How You Can Help Horses

Understanding the Problem:
Unfortunately in many countries, horses have become a disposable commodity. They are trapped somewhere between pet, livestock, and sports equipment – which makes determining a standard of welfare needs difficult. Like any object, horses are subject to monetary value, their value is determines not only by their ability to be used and be fashionable, but also, like anything else, how common they are. Unfortunately for wonderful horses, there are a lot of them. Because there are so many, their value as a whole has reduced. This reduction in value has turned even some fabulous horses into something as disposable as the last generation of cellphones. But horses aren't cell phones or toys - horses are sentient, they have emotions, and they are capable of suffering.

Why are there so many horses that their value has decreased so much? Overbreeding is a major problem. This comes from the large sport industries – all the large sports come with large breeding farms for horses who specialize in their competition style. The successful horses will sell for many thousands, even millions sometimes!! But for every one horse that becomes a super star, 25-100 will be born and not be as successful – and thus not as valuable throughout their lives. 

These industries are not the only problem, we also have a problem with “backyard” breeding – this is when small farms or individual horse owners decide to breed their horses, without real understanding of everything that comes with breeding. This may cause a baby to be born with birth defects, even lethal syndromes that are testable are still common due to ignorance of some backyard breeders. Ignorance can also cause a foal to be handled poorly or inappropriately from birth, creating behavioral problems or physical problems that will make it difficult for them to thrive in life. Then there are all sorts of breeding situations between large industries and backyard breeding – such as groups like the Amish (who breed their own working horses) universities which have breeding programs. Ultimately, horses, like most animals, are too easy to create more of and with not enough care for the future of the species and individuals.

What happens to the “extra” horses? With all this breeding and the high costs of keeping horses, there is definitely more horses being born every year than number of homes available. So where do all these “extras” go? Sadly the answer is slaughter. These horses are sent to be processed for meat. In the US there are currently no horse slaughter houses (for human consumption – though there may be some for pet consumption). This means the “extra” horses are gathered together and brought in large trucks to Mexico or Canada to be processed – which is dangerous and traumatic in itself. A heartbreaking fact is that slaughtering our beloved horses is a necessary evil so long as more horses exist than homes. If you stand against slaughtering horses, if you're not ok with these “extra” horses being seen as “wastage” from a disposable community we need to do what we can to spread education and change our culture to think of their horses as more than just the cool new toy – but as a sentient animal who deserves a lifetime of care.

While we all know the plight of the unwanted dogs and cats, the number of strays and animals in need of homes, many still don't know that horses suffer much the same thing. Most horses are subject to being rehomed on average of seven times in their life! This is a shocking number of homes for an animal to go through in their lifetime. Even if all the homes for that horse were great homes, the major change in their life is still enough to create trauma – so much so that “multiple rehoming” has made the list of top causes of trauma in all species. Each new home comes with the grief and loss of their last home and friends, as well as a new lifestyle, diet, social life, and even sometimes a new language!! This frequency of rehoming is not something to be taken lightly and can cause a great deal of emotional trauma in a horse's life – which can result in physical or behavioral problems, making their future even more bleak.

The worst part about the high frequency of rehoming horses comes when “good homes” aren't so good. It's become common and socially acceptable to rehome your horse when the horse no longer meets your needs or desires – but everyone wants their horse to go to a good home. Unfortunately not all good homes are as good as they claim. Sometimes that good home leads to a not-so-good home, people keep passing the horse along again and again until the horse finds themselves somewhere quite dangerous. The problem here is the idea of “passing the buck”, the idea that when the horse doesn't meet your wants and needs, you pass them along. Then the next person passes them along – and again and again, meanwhile the horse suffers and is put further and further at risk – but each person feels they're doing right by finding the horse a “good home”.

Why are Horses Rehomed so Frequently?

