach’s mission is, it doesn’t fit into what we propose for both parks. It has nothing to do with the program – I think you have a great program – it just doesn’t fit Smith Bay Park or Magens Bay beach,” said Petersen.

“We’ve been very conscious” and there have been no adverse incidents with the tours since at least June when many of the changes were enacted, Muse said Tuesday, which is why they felt blindsided by the authority’s sudden halt to the rides in September, with the news delivered by a guard at the gate to the beach, she said.

While Sunday’s letter encouraged Golden Age Ranch to revisit the request in six months, Muse said the rescue does not have the resources to wait that long.

“We have 30 days of funding left” to pay the workers and feed and care for the horses after losing weeks of income since the rides were halted and the ranch awaited an official meeting with the Magens Bay Authority board, said Muse.

It costs more than $800 a month to take care of a single horse, Golden Age Ranch board treasurer Nikki Fernandez told the Source in January.

While the board is scouting other riding locations, nothing suitable has turned up and the issue is further complicated by the fact that the ranch has only a two-horse trailer, said Muse, which would require several trips for tours that typically include four to six guests and two guides.

“It’s not just about the tourists going on the beach,” said Muse. The ranch has become a sanctuary for all who have worked to make it better since the co-founder and former manager, Jerry James, died in May 2020.

Muse became involved with the rescue after she and her 12-year-old daughter decided to take a riding lesson as COVID-19 lockdowns first took hold in spring 2020.

“It was our COVID hangout,” she said, as it was for others who found a healthy outlet and sense of community at the ranch during the long months of pandemic isolation.

Following James’ death, volunteers and supporters have worked tirelessly to improve the ranch, Muse said, including donations of materials, manpower and heavy equipment for the property, and critical health care for the horses, by everyone from the American Bridge Company to Matt Ress to the Christian Veterinary Mission to farrier Eric Mitchell and his brother Alex, who traveled from Maryland to offer help.

“It’s very personal for all of us because we have put our time and energy into this and just turned the corner” with the many improvements and appointment of the new executive director, said Muse.

“To have it all fall apart now is just devastating,” she said.

More information about Golden Age Ranch Horse Sanctuary is online at the group’s website.