Rescue Horses

by Matt

“Why would anyone buy a horse,” you often hear, “When there are so many for free?”

It’s true, free and almost-free horses abound in our economy, and anyone with a Facebook account and a couple of horsey friends is probably inundated with a dozen requests a day to volunteer, donate, adopt, foster, or at the very least share the image of a horse in need. And articles about adopted horses and auction “finds” who are transformed into show-ring stars are becoming cover material for major equestrian magazines. In the face of all this peer pressure to save a horse, have you ever considered just going for it?

Before you push send on that email agreeing to take in a rescue or horse in need, stop and consider these questions. Not all horse rescues are created equal; in fact, some are actually scams. Others might not be as careful about vetting and quarantine practices as you are. The last thing you want is to bring home an outwardly healthy horse who could fill your barn with infection a few days later.

What do you know about the adoption agency or rescue? Anyone can list horses on their website and call themselves a rescue. Are you adopting a horse from a registered non-profit with a clear source of funding and defined standards of care, as well as adoption requirements? While not a guarantee of excellence, it’s generally a good sign if a rescue has gone to the effort of filing and organizing with the government. Sound Equine Options,, is an example of such an organization. They provide veterinary-directed programs to measurably reduce the number of suffering and starving horses in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington.

Why does it matter? Because you don’t want to adopt a horse from a dishonest person or group, for one thing. You are bringing a large and potentially dangerous animal back to your farm, often knowing very little about its history. If the horse has in anyway been misrepresented to you, you could be putting people and animals in danger.

Can your vet check the horse? Rescue horses often have murky backgrounds. A six-year-old Thoroughbred with a faded lip tattoo was almost certainly a racehorse once, but what else has he been doing between the racetrack and the rescue? Was he a teasing stallion, a cowhorse, a riding camp horse, or just thrown out to pasture? Perhaps there’s no way of knowing what his real history is, but there’s a way to see what he’s capable of in the future — and make sure he hasn’t picked up any bugs along the way — and that’s to have your veterinarian go over him from head to hoof. Regardless of the initial out-of-pocket cost, an adopted horse is going to cost you just as much as a purchased horse. So just because he’s cheap or free doesn’t mean you can afford to skimp on the pre-purchase exam.

Can you quarantine the horse? You might be able to bring home a new horse from a pristine show stable with perfectly kept health records, without having adequate quarantine facilities, and get away with it. But a horse who has recently spent time in auction pens or has an uncertain history could be bringing all sorts of bugs with him. Equine infectious diseases such as strangles can travel through a barn of healthy horses like wildfire. Neglecting a stringent quarantine with a horse who has recently been rescued can cost thousands in vet bills down the road — and seriously risk the health of your other horses.

Can you handle any behavior quirks? A half-starved horse and a healthy horse can have completely different dispositions — even when they happen to be the same horse. You might have been offered a kid-safe trail boss fallen on hard times, and you might even have that model for the first month or two. But once the worms are gone and the fat is filling in between those ribs, any previous attitude or behavior problems could come roaring back with a vengeance. Adopting a horse with a completely unknown history means that you have to be ready to solve behavior problems without knowing what caused them to arise in the first place — a situation which could involve costly vet work, saddlery adjustments, and long, slow retraining.

Can you return the horse if it doesn’t work out? Many rescues will accept a horse back again if the adoption doesn’t work out for some reason. It’s part of their mission to find unwanted horses homes, after all, and if an unhappy adopter just lists the horse for free on the Internet, the situation hasn’t improved at all. Talk to the rescue about their return policy, and the situations that could lead to a return — behavior problems, an unknown lameness, or even a future change in your financial circumstances. If you’re signing an adoption contract, be sure that you understand all of it — some require yearly check-ins with photos, and you might be signing away rights to a future sale or breeding.

Adopting a horse can be a win-win for everyone involved, including the horse. One of our latest clients adopted two horses, and came to us to help her design a new home for them, stable. It has been a lot of work for her with live changing moments, but there are always risks involved. It’s best to take it slow, ask lots of questions, and prepare for every eventuality before you sign the contract. You’ll be tempted to act first and think later, especially when there are deadlines involved. But bringing a horse home without taking all the right steps can be bad news, even disastrous, for your other horses, to say nothing of your wallet. To do the right thing by everyone, including your horses at home, take an adoption as seriously as you would a purchase.

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