Horse Rescue Warning Signs

Over the years, I’ve gotten quite a lot of experience with horse rescues. I’ve volunteered for a few, worked as an employee for one, visited plenty and helped to rescue horses from a few, as well. Which is part of the reason why, when people ask me which are the good rescues that they should support with their energy and their money, I have a very hard time answering. If I haven’t visited or worked with a rescue myself, I don’t feel I can comment on them, even if I’ve heard good things, and because my experience is limited to a handful of western states, I really can’t give advice to people on which specific rescues are deserving of your time and attention.

I can, however, give you a few tips on what to look for when visiting a rescue. (And I would strongly recommend just going for an open house day or a tour before you commit any time to volunteering or fundraising or anything else. There are plenty of places that have great websites and brochures but when you actually visit you’ll want to get out of there was quickly as humanly possible. So don’t commit yourself to anything until you’ve seen the place for yourself and know that you want to commit.)

If you spot any of these signs at a horse rescue you’re considering adopting from — or even volunteering for or having your name written in the same sentence with — you might want to give some serious consideration to running in the other direction.

The rescue staff resist efforts to have horses medically assessed. This goes for giving medical care to their own horses, and for urging adopters not to have a horse thoroughly checked out before adopting it. If you’re considering adopting a horse and want to have it vet-checked on your own dime — which you really should do — and the people you’re dealing with at the rescue have any resistance to this idea whatsoever, it means that they’re aware that their horses might fail that vet check and that their level of care is likely inadequate… or they’re worried that you’re going to witness their horse trying to kill the vet. When I worked in rescue, it was unusual for people to get a vet check — although we did recommend it — but when they did we bent over backward to accommodate the vet’s schedule, did all we could to help with the exam, and gave both vet and prospective adopter any and all health and history information we had on the horse. And if the horse did fail the vet check or the prospective adopter decided not to take the horse after all for whatever reason, the rescue still got the bonus of having a report from the vet on any problems he might’ve spotted. It’s a win-win.

If, as a co-worker of mine recently experienced, the rescue owner tells you that anybody who doubts the health of their horses should “come and look at them and then they’ll know we run a good rescue,” they are batshit insane. You can’t always tell by looking whether a horse is sick. That’s pretty much why they invented veterinary science in the first place. There is no reason not to have a horse thoroughly tested for disease or lameness before committing to providing it with a lifetime of care.

There are emaciated horses who have been in the rescue’s custody for more than a few months. I don’t care how old a horse is, there should be improvement in the condition of an emaciated horse pretty quickly after it’s put on a good feeding program. If there’s an underlying medical condition, like bad teeth or a metabolic disorder, the rescue should know about it because a emaciated horse should have already gotten a thorough exam by the vet if it’s failing to put on weight in a timely fashion (and in a perfect world, all new intakes would get an exam). You might hear all sorts of excuses for why a horse is still skinny… and I have yet to hear a good one. I met one horse recently who needed oral surgery, and was told it wasn’t going to happen because he was too old to be trailered to the oral surgeon and might not wake up from the sedation. What I heard was that the rescuer didn’t want to invest the money, and would rather let the horse suffer chronic pain and continue to waste away until it died. It isn’t a crime to not have the resources to put toward a costly surgery for a horse. But it should be a crime to let a horse suffer needlessly in that situation instead of either making an arrangement with an organization that does have the resources, or having the animal humanely euthanized.

Don't be surprised to find recent intakes at a rescue looking like this guy. If they still look this way after a few months in the rescue's care, however, then the "rescue" part becomes more questionable.

They have rescued animals which are morbidly obese, and have been for a long time. It can be tough to take the weight off of a horse that comes in to the rescue extremely overweight, and it usually takes longer to correct than an underweight horse does, but it can be done. So the flip side of the skinny horse problem is if the rescue has equines that are extremely fat. Neither is healthy for the animal, and the rescue should have those animals on a strict weight-loss regimen as recommended by their veterinarian. Simply asking visitors not to take photos of the exceedingly obese animals (yes, that has actually happened to me) is not a solution to the problem.

