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Equine Rescue Organizations Face Challenging Times

July 2009
by Suzanne Bush

The recession blah-blah-blah. That seems to be the starting point for virtually every news story coming out of the nation's capital as well as the 50 state capitals in the nation. The recession has become the leitmotif of our days. Blamed for thousands of problems ranging from the ridiculous ("recession blamed for decreasing number of women willing to go topless on French beaches") to the profound ("recession blamed for increase in shooting sprees"), the recession has morphed into a global public enemy number one. The stories about its victims could fill a library. Because they are so prolific, it's all too easy to tune out the stories about economic turmoil. Call it compassion overload, or empathy fatigue. Call it more fallout from the…recession.

In the midst of all this sour news, there are stories begging those who love horses for special attention, and they reward us with something rare: an opportunity to actually make a difference. The recession has made certain populations of horses especially vulnerable. These are horses whose owners can no longer afford to keep them, and otherwise healthy horses that are no longer capable of doing their jobs, such as competing as race horses or show horses. In the past two years the cost of virtually every aspect of horse care has spiked. Hay, feed, medicine, veterinary care—costs are all increasing too fast for many horse owners to catch up, and they're forcing owners who are still interested in competing to make hard choices.

Hard Choices, Few Options

What do you do with a beloved horse, whose care is forcing heartbreaking choices? The options include euthanasia, sale of the horse at auction, rescue and retirement facilities. While there's anecdotal evidence that euthanasia of healthy horses has increased, there is little hard data about how widespread it is. A recent study conducted online among equine veterinarians in Colorado found that few of the 128 individuals who responded had euthanized a horse "for the owner's convenience" in the previous 12 months. The actual number of this category of euthanized horses was fewer than 25.

Rescue and retirement facilities are the most palatable choices, but they are struggling with the same issues as horse owners are. The hay, feed, grain and veterinary costs that are hurting individual owners are compounded at rescue facilities that are caring for large groups of horses. And most rescue and retirement facilities depend heavily on donations to support their programs. Furthermore, the physical space available to house more and more horses eventually limits the rescue operation's ability to accept horses.

Several horse rescue facilities have stopped accepting horses. Messages on their answering machines tell callers they're filled up, and there's no room for any more horses. On their websites they plead for donations to help cover their costs to care for the horses they already have. Ryerss Farm, located near Pottstown, has been caring for aged and abused horses for 120 years. Widely recognized as the gold standard for equine retirement facilities, Ryerss Farm currently has 340 horses on a six year waiting list.

A Complicated Picture

With rescue and retirement facilities, there are few sources of data on which to rely for conclusions about how many horses are in need of rescue, how well the rescue operations are doing financially and whether they are being forced to close down. The picture is complicated and multi-faceted.

According to Stacy Segal at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the situation for horses in need of rescue is improving—although it is far from perfect. "We keep a database of all the horse rescues we know about. Right now I think there are more than 600 rescues in the database." She says they update their list twice a year, using a variety of sources, from news reports to outreach. "There are new ones starting all the time. It feels like we hear about more new ones starting than we hear about others closing." Evidence of facilities running out of room for horses is contradictory and hard to pin down.

Segal says that HSUS started a program two years ago called the Homes for Horses Coalition, which aims to end equine abuse while promoting growth, collaboration and professionalism in the equine rescue community. Horse rescue and retirement facilities that join the coalition agree to comply with a set of standards of care for horses. HSUS provides training and resources for facilities that join the coalition. The network evolving from the Homes for Horses Coalition is a critical asset for those involved in horse rescue.

"The non-profit sector is being affected by the recession," Segal says. "But many of our groups (in the network) are still accepting horses." She cites a massive rescue undertaken in May in Nebraska. "We had a really good response from the horse refuge community. It was a ranch with more than 200 wild horses in a remote part of Nebraska. The horses were moved off the property to a temporary facility. Many were returned to their owners. The others were sent to rescues."

How Good Is the Plan?

