IOWA Magazine | 02-08-2021

Retired UI Professor Establishes Sanctuary for Neglected Horses

Rescue rancher Dawn Stephens finds joy nursing animals back to health.
UI professor Dawn
Stephens PHOTO: AMBER SIGMAN "Atticus has my heart," says retired UI professor Dawn Stephens about her rescue horse, which suffered severe abuse before coming to her ranch.

Luna, a tan mare, stands at the corner of a wooden fence as the sun rises over the edge of a mountain. Soon she runs freely on a three-acre ranch nestled between an estuary and the Pacific Ocean where rescuer Dawn Stephens helps her learn to trust again.

Stephens, a retired University of Iowa associate professor of health and sport studies, grew up caring for horses on her parents' ranch in California. She didn't realize she'd go 40 years without having them in her life as she pursued a career in sport psychology. Stephens most recently taught at Iowa for 14 years from 1993 to 2006, but a spring break trip to Baja California, Mexico, brought her back to ranch life. Now she's dedicated to helping care for neglected or abused horses like Luna.

Over a year ago, Stephens received a call to save Luna from an owner in Southern Baja, Mexico, who deemed her worthless. The mare was wild, pregnant, and covered in thick dry mud. Luna trusted no one. She was fated to be sold for meat after her baby was weaned.

During the rescue, Stephens fed Luna carrots through a fence to slowly gain her trust. It took hours to get Luna into the trailer to take her to her new home at Stephens' ranch, Tina Jo's Promise Equine Rescue in Baja California.

Dawn and her wife, Tina Jo Stephens, started the rescue in 2010 with a horse named Lover Boy, whom they found tied up on the side of the road. He was skin and bones and covered in scars. Together they rescued a few more horses, including a mare they tried to save that would change their lives forever.

The mare came from the mountains and was dying of complications from an old gunshot wound. Tina Jo comforted the horse in its last moments and promised she and Dawn would continue to help horses in her memory. They named her Promise, leading to what would become Tina Jo's Promise. Today, the rescue ranch brings food, shelter, and love to 10 horses and more than a dozen goats.

Singing to the horses and cleaning their corrals in the early morning brings Dawn some of her greatest joys. "I just have one of those hearts," she says. "I have dedicated my life to them."

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Watch Dawn Stephens give a tour of Tina Jo's Promise Equine Rescue.

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