There’s anything on the property that they ask you not to photograph. Speaking of photos, if there’s anything on the property that you’re asked not to photograph, whether it’s a sick horse or a stretch of unsafe fencing or a ponderous manure pile, that’s a big warning sign. No rescue wants to be portrayed in a negative light, but if you spot something that they don’t want the public seeing, they should be worrying about how to address and fix the problem, not about how to keep you from talking about it on the Internet.

They refuse to put horses down, even when they should. A great many rescues would argue with me on this, and it’s a bit subjective. You have to look at the case of each individual horse. Personally, I think euthanasia is one of the kinder things we can do for a lot of horses. At very least, it shouldn’t take an act of Congress to have a horse euthanized who is clearly on his last legs and suffering. In my time as a rescue worker, some of my proudest moments were the ones where I managed to win the argument about whether a horse should be put down. I don’t take any pleasure at all in seeing a horse die — and when I advocated that a horse should be put down, I was also the one who was there holding that horse until the end, because I owed that animal no less — but I really don’t like to see horses suffer because human beings aren’t ready to let them go. My general standard would be that if the horse is in pain and there’s either little prospect for recovery or no funds for the needed medical intervention, the horse should be humanely euthanized. There are few phrases in the English language that drive me as crazy as, “But he’s a fighter! He wants to live!” He’s a prey animal. He doesn’t know how to do anything but keep living. It’s in every fiber of his being that even when a lion has dragged him down, he needs to keep trying to run, even if he’s only going to die of his mortal injuries a few strides later. Some horses do seem to give up when their situation is bad enough, and some horses don’t, but it’s a human being’s job to do what’s best for the horse’s welfare. You wouldn’t keep riding a horse along the trail when he’s got a broken leg because “he has so much try! He really wants to keep climbing this mountain!”

They don’t have enough staff to maintain a high standard of care. Unless a rescue has at least a few paid staff on hand — and the resources to keep them — it shouldn’t have more than a handful of horses at any given time. I can’t tell you how many backyard rescues I’ve seen with twenty, thirty, forty horses… and only one person to care for them all. If a rescue can’t maintain a good standard of care if every single volunteer were to vanish — which they do, frequently, because people who run rescues aren’t usually renowned for their people skills — then they have too many horses. In that situation there is no way for that one person to keep up on care and feeding and provide the training the horses need to find new homes. People who want to start a rescue in their backyards should take on one or two horses at a time, and not bring in more until those ones have been trained and found homes.

Can you imagine what an impact it would have on the “unwanted horse” problem if every horse owner who was up to the task took on a single rescued horse, retrained it, and found it a home? (That’s part of the idea behind the TIP program, which I think is a great initiative.) What if instead of one person taking on 30 horses — which is usually at least 28 more than they can give a truly high quality of care to — you had 30 people giving their all to a single horse for each of them? Of course, there are plenty of people already doing that. But for many backyard rescuers, one of their main motivations is being able to call themselves a “rescue.” And raise funds. Not that I’m cynical or anything.

They have horses that have been at the rescue for more than a few months and can’t be handled. Wild horse rescues get a bit of a pass here, because they get nothing but horses that can’t be caught. But they also tend to have systems in place to allow them to catch and handle horses who end up injured or sick or desperately in need of farrier care. They might have something as simple as a pipe-panel squeeze and the experience to use it, or something as sophisticated as a tilt-table hydraulic squeeze, but either way they get the job done and have the expertise (or should have, at least) to do it safely. For most rescues, it’s not unreasonable to expect that if they have new horses come in which are difficult or impossible to handle, that they’ll have the time to invest in changing that. If they don’t, they shouldn’t take the horse. There are a great many rescues now which simply warehouse horses, either keeping them without offering any training to improve their chances at adoption, or sending them out in the same state that they came in. Any rescue should be working to improve the lives and chances of the horses they bring in; otherwise they’re not being rescued, just relocated.

