Standing Ovation by Ovation Riding: Sweet Water Stables’ Christmas Horse
Watching horse after horse pass through auctions and sales got Heather Stewart of Sweet Water Stables thinking: what if, instead of doing a Christmas gift exchange, her clients rescued a horse?
Each Friday, Horse Nation teams up with Ovation Riding to spotlight an individual or organization doing good work in the horse world. Today, we’re saluting Sweet Water Stables of British Columbia, whose clients are starting a new tradition of rescuing an auction horse otherwise destined for slaughter. We caught up with Heather Stewart, the owner, trainer and manager of Sweet Water Stables, to learn more.
So how did you decide to adopt a horse, rather than do a gift exchange?
Sweet Water is a small barn with a great group of people. We board, train and offer lessons in hunter/jumper or dressage. The Christmas horse idea percolated slowly, then happened all of a sudden. I had been watching some of the auction and last chance sites for a while, and was surprised by how many good prospects were being shipped. The purchase price was cheap; the problem was the cost of transport and carrying them through rehabilitation.
It was early November and I started asking clients what they thought of saving a horse instead of exchanging presents for Christmas. Every single person in the barn was enthusiastic about the idea. Having our vet and farrier come on board was a fantastic help. Everyone’s generosity was amazing, and that was what turned the idea into a reality. When I say generosity I don’t just mean the financial donations. I mean the kindness, support and excitement they all put into the project, the momentum it got from everybody being so happy to do it.
So I started looking for a horse. I watched the horses posted in the Sunnyside kill pen in Washington, and the horse auctions from British Columbia to Oregon for something that would suit our project. I told people what we were trying to do and asked them to keep their eyes open for a diamond in the rough. I set the budget for the horse at $500 because I wanted to compete with meat buyers, not good homes. I wanted something that everyone in the barn could groom and handle, even the children, so they could all participate in the horse’s care. I wanted something that was sound enough to have a career. I was picky. I looked every day.
A few weeks later a friend called me about Noelle. She was a ten year old warmblood/Thoroughbred mare. My friend was the agent when she sold as a young horse, and had really liked her. The buyer had just called her, years later, because she had fallen on hard times. Noelle and three other horses were starving in a field and going to be shipped by the end of the week unless somebody came and picked them up. Things were desperate. We got Noelle for the price of her trailer ride and the health certificate she needed to cross the border. All four of the horses got homes thanks to my friend placing them. We were all so excited when she arrived. She was very thin, and her feet were neglected, but she was attractive and well bred; you could see quality in her. She is very sweet, and was easy to handle on the ground.
Dr. Andrea Plaxton did her teeth, gave her her shots and wormed her. Jackie fixed her feet. She was good for the vet but just LOVED having her feet done, and was so happy with them feeling better after. Our awesome chiropractor, Dr. Andrea Verges, donated a treatment and assessed her. We spent a few months just feeding and grooming her while she gained some weight. It took about three trims before her feet were good.
When she was in better shape we started some groundwork, and she had a few more months of eating, lots of turnout and gentle exercise before she had enough top line to carry a rider. She’d had a bad start as a youngster and had been used mostly as a broodmare. We restarted her under saddle. She was kind but green and had a lot of anxiety from her past experiences. She was healthy, but she was going to need about six more months of training, so we sold her for a dollar to a great home with an experienced rider who could continue her progress. They are doing really well and it looks like Noelle has found her happily ever after. We spent all our money on nothing but a happy ending, and nobody minded.
We enjoyed the whole thing so much we decided to do it every year. Our Christmas horse this year is Linus. He hasn’t been here very long, but I think he’s a keeper for us.
How lucky for Noelle and Linus that Sweet Water was there! What advice would you give to barns who might want to try this process themselves?
Know exactly what kind of horse you realistically can handle as far as training and health issues and wait patiently for the right one. Even though a lot of horses end up at auctions or feedlots through no fault of their own, some end up there because they are incurably lame or have hurt someone badly, and although passing on those horses will hurt your heart, you don’t want to own one. Choose wisely. Every horse is a gamble, but some gambles are less risky than others.
Make sure you are truly able to afford to take responsibility for the horse. The purchase price is the cheapest part, and you have to be willing and able to carry the horse long term if necessary.
Quarantine! Horses coming out of bad situations and kill pens can carry some filthy diseases and viruses. We quarantined Noelle for a month at another facility before we brought her home to make sure she was healthy. Remember that your first responsibility is to the horses you already own.
Beware of scams. I was shocked at how dirty the rescue industry is when you look a little deeper. The people profiting most from selling slaughter rescues are kill buyers and feedlots. The best way to save a horse from slaughter is to outbid the meat man at the source, meaning right from the owner or at the auction. Feedlots and kill pens are really unhealthy environments, and it’s better if your chosen horse is never exposed to them.
If you can do it, great! Do it! But also consider collecting donations for a worthy rescue in your area instead. And I mean worthy. Take responsibility to check their references and make an appointment to see the place. There are a lot of people doing great work already, and they could really use your help. Volunteer there. Send them some hay! It’s less risky but still awesome.
To follow the adventures of Linus, this year’s Sweet Water Stables Christmas horse, “like” Sweet Water Stables on Facebook.
Many thanks thanks to Ovation Riding for their support of both Horse Nation and individuals and organizations that are doing good work in the horse world. If you know someone who deserves a Standing Ovation, we would love to recognize them in a future post. Email the name of the person or organization along with a message about the good work they do to [email protected] Photos/videos are always welcome, and include a link to their website if applicable.
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