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.
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. :)]