They have rescued studs who they have no intention of castrating, or they are actively breeding rescued horses. There are rare exceptions to the no-breeding rule; some rescuers are very successful horse breeders and rescue on the side, which is commendable. Sometimes a very high-quality horse is rescued from a bad situation and can find a home with a responsible breeder. But typically, rescues that are breeding are simply producing more unwanted horses which are going to end up in another rescue situation themselves somewhere down the line. It’s absolutely beyond me why any rescuer would want to breed; if you spend a little time in rescue, you’ll probably find yourself praying that people would stop making horses so you’d have to rescue less of them. I’m also not a big fan of rescues that are willing to adopt out studs, even with the understanding that the horse will be cut. Often the adopter doesn’t hold up their end of that bargain, and once the horse is out of the rescue’s hands, there isn’t necessarily much they can do about it. It’s much better to simply have a policy that studs won’t be adopted out until the rescue has had them gelded.

So after all of this, you might be asking yourself… if you come across a rescue like this, shouldn’t you adopt anyway, in order to rescue the horses from the rescuer? The short answer is no. Because the moment you remove a horse from that situation, another one is going to end up in its place. It isn’t an easy situation, because when we allow rescues to fail the horses are the ones who suffer, and the reputable rescues typically end up cleaning up the mess. But we also shouldn’t prop up poorly-run rescues — many of which are truly hoarding situations with a rescue placard out front  — with our time and our funds when it will only perpetuate the cycle.

If you’re thinking about giving a rescue your support, volunteering time or adopting, ask around about them. Google them. Schedule a tour of their facility. Despite all the doom and gloom in this post, there are good rescues out there, and the work they do is essential. They can use your help, and I hope this post will have helped you a little in figuring out what to look for in determining which rescues to put your effort into. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the many problems you may potentially see at rescues — and doesn’t even cover the good signs of a well-run rescue, which maybe I’ll get into in another post — and I’d love to have you input in the comments, too. If you’ve been involved with a horse rescue, how was your experience?

[Edit: So, I’ve never had a moderation policy on this blog, but I guess it’s time to institute one. I realized this would be a hot topic when I posted it, and I realize as well that a great many people who have been involved in rescue — including people I’ve worked with and greatly respect — would disagree with me on some of these points. And I would love for people who do disagree to comment with a perfectly rational, “Hey, I disagree with you about this point, and I will tell you why…” As ever, I’m willing to be swayed by a good argument. Bearing that in mind, this is my personal blog. If there are comments that I feel are personal attacks or simply aggressive, I will delete them. This post is meant to be helpful for people who perhaps have not dealt with rescues before, and it is by no means a blanket attack on every rescue everywhere. As I said, there are many good rescues, even some great ones, but what qualities qualify a group as such in your mind is really up to you to decide. Thanks to all of you who have joined in the civil discourse in the comments. :)]


19 thoughts on “Horse Rescue Warning Signs

  1. I <3 you, you know that?

    I would also add that if you have followed the rescue for some time, and every single month they put out a desperate call for money to buy basic essentials – food, hay, the electricity bill – then there is something seriously wrong. (Especially when said rescue turns around next month to beg for $15k for surgery on a horse that will not make it rideable, just mildly comfortable…may I add, a horse that was 17, entirely ungentled, and had approximately a 0.5% chance of ever being adopted?)

    I have seen nearly every single one of the warning signs you list here. I've worked, futilely, for rescues that hit several of them. It's beyond frustrating, and one of the reasons I no longer associate myself with Tris's rescue.

    Thanks for the link about the TIP program – one of my dreams is someday to have land for Tris to retire on so I can take on one or two horses to gentle and then move on to good homes.