Segal says that horse rescues need to start with a good plan. "To care for horses is an expensive endeavor. The rescues are there to fulfill a need, and there are lots of different models out there, such as owner surrender of horses, racehorse retirement, etc. They're taking in horses and they're turning them around. There are a lot of variables involved in the space that's available at any given time." She says that a lot of rescue operations are located in Pennsylvania because of the horse auctions in New Holland. "Many of the rescues will go there and try to outbid the kill buyers for the horses."

"We were just out there on Monday and brought five back," says Judy Grant of Last Chance Ranch in Quakertown. She thinks that many of the rescue operations have stopped going to the auction because their facilities are full, or they're running low on money. "I think they're all in the same predicament. They're full because of the economy." Last Chance Ranch has a 25-acre facility in Quakertown, and they have additional capacity on the grounds of Graterford Prison in Montgomery County.

She says they have been selective in the horses they'll accept, because they need to be able to turn the horses around and get them adopted. Unfortunately, they are getting lots of calls from people whose horses are just not adoptable. "The phone rings I can't tell you how many times a week with people who can't take care of their horses. It may sound cruel but some of those horses are pasture companions, and we can't help them out."

They have to consider the best outcomes for the horses they take in, such as finding new homes for them. "Nobody wants companion horses any more. They want good trail riding horses."

Last Chance Ranch is an all-animal rescue, and Grant says that has helped them survive in the face of a precipitous drop in donations. "If it wouldn't have been for the dog adoptions, we would not have been able to continue. Dog adoptions have helped subsidize the care of the horses." Their horse adoption program has remained steady, too. She says they place more than 30 horses annually. "I have to tell you our horse adoptions, we're doing well with that, placing them in homes. A lot of times we have people come back several times, to make sure the horse is a good fit. We have instructors here that will meet with the people as much as possible to make sure they're comfortable."

From Racetrack to Show Ring or Trail

Among the largest sources of horses at rescue operations are racetracks. Racehorses have relatively short careers, and have many useful years left. Jo Deibel at Angel Acres Horse Rescue in Glenville, says that they've placed more than 230 horses in five years. She says that she gets a couple of calls and emails a week from people hoping to find homes for their horses, but that volume has not changed much.

"We currently have three farms we use to house the horses. All those guys are in various states of quarantine, evaluation, schooling—that sort of stuff. Some are just in a holding pattern. Some need recovery time. We have two starvation cases." Angel Acres is part of the HSUS Homes for Horses Coalition, and Deibel says that her organization has been able to sustain funding despite the rough economy. "We're multi-faceted. We write for grants, we do fundraisers and we have adoption fees," she says, although she thinks there are probably private donors out there who have reduced or stopped their donations.

Turning for Home, a relative newcomer to the horse rescue business, was created a year ago by the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (PTHA) to provide a safe transition for racehorses to move from racing careers to a second careers as pleasure or show horses, or to retirement. Barbara Luna, program administrator for Turning for Home, says the program has worked well, and they've had no trouble placing horses for adoption. "Our adoptions are up. We haven't had any problem at all getting good people to adopt the horses. We've had a lot of big eventing barns and show barns that know we have a lot of good horses. They come by and check out our horses all the time."

Luna says she is facing the same financial dilemma as other rescue organizations. "I don't know if anybody's affected worse or better as a result of the recession or not. Speaking for us, it's been harder to get donors and sponsors. I've had major companies just laugh when I talked about becoming a sponsor. People just say ‘how can you even ask?' They don't say that in a mean way, though." She says that everyone recognizes that we're facing incredible challenges with the economy.

Money Changes Almost Everything

It's clear that organizations in the business of rescuing and providing retirement facilities for horses need donations. But they also need accountability on the part of owners and breeders. There are two things that everyone who cares about horses can do to help: donate and promote responsibility. The rescue operations are providing an enormous safety valve for thousands of horses, and they deserve the support of horse owners. "Being a horse owner is a responsibility," says Segal. These days, that responsibility extends to horses who find themselves in need of refuge. In the face of all the bad news flooding the airwaves, the good news is that individuals have the power to change the world for horses.

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