Thursday, October 14, 2010

Can You Really Handle a Rescued Horse?

The question of what to do with all the horses seized from neglectful homes or directly from the slaughter pipeline has taken on a new importance.  Breathes there a horse lover with soul so dead that s/he has never considered saving a horse? 

Websites and magazines are filling with ads for “adoptable” horses.  Some have already been professionally rescued, fitted up for service (or deemed only pasture sound), and even retrained.  Horses like these can make wonderful additions to an already-horsey family.  Many need nothing more than consistency in their training and continued veterinary care and they are ready for the trails or the show pen right off the trailer.  Many others are healthy enough and easy to handle but not sound enough to be ridden.  For a family with a solitary back-yard horse and plenty of disposable income, a pasture mate might be just the ticket.  Everyone wins in these scenarios.

So why did I start this by questioning your ability to manage a rescue horse?  Well, that would be because the lovely, pleasant pictures I just painted are not the rule.  The rule is more along the lines of a willing (or, more painfully, a wannabe) horse person sees a down-and-out horse standing neglected in a farmer’s field, offers the farmer a few dollars, hauls the horse home without benefit of a vet check, and within days discovers that Old Dobbin is the devil incarnate, sucking dry the family’s savings as the vet bills roll in, kicking and biting everyone within reach, and generally making life miserable. 

This is in no way meant as an indictment of horse lovers or horses in need of help.  It is a plea for a sane approach to the decision to take in a horse that is pretty much guaranteed to have problems.  After all, once a horse finds a new owner, he is going to be as much at the mercy of this new human as he was of his former keepers.  Do you want to be just another link in the chain that has bound horses to destruction for centuries, or do you want to give a needy animal a fair and loving chance at a healthy future?

The first consideration has to be your own financial means.  Can you really afford a horse at all, let alone one that may well be in need of long-term vet care and careful, often expensive, feeding?  If you already own a horse, do you hesitate to call the vet when he’s sick or injured, preferring to wing it rather than fork over for the barn call?  Do you understand what it means to take on daily shots, special hoof care and shoeing? 

I speak from personal experience when I say that the rescued horse may be the most expensive animal in your care.  The sullen Paint mare just seemed to cry out to me for help.  She was 200 pounds underweight (“needs a few groceries,” the dealer said) and was obviously foundered.  And pregnant.  Let's not forget pregnant.  The mare never made eye contact throughout grooming and tacking-up and seemed terribly detached and depressed.  The trainer hopped on her, and the horse went nicely at the walk, trot and canter.  The back-up was an issue.  A big one.  She backed up.  Straight into the air.  With more than thirty years of horsemanship behind me, I knew things like that could be managed with training, so after a second visit and a vet call to confirm my decision, I had the mare delivered to the boarding farm where my three other horses were busy draining my finances.  A two-week trial confirmed that the boarding farm could handle her, so I paid up and she was mine. Had I not taken her, had she sat unwanted on the dealer's lot for more than, say, 30 days, she would have gone to auction, which is where horses like this one wind up.

Missleading turned out to be a relatively simple case.  Her lack of fitness was minimal, and she thrived on her new feeding regimen.  She hated being in a stall, which was a problem as she needed to be quarantined for a bit.  The barn owner was nice enough not to charge me for the damage.  The founder was bad, but she was sound enough to ride and jump for another two years before heaves (COPD) set in and I had to retire her.  She gave me a beautiful baby, so it would appear that I came out ahead.

That was almost sixteen years ago.  Sixteen years of specialty shoeing for a horse that has been un-rideable for 9 of those years.  Fourteen years of special feeding and haying and medication for her breathing problems.  Sixteen years of blankets and grooming and semi-annual shots and worming.  Add it all up, and Missleading lived up to her name...she has cost me roughly ten times what any other horse in my barn has cost. Once I bought my own place and brought her home, the costs leveled out a bit.  I was experienced enough to do my own retraining on what turned out to be an off-the-track thoroughbred Paint (hence the questionable reverse and an intriguing approach to trails) with a willing attitude.

Put yourself into that picture.  Do you know how to safely feed up and re-fit a horse that’s been allowed to drop weight?  Do you have a shoer you trust to manage a complex hoof situation?  Mine has kept Pokey completely sound despite 22-degree rotations of her coffin bones.  He deserves a medal.  Are you competent to retrain a horse that may have been abused, beaten, or (possibly worse) spoiled rotten?  Do you know the difference between “nerves” and aggression?  Are you committed to the endless search for better solutions to health problems?

Most important, do you have a plan for the horse should he turn out not to be the ideal companion you’d hoped for? 

If your answer to any of these questions is a resounding NO!, then you really should rethink your plan to adopt an abused or neglected animal.  There are plenty of outgrown horses, older animals, and ponies who have served their owners well but are no longer sound enough to ride, and all of them need loving homes.  Yours may be perfect for one of them. 

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