    • I <3 you too, so it all works out. ;D EXCELLENT point on the constant fundraising for essentials. I know of quite a few rescues that if a single large donor fell out with them, or they used up all their goodwill with people who are loaning them pastures, that they'd fold within a week. I know the feeling because basically one step from disaster is how I conduct my entire life, but that's one of the many reasons I don't have any interest in starting a rescue. ;D I think that's also a symptom though of just taking on far more animals than they can handle. For the smaller backyard rescues you see them start at one or two horses and they do okay there, but then the numbers start creeping up and before you know it they've got a dozen or two, and they keep taking on more because they can't say no or they have a serious savior complex or whatever. It's really tempting in every part of life, I think, to overextend yourself, and for rescues who constantly have people calling with horses and saying it's going on the meat truck unless the rescue takes it, for the rescue to say, "Oh, we have more money than we need for basic expenses this month, we could totally afford to take on another horse!" But then next month they're running into the red again and scrambling to get by. It's easy to get in over your head which is why I think that anybody starting up a rescue should really get their heads on straight before they even take in their first horse… how many can they realistically handle? What are the expenses really going to be? What will their criteria be for deciding whether a horse gets an expensive surgery or gets euthanized?

      Anyway, that's awesome you want to take on horses for training one day; that's my dream too, is to be able to take on one or two horses at a time and help give them a future. We should totally band together one day. We won't be a rescue though. At all. ;D

  2. I could never take in a horse, retrain it and find it a new home… It’s just not in me to let it go again, if I have once taken responsebilety for the animal. My bad ;)
    Is there a lot of Horse Rescue places in USA? We have about one place like that in Denmark and it is hardly running and most of your warning signs can be found without looking too closely at it…
    I got to ask, the thin horse in the picture, can it ever recover? It seems so far gone, won’t there be some lever dammage?
    As for when a horse should be put down- that’s hard. Yes, most horses fight, some more than others, some has to fight way too much and at a rescue, where there is no one to love them and nurse them back to health, it would be kind to let a sick horse go, rahter than trying to fight for it. Putting old horses through operations is never fair. Still, some horses want to live more than others.
    when do you know when it’s time to go? I have had quite a few horses put down over the years- my own as well as my friends- somehow I always end up holding the horse in the end, and it is always hard and I always quistion myself a hundred times, even when the vet is putting it down.
    Anyway, I admire people who dedicate their time and their lives to try to make a difference. I wish I had the energy and the believes, still. I sure ain’t cut out for it. Legacy, the horse I put down this spring, was my last rescue atempt. I just can’t keep doing it. Wish I was stronger ;)

    • I think I’d probably have the same problem, which is one of the reasons why I won’t even be attempting to do that until I have the financial means on my own to support two horses if I were to take one on and then either decide that I couldn’t part with it or just had a hard time finding it a home. It’s not exactly an easy horse market right now.

      There are quite a lot of rescues in the US, yes… and not really any sort of certification process, so pretty much anybody who wants to call themselves a rescue can. I don’t know if there are any real numbers but I’m sure there are thousands of them. And many times the “rescues” end up starving horses or neglecting them or just getting in over their heads. I’m really surprised that there’s only one in Denmark, though I’m sure you guys don’t have the kind of overbreeding and massive unwanted horse problem that we have here.

      Yes, a horse like the one in the picture can absolutely recover, and even ones that I’ve thought would have permanent organ damage have pulled through and been fine. You do have to know what you’re doing and be careful, though, to take it slowly when youre putting weight back on it, and sometimes even then you’ll lose them. One of the horses we got in at the rescue I worked at was a thoroughbred who had been fed a diet of cat food and was hundreds of pounds underweight; feeding her cat food was almost more unkind than not feeding at all, because when we tried to slowly ease her back on to a normal horse diet, her system just couldn’t handle it, and we lost that one. The one in the picture was also one of ours though, and he came out of it just fine. They’re really amazingly resilient, even though they can be a bit fragile too. I think I was lucky to work mostly with wild horses because they’re capable of handling so much where some of the more delicate breeds can be a lot harder to bring back from the edge.

      I think knowing when a horse should be euthanized is a really hard call, whether it’s your own horse or one you work with. My standard has always been that if they’re in pain you can’t fix, or they’re unable to live a fairly natural life — like if you have a horse that can’t move around really at all — then it’s probably time to let them go. Usually when people hang on to a horse like that, it’s about the person and their needs, not about the horse and its needs.

