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Woman rescues horses, finds a passion


The book she has written is, says Dana DiRicco, an "adventure story." But it also is a classic underdog story, of how one woman rescued an unwanted horse with an uncertain future, turned her into a champion and found a new passion in her own retirement.

When Hera arrived at DiRicco's Healdsburg ranch along with three other adopted Percherons, she and the others were unruly and untamed.

All of the horses were expendable byproducts of the drug industry.

Their mothers were on "the urine line," kept pregnant solely for the urine they produced, which is used in the production of Premarin, a human hormone-replacement drug. Most of the resulting foals are sold into often uncertain futures.

But DiRicco saw particular promise in one of her first four rescue animals, a young dappled-gray draft horse that she quickly dubbed, "My Blue-Ribbon Girl."

She christened her Hera, after the queen of the gods in Greek mythology, and, with no experience, she set about learning how to drive draft horses and turn her orphaned filly into a champion.

In July, Hera took first and second place at the big Calgary Stampede in Canada and now is being bred to the 2008 World Champion stud, Windemere's Inferno, back at the Manitoba ranch where she was born.

<strong>NEW MEMOIR</strong>

DiRicco, 60, shares the story of how she and Hera learned to drive together, and quickly moved to the top of their class in the show-horse world, in the new memoir, "And Then Came Hera," available at Copperfield's and Amazon.

The book recounts how these grand draft animals, who grow to an average height of 68 inches tall (from the ground to the top of their shoulder), eventually convinced her to retire early from her career as project manager with the county's Permit and Resource Management Department.

But DiRicco hopes her story carries a broader message for people who may be feeling too timid to retool their lives and try something new.

You have "only one ticket" through life, she said, so don't sit out the ride.

"It's really about not being afraid, like most women do at various times," she siad. "They think they're too old or too meek. I was afraid many times, but you just keep going and hope it works out. You think you're jumping off a cliff but it ends up being just a little curb."

DiRicco had long loved horses but knew nothing about Percherons when a friend, Gail Davis, who also worked for the county, came into her office with the plea, "Dana, you have to save some horses."

<strong>60 MINUTES</strong>

She had seen an episode on "60 Minutes" about Canadian ranches raising horses — primarily Percherons because of their large bladders — for the hormones in their urine when they're pregnant.

Some of the surplus foals, seemingly lucky enough to be adopted out, were still getting sick and dying from neglect en route to homes in the U.S., a practice that has since improved, she said.

DiRicco's husband, Glenn Benjamin, the veterinarian who cares for exotic animals at Safari West, wasn't wild about the idea at first, but she won him over.

The couple, who have a ranch in Alexander Valley, wound up purchasing a second ranch in Upper Lake, where they built a beautiful new barn befitting their family of eight Percherons, some of which are used on the farm or hitched for parades and promotions for their Elk Mountain Vineyards in Lake County.

Originating in La Perche, France, these powerful animals, which can grow to weigh 2,600 pounds, were first used as war horses and then evolved into "diligence horses," carrying mail and supplies or working on farms.

But their stock has risen. Today, elaborately adorned Percherons are displayed with extravagant carriages in royal ceremonies.

"The queen of England's favorite horses are those old Percherons," DiRicco said.

<strong>SET STANDARD</strong>

It was "blind Lady Luck" that led Benjamin to pick Hera out of the barn when he drove to Canada to bring back adoptees for his wife and Davis.

"It turned out she was the exact replica of her grandfather, Grandeur Lyn, who was the world champion who set the standard for the breed," said DiRicco, who has a small fleet of show carts and rigs that she drives in shows from California to Colorado to Canada.

The parlor of DiRicco's 114-year-old Upper Lake farmhouse is adorned with a rainbow of prize ribbons.

Although the controversy over raising Percherons for the "urine line" continues, the problem has eased somewhat, said DiRicco.

Health concerns over the side effects of hormone-replacement therapies, as well as the prevalence of synthetic alternatives, have led to a decrease in demand for Premarin, and thus fewer unwanted foals.

<em>You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@ pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.</em>