Sarah Ralston, VMD, Associate Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Rutgers, is organizing a program to help ensure that the first horse adopters own is not the last. A network of volunteers will stand by to help novice horse owners cope with their animals.
When most people think about horses, they probably don’t think—or even know—that tens of thousands of horses are abandoned, surrendered or abused every year in America. The dichotomy between the idyllic vision of beautiful horses peacefully grazing in lush pastures and the horrific reality faced by unwanted horses—starvation, neglect, abandonment along roads, auctioned and sold for meat—is hard to grasp. That reality, though, is an enormous stain on this nation’s equine industry. It is a complicated, persistent problem that grows larger by the day.
Over-breeding, economics, irresponsible owners and lack of information contribute to the problem. Solutions are hard to come by. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Intrepid problem-solvers are breaking the issue into more manageable pieces, and crafting ways to attack the unwanted horse dilemma piece by piece.
Sarah Ralston, VMD, Associate Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Rutgers University, is organizing a network of volunteers who are committed to helping novice and new horse owners learn how to take care of their horses. The Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC) has informal data indicating that thousands of horses are surrendered annually because their owners don’t really know how to take care of them. Many of those horses, Ralston says, have been adopted by people who were persuaded to rescue them. “The only statistics I’m going on—we don’t have them specific for New Jersey, but we do have national statistics—show that over 30,000 unwanted horses per year are in need of adoption,” Ralston explains.
“We need horse owners to help horse owners. To try to provide more of a safety net for the people who want to do good, and want to help people,” she says. Because often these adopters find themselves unable or unprepared to care for the horses they’ve adopted. “Horses came back because they were not purchased by appropriate people,” Ralston says. So the horses wind up back at the auction, or back at the rescue, or back in a dangerous situation. “We’re trying to make it so that the first horse they rescue is not the last horse they own.”
Ralston says that many people have had extremely negative experiences, often due to their lack of preparation for all the responsibilities that go with owning and caring for a horse.
The organization’s working title is New Jersey Horse Info, and Ralston says that they are not trying to duplicate programs that are already available. Instead, they’re trying to consolidate all the expertise and experts who can help novice horse owners succeed. “A lot of novice horse owners don’t have a clue where to look for information. They’re intimidated by some of the more technical websites.”
New Jersey Horse Info will eventually have a network of mentors who can help horse owners navigate the sea of information and advice. “The mentor network will even go out and help them if they need it,” she says, “although they won’t do daily chores,” Ralston says they will provide advice about proper horse keeping, barn management, turnout, feeding, etc.
Many novice horse owners are naive about exactly how much it costs to take care of a horse; and they don’t know how to manage the day-to-day care of horses. Moved by the plight of horses in need of rescue, they may not have thought carefully enough about how owning a horse would change their lives. The naiveté fades quickly, as the realities of daily care overwhelm them.
Ralston says that they will eventually have a statewide network of volunteers who will be able to steer horse owners toward the information they need. The goal is to ensure that people are prepared for owning a horse, and that they understand options available if they can no longer care for their horses. Ralston’s group will include veterinarians, farriers, extension agents, 4H people and others who are committed to ensuring that horses don’t wind up in situations where they are in danger or subjected to inadequate care.
“Our steering committee is comprised of nine people,” Ralston explains. “We probably already have on board at least 30 or 40 people who said yes they want to help.” She says that they’re trying to figure out how to split the state into regions and make sure that each region has enough qualified volunteers to provide help to horse owners.
“We are identifying our resources and hopefully maybe by August or so we might go live,” Ralston says. “Right now it’s a work in progress. I don’t think we’ve had a single person say they don’t want to get involved,” she says, noting that the level of enthusiasm is gratifying.
Getting the Word Out
Ralston says they’ll be promoting New Jersey Horse Info with flyers and brochures distributed through local feed stores, tack shops, etc. There will be one centralized number for each of the regions in the network, and the individual who is in charge of that region will have a file of resources. She envisions the regional representatives acting as in a triage capacity, identifying the needs in each case and directing horse owners to the proper volunteer resource. Resources would be available to help with a range of issues from the most basic (fencing and nutrition) to the more complicated (behavior problems, illness, etc.). “We’re already developing a good network of veterinarians,” Ralston says. “We’re going to contact animal control officers, farriers, behaviorists—trying to establish as extensive a network as we can get.”
Ralston says the project should be relatively inexpensive. “Other than the printing and getting the flyers out, this isn’t going to be that expensive, since it’s all going to be volunteers.” She says there will be training sessions in the future, as well as regional updates, forum discussions and annual meetings to keep the volunteers motivated and informed.