      • Well, In Denmark the problem is usually that the horses are too fat, even the unwanted ones… and there is a general acceptance of people putting young and healthy animals down if they don’t want them anymore. The argument is always that it does not hurt to be dead. So we don’t have many horses that needs rescue,,,
        the one rescue I know off mostly take in “trouble horses” and forget to retrain them because they lack the time and the money…
        And I agree, if a horse can’t live a normal life and be part of
        a herd, it should not be here. and yes, a lot of people hold on for too long, but well, sadly, we do have almost the opposide problem in Denmark, that people throw healthy horses away. I always hated that. ;)

        • Interesting. I wondered if that was the case… it’s probably much more expensive to keep horses there, too? I could see people euthanizing when they have a problem horse that they can’t sell on. I honestly would rather see healthy animals euthanized than having them be starved to death or half-starved and *then* have to be euthanized, but it’s an interesting situation. Maybe I should move to Denmark and start taking in problem horses. :D

  3. I have taken in horses needing more weight, wounds healed and just plain love and ability to be a horse all my life…. On June 26, 2011 my life was forever changed. I took 2 horses from ATOL in Guilford NY and started a series of surrenders to close it down from the horror it was harboring…. we have a case against the owner Stephanie Hanchett and she has been arrested for cruelty and scheming to fraud. More complaints from donors to this so called “rescue” coming into the sheriff weekly. I am caring for 5 horses of theirs, fund raisers have helped substantially-but not everything gets covered. We need people out there visiting their “local” Rescues and posting about them- truthfully. We need to stop giving untruthful “way to go’s” to these unbelievably undernourished horse care givers just because we think- well its a rescue, they are supposed to be skinny!!! NOT after months or even within weeks they are LOSING weight!!!!!!! Come on people!!!! Help the horses with the money you were sent!!!!! Improve your facilities, buy feed, show the grain purchases, the bills, the vet care, the farrier……. its our money, use it WISELY!!!!!!!!! Thank You :)

    • It’s also our responsibility to GIVE the money wisely, which is part of what this post is about. A lot of the abusive or downright fraudulent “rescues” that have sprung up have done so largely because the Internet makes it so easy for them to part people from their cash. People really want to help, which is commendable, but giving blindly because you saw an appeal from some random person on the Internet doesn’t usually end well. It’s just another good reason to check out your local rescues… if you like what you see there, you can give them your money and your time, you can make a real difference for horses, and you can see for yourself where the resources are going.

  4. Good post; good points. Here we’ve seen several “rescue” operations shut down, because they ended up as abusive as the initial situation. And, with the price of hay and the economy the way they are, it’s getting harder for the good operations to get donations.

    Our local animal shelter is overflowing with rescued horses. They’ve started a “foster horse” program, in which approved “foster parents” can take one of the horses, work with them, and hopefully find them a home. They ask for experienced horse people — preferably at a boarding stable, so more people can see the “foster child” — and maybe even take on one of their own.

    Seems like a good idea to me. What do you think?

    • Yeah, it’s very difficult all around right now. And even for the places that are able to stay afloat financially, it’s very very hard to move any horses out because so many people are trying to get rid of horses, not take more on. I have a feeling it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

      It’s great that your local animal shelter even has horse facilities… so many don’t, and it’s one of the reasons why it can be really difficult to get law enforcement to intervene when there is an abuse or neglect situation, because they don’t have anywhere to keep livestock if they seized them. The program they have set up sounds wonderful to me, and I think makes for a really sustainable form of rescue; when you’re taking in one or two horses at a time, as an individual, it’s much tougher to get in over your head (at least financially, maybe not training-wise :D) or get into a situation where suddenly dozens of horses need placement. You can do your part one foster at a time, and the biggest expense for the shelter is in administration and overseeing the program, making sure all of those foster kids are properly taken care of. Sounds like a winner to me. :)

