Anyone can buy a horse. Not everyone should. People who had no idea what they were getting into are sometimes overwhelmed with the responsibilities of horsemanship. Untrained, inexperienced horses do not belong with green riders, for example.
There are also thoughtless, careless people who, unfortunately, have horses.
Joey Kubesch tells of a recent horror story in Indiana, where 38 starving, neglected horses were discovered. "We had been hearing bits and pieces about the horse's neglect, and decided something needed to be done when complaints started coming in too numerous to doubt. Concerned neighbors started looking into things.
"We went by the stable to drop off a few bales of hay and checked things out. One woman went into the barn on the pretense that she used to board there and wanted to look around."
What she discovered were skin-and-bones animals standing knee-high in manure and urine. The state police were contacted immediately. The police, in turn, contacted Kubesch for her help in providing body condition scoring. Of the horses' scores on the body condition score sheet, "Three rated a minus one on a Perdue scale," Kubesch says.
Kubesch's association, Animal Kindness Organization, usually just handles neutering dogs and cats. There's no equine rescue organization in her area, and the 38 starving horses proved to be too much. Since the story hit the news, however, calls have been coming in daily offering homes and feed for the animals.
Local organizations in some areas specialize in stopping horse neglect and saving abused animals. Sometimes they're successful; sometimes they're not. Goals of these groups vary. Some set up adoption procedures for racehorses, while others work to ensure that elderly equines live out their lives in peace. Others tackle abuse. Few receive government funding, and most depend on donors, volunteers and fund raising.
Kathleen Schwartz's Days End Farm near Lisbon, Md., is a good example. She has operated it since 1989 and earned her non-profit tax status in 1991. "We are set up to take horses that are abused or neglected. We generally work with animal control facilities and help to impound the animal."
Most neglect cases are either starved horses or horses with severe foot problems that haven't been treated. Schwartz says Days End often helps build court cases by taking pictures. Schwartz admits that although all horse neglect makes her angry, "It's the ones who know better, but neglect horses anyway, that really make me mad."
The impounded horse is taken in by the farm and rehabilitated with proper feeding, vet and farrier care and training. Many of the horses taken in by Days End may not be able to be rehabilitated to the point where they can be ridden, but they can make excellent companions for other horses.
"Once they're rehabilitated, we put them up for adoption. We have a very careful screening process, and we never give up title to the horse, only possession. This way, if someone's circumstances change and they can't afford to care for the animal, we take it back," she explains.
Although Days End will sometimes accept horses that have not been abused from people who simply no longer want them, it often needs to turn such requests down. The facility often learns of more abuse cases than it can handle.
Education is the key to stopping neglect, and Days End takes an active role in teaching others about horses.
"We have Girl Scouts who work in the barn to earn their Horse Lover's Badge, and this way they learn to take care of the animal and what happens when you don't," she says. "We also work with the handicapped and often conduct tours for school-age children."
Other educational efforts include handing out brochures on horse care and Days End at horse shows and seminars.
Another role the organization fills, working with the University of Maryland, is in training for animal control personnel, some of whom have little experience with horses. New officers come out to Days End to learn how to halter and lead a horse, and pick up a horse's hoof.
Another successful equine rescue organization in Baltimore County, Md., is Equine Rescue and Rehabilitation Inc., run by Debbie Frank.
"When the Maryland Horse Council began to get complaints about neglected horses, we decided to put together a non-profit horse rescue organization," says Frank. "We help the county with rescue work by taking animals that aren't being treated well."
Frank notes that, unlike Days End, which takes in horses that can never be ridden again, ERRI only accepts horses that "can be rehabilitated. We don't take in what we can't recycle. We also have tried to develop a group of networking farms that can take in some overflow," says Frank.
The group has high, board-reviewed standards for both the horses it takes and for families that adopt them.
"When someone gets interested in adopting a horse, we first have them lease it, taking on the board expense and making sure they get along with the animal. If that works, they can adopt it and move it. They can never sell it," she says.
"All of us working here, including our volunteers, do a lot of training," she says.
The facility gives riding lessons to offset operational costs and uses some of the rehabilitated horses to educate would-be owners.
A national group that is on the lookout for potential abuse before it has a chance to get started is the Standardbred Retirement Foundation.
The SRF takes horses that can no longer compete and finds them homes. It can be a tell-all organization because, like Days End and ERRI, it does not sell horses, but only offers them for adoption. An adopter knows the good and bad about the animal before it is accepted.
The Foundation follows up on each placement for the life of the horse. Retired trotters and pacers have found homes in 32 states.
"We screen every horse to the best of our ability," says Bokman. SRF needs to know everything about the horse before adoption so the animal can be placed in a proper home. The potential adopter goes through a vigorous screening process as well.
Many of the SRF horses have gone on to become hunters, jumpers, endurance and pleasure-driving horses.
SRF blends the needs of its horses with those of youth in need of direction in a program called Youth in Focus. This teaches basic horsemanship to youths who might otherwise never get to spend time with horses. SRF may be reached at (908) 362-9084; or its web site visited at www.harnesshorse.com.
Be a rescue worker!
How can you help local rescue organizations?
1. Volunteer your time. Although help anytime is welcome, assistance is usually most needed on weekdays.
2. Donate tack, feed or money. Every little bit helps.
3. Collect your feed bag proofs-of-purchase so participating rescue organizations can get donations from your farm co-op.
4. Participate in rescue organization fund-raising events, such as seminars and symposiums.