“Unridable” - this word has meant suffering for so many horses. This word has cursed so many horses great homes, great lives, and the future they deserve. Because horses are trapped in this odd spot between pet, livestock, and sports equipment, if the horse can't be ridden there are few homes willing and able to invest the money in them. Horses aren't cheap – we all know that. To afford to care for a horse who can't “earn their keep”, is not something many people can or will do. But is this really right? Let's stop and really think about this. We breed horses, aside from mustangs and feral horses, every foal born was born because some human made the decision to create them. But when the horse is no longer “useful” they are frequently disposed of, this can happen due to age, sickness, or injury – or even their size, ponies are among the most frequently rehomed or sold to slaughter, due to being outgrown by their riders.

 Is it fair or ethical for a human to create and animal that will live for a full 25-35 years (if kept healthy), knowing that there will be many unuseable years within that, only to dispose of the horse when their use is gone? This is a personal decision and many have warring opinions on this. I personally can't accept ending a life just because they have been “used up”.

What about situations where the horse is just a “dud”? Some horses are born physically damaged, if they can have a life and someone is willing to invest in them, they should of course be given the chance. But it's few and far between who are willing to invest the care, time, love, and money in a horse who has little to give in return. These people who do are special, wonderful humans who bring joy to my heart. There are also horses who have developed major behavioral issues. This can happen from ignorance, abuse, neglect, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There aren't many people who have the skill, knowledge, time, and money to rehabilitate a horse who has become dangerous to themselves or others. Again, these people who do are special, wonderful people who make my heart happy. We can help by spreading education, reducing the risk of ignorance, and investing our own skills in helping these unfortunate situations (in whatever way we can). But all this being said, it wouldn't be wrong to euthanize a horse who is likely to suffer bouncing home to home, until slaughter or neglect.

Let's talk about this... “Death is not a welfare issue” - this is one of my favorite quotes. A horse who is dead is not suffering. But the process of going to slaughter, especially when they have to travel hours or days in large trucks to leave the US to meet their fate – this is a welfare issue. There are laws and regulations, there are procedures taken to reduce the suffering. But why do our horses deserve this? If a horse has no hope of a future aside from slaughter – an ethical owner should do the right thing and euthanize the horse humanely. Death is not the problem, the process and suffering in which their life comes to an end is. This may cost money, this may be a burden, but this is the very least we can do for our horses, if we can't ensure them a safe future, we should ensure them a safe passing.

There are a number of other reasons people pass horses along as well. Among them is competitive goals. Competition is a great and fun way to enjoy time with your horse, that you both can enjoy when done well. But often a horse's wellbeing is compromised for competitive or monetary goals. This happens also when it comes to rehoming. When a horse is no longer good enough for the competition, owners often trade up to better and better horses, leaving many behind them. Yet again we are faced with “I sold him to a good home”. But yet again, good home, to good home, frequently fades to not so good home, not well-screened home, passed along until they end somewhere quite dangerous. Soon we will list alternatives to this constant rehoming to reduce the risks of the horse ending up in a neglect, abuse, or slaughter situations.

There are also real, true emergencies, life situations happen to the best of us where we just can't keep our horses no matter how much we love them. It would be great if rescues weren't just so overburdened with all the horses listed above that they could actually take in these horses from real emergencies, but that's just not the way of the world right now. So what do we do to help these horses?

How to Help...

Let's start by looking at when you get your own horse. Make sure you find the horse that will meet your needs for a number of years – unexpected tragedies befall us all, but do your best research when you make your decision. If your horse must be successful in a specific sport for you to care for them, then ensure the horse you buy is able to be successful in that sport, buy a horse who is proven. If your horse must be safe for your child, find a horse that is child-safe, don't settle for less. If you are among the special few who don't mind if your horse can't be ridden, do try to find one who can't be, who might otherwise suffer if not for your kind home. Not everyone can rescue – but finding the horse that is right for you will reduce the need for rescuing horses who don't need it. When searching for your dream horse, be careful not to fall for the “fads”. Just like any commodity, there are fashionable style breeds that change regularly. Instead, buy the breed and individual that is right for you. Don't be subject to trading your horse in when new fashionable breeds come into style and your old horses fall out of favor. Rescues are regularly flooded with “old models” of horses who were previously popular, because they're expensive while they're rare and then their value plummets when they are overbred without the quality or care that made them special.

