When you have to give up your horse

For several years I’ve worked with CANTER New England, an organization that helps retiring racehorses find new jobs away from the track. In that environment, there’s always the worry that a horse will go to auction (and potentially to slaughter) if it is no longer competitive at the track. For many trainers it is a purely economic decision: some of them don’t have money for dinner, let alone the money to carry a horse that doesn’t perform.

I always thought that most of the show horses and “pets” owned by people I knew were fairly safe. I learned how really wrong I was last December.

Two days before Christmas I got a phone call from a woman I know who co-owned a pony with two other ladies. The other owners had decided that the pony was a liability and they were going to sell her to a “rescue” for a dollar. And, by the way, the pony was leaving the next morning. The kicker for me was that the man who owned the rescue, “John”, wouldn’t provide his full name, the name of his organization or its location. To me, that sounded like a one-way ticket to Canada, maybe with a quick side trip to Crowley’s or New Holland auctions. In short, they panicked.

Let’s be honest, the pony had problems. She had foundered the previous year, which resulted in significant rotation in both front coffin bones. While she was sound, she required corrective shoeing and constant vigilance. But the more immediate issue was one of aggression. She had recently knocked over a woman who had gone into her stall to adjust her blanket, leaving the caregiver with a bloody nose. She had also started to charge people who came into her paddock when she was eating hay. At first, the owners banded together and brought in a friend to provide some round penning work. They talked about sending the pony off site for training. But in the end, two of them had decided the pony was too dangerous to keep. Plus, “John” had promised that he would find the pony a great home, as either a riding pony or a companion. They thought he might even be able to sell her and help them recoup some of the money they had spent on her vet bills.

In the end, “John” didn’t take the pony. I helped the woman who called me find the pony a home with an experienced horse person who came with references, an address, and a commitment to keep the pony forever. She has extensive experience with older horses and ponies and when I toured her facility, her herd looked happy, healthy and looked well cared for. She had a good farrier, a nutritionist and a vet. Finding that home took time and effort. I even included a bitless bridle with the pony as an incentive. I called every person who had owned her, and contacted all of the rescue organizations in my area. I was amazed by how extensive the network of the horse rescues reaches, and I got excellent advice from the people who ran them.

In short, what I learned was that you must plan ahead, as much as is possible. There are a lot of people willing to help but you must give them enough time to get the wheels turning. A few of my take aways include:

  • Address behavioral issues as soon as possible. It is much easier to nip a problem in the bud then deal with a horse or pony that becomes dangerous. Bring in a trainer who has experience, don’t rely on your friends.
  • Always call the people who owned the horse or pony before. I had hoped that one of the previous owners would be able to retire this pony to a farm, or would be able to take her back. While that didn’t happen, the previous owners helped as best they could, both with outreach and to help cover expenses.
  • If a situation sounds too good to be true, it usually is. According to the staff at the rescue organizations I spoke to, many owners are dismayed to find out that the kind woman who bought their pony for her daughter/granddaughter for a song (because of the good home), actually took the horse to the nearest auction. Hey, if you only pay $1, then even if you sell for $150 that’s a reasonable profit. If it’s at all possible, charge more for your horse or pony than the kill buyer will pay at auction. Yes, it’s hard to think of a price per pound, but you want to eliminate the profit motive.
  • Tell everyone you know that you need to find a home for your horse or pony. Yes, it might be embarrassing to admit you can’t keep your pet, but think about it, isn’t it worse if people find out you let your pet go to a questionable end? The best way to find a good home is through word of mouth. Ads for free horses in Craig’s list or bulletin boards do not bring out the kind of people who want to give your pony a soft landing.
  • Always, always check references. If possible, inspect the place where your horse will go and make sure that the other animals there are healthy and that they facility is safe.

I came across an excellent article evaluating rescues on Behind the Bit. It contains detailed advice on how to find a legitimate rescue along with links to other resources.
Above all, don’t panic. I know that the people who owned this pony loved her. I’m sure they thought they were making a good decision and that she really would have gone to pony Nirvana. Luckily, she’s gotten pretty close. When I last checked, the pony had settled in nicely to her new home and was not demonstrating aggressive behavior.

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