  5. McKenzie, Good edit! This is a family run rescue, my son13, daughter 15, my wife and I. I took a early retirement to concentrate more on fundraising for thiis rescue. alot of sanctuary space not being used due to no funding. if everyone visited a local rescue and posted honestly what they thought. would help. I stop by rescues and promote them if i like what i see, and i even took pics. of another and exposed them, boy people were upset. but thats what it takes. most rescues are operating without no help. check them out. a little from a lot of people will go a long way. why people think we get a lot of donations, I dont know, The economy is (another subject) this year we spent 20.00 a bale at the high and now around 16 a bale. when this was a ranch hay was 4&5 dollars a bale. feed alone has doubled in price since this time last year. here in Kern Co. Cal. horses are being left tied to trees on the outskirts of town and hobbled with no food or water, people have opened their gates and let horses go and fend for themselves. Then we have the animal abusers, charged with 42 counts of neglect and or abuse. Animal Control can only house so many, we took in two ponys from the seizure, but we work close with Animal Control and law enforcement, also approved facility to foster seized and rescue abandoned from KCAC. This is all a good thing, after all this is for the horses. last 30 days we were able to find forever homes for three. yesterday sweetpea was adopted out she was here for a year. adopt fee 250. we live 50 miles to the nearest gas station, we dont get alot of volunteers. never asked for any. same with donations we dont get many, never needed it in the past. just thought people would help out if they cared for abused horses, NOT YET. its not over. people need to check out Rescues and Google as you say, also check Guidestar and all of our tax info is public. you can see who is doing what by their 990 IRS forms. who is paying who. we dont get paid here, didnt expect to. a family passion. well McKenzie nice slinging mud with ya, check us on face book.
    Al Equine Rescue Outakuntrol

    • I think it’s an interesting idea having people visit rescues and post what they think about them… it’d be nice if there was actually a review system like There’s just so much he-said she-said type of stuff and people are incredibly emotional about horse rescue, as you and I both know. :D Even checking sites like CharityNavigator often won’t give you the whole story. I really encourage people to check out their local places and see for themselves instead of sending a check to somebody they’ve never even heard of and assuming it’ll go to the horses.

      As far as thinking people would help out if they cared for abused horses… yes and no. Often they’re willing to help out if they know you’re legit and they know you’re there… the latter is often the bigger problem. Sounds like you guys haven’t done a lot to promote yourselves (and haven’t needed to before). If you’re interested in getting into that more I’m planning a post sometime soon about how horse rescues can more effectively use the web to get the word out and enroll people, so you might want to check back for that. That’s great you adopted out three in the last 30 days… in this day and age that’s no mean feat!

  6. You have read my mind and I applaud you for writing this. I plan to use it as an example for our upcoming “Rescue 101” class which is “So, you want to start a rescue”.

    “Rescue” has gotten a dirty name over the years because of people such as you’ve discribed. They may start out with good intentions, but end up turning into hoarders. It seems everone now is a “rescue”, and this includes people that are nothing more then “horse traders” using the name rescue to try and bilk money out of caring people.

    If you are planning to do this, you need to run it like a business. If you have no money, you can not operate and then no horse is helped.

    Rescue is a hard and emotional job, but the animal ALWAYS comes first.

    Thank you again for this blog post. Please come and visit us sometime if you are ever in Tennessee.

    Nina L. Margetson
    Executive Director
    Horse Haven of Tennessee, Inc.

    • Thank you Nina! I’m glad that you’ll find it helpful in teaching your course… that sounds like a terrific means of letting people know what they’re getting into if they do want to start a rescue. I think a lot of folks who get into it don’t realize everything it entails until they’re already past the point of no return.

      If I’m ever in Tennessee I’ll definitely pay a visit! :)

  7. I’ve been working with horses my entire life and rescued one from the track for my 21st birthday. These are really helpful for any future rescues I make, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge! Also, beautiful horse photos on your blog.

  8. Wow, well said. Nothing to add but kudos.

  9. Pingback: Are you ready to own a horse? | Bright Strange Things

  10. Mackenzie, may I use your horse photo from this post in a flyer I’m creating for the Humane Society of the United States? It would be used to promote a class for Advocates Against Animal Cruelty. Please let me know ASAP my email address is Thank you!

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