It's important people recognize the commitment they are buying into when they take on a horse. This should be a life-long commitment, which can be up to 30+ years!!! If you're looking for a shorter commitment, try leasing instead of buying or buy an older horse. Remember that every horse, even the healthiest, best behaved horse, is going to have periods of not being able to work. When a horse is born there is much debate about when to begin their work – tradition and cultural expectations want horses to start as young as 2 years old, while science has encouraged pushing that out as far as 8 years old. The key to remember is that there will be years of “no use” at the beginning and end of a horse's life – and usually an early start means an early retirement. So we should expect that if we own a very young or very old horse, there will be time they can't be used. There will also be times of sickness and injury where they can't be ridden. These are the most dangerous periods in any horse's life, if they can't be used it's extremely difficult to find them a safe home. So when you buy a horse prepare yourself that there will be times where the horse just won't be able to be used the way you hope. Find yourself a backup horse or alternative hobby to do during this period so your horse can remain safe with you throughout.

This also means budgeting accordingly. There will be vet bills, farrier bills, trainer bills, and periods where the horse is not providing you as much fun as you were paying for. If these are outside of your budget, look at leasing instead of owning, enabling horses to stay with a safety net. It's also important to remember your horse in your will or just have a spoken agreement with who gets your horse and how will they be able to care for them, in the event of your passing. It's also important to have this worked out in case of emergency as well. I have a written list of who gets which horses if something ever happens to me, along with some money or object of value to cover the horse's costs as best as possible. This helps me ensure my horses' have a continuity plan. I also have a number of people who I've agreed to help should they ever find themselves in a situation where they can't provide for their horse. Making these decisions before it's a real emergency is vital for everyone's safety.

Ok, but it's not always reasonable, affordable or feasible to keep every horse we love, 'til death do us part. So how can we help ensure our horses' safety? If our horse has become unridable or unable to be used, due to health or behavior, one very reasonable option is “retirement homes”. There are many farms, especially people's backyard barns that are happy to host a stall for very low cost for horses in retirement. These barns where there are no riding facilities or indoor arenas can be extremely affordable for retirement of these horses. Much less than paying full board at a farm with an indoor for a horse who will never use it. There are other ways to budget and reduce the costs to enable you to keep your retired horses, barefoot, working for board, pasture board, group/track board, less grain costs when not in work, and no tack to buy!

Leasing is a way under-utilized tool!!! If your horse is able to work, but perhaps your child has outgrown them or you're looking for a more experienced or more competitive mount, a great option is to lease your horse to someone else. With leasing your horse will pay for himself, allowing you to afford leasing or owning another horse. This enables you to move on with new and different horses – but each horse has a safety net, ensuring they won't find themselves on the slaughter path. This is great for kids' ponies, so while the pony can enjoy a lifetime of kids loving them, they will have a safe place to land when their job is done. This is a win-win-win opportunity for the humans and the horse. Again, when the time comes, this will leave at least one owner in the chain of the horse's life, responsible for that horse's humane end of life care.

A Loved Horse is Never Wasted!

I see so often people painfully offering their beloved horse up for sale because they don't have the time to ride or work the horse. They say their horse is “too good to be wasted in the pasture”. But I have a message for them – amazing, ridable, safe, sound, loving horses are going to slaughter because there are too many of them. So if you can provide your horse a safe and loving home, it doesn't matter if they ever work a day in their life! While some horses may enjoy being ridden, going on trails, doing tricks and other brain work, they can also be quite happy living a quiet life where they are loved and cared for. Even if you don't have the time to do all the “extra” and fun things, if you can provide them a loving life, do it! There is no guarantee their next owner will love them as much as you do. A life that is loved is never wasted.

Riding Alternatives

  • Agility

  • Driving

  • Ground riding

  • Hiking/packing

  • Go on field trips

  • Teach tricks

  • Brain games

How Clicker Training Can Help:

While all of the above can be taught by traditional means, exploring clicker training can open a world of fun with horses – helping horses keep homes. Our goal as a rescue is to spread education that keeps good horses in good homes, so that rescues can focus on real emergencies. Clicker training can help horses overcome emotional and behavioral problems quickly and effectively as well as engage owners in hundreds of new things to do, ridden or not.