So You Want to Rescue an Auction Horse? Part I: Adopting From a Rescue Organization

In this new mini-series, Esther Roberts examines the various routes equestrians can take to rescue horses from the “slaughter pipeline.” In Part I, we’re talking rescue organizations.

The American public is becoming more aware of the fact that many horses in the United States end up in the “slaughter pipeline.”  Many horse lovers are aghast to learn that over 100,000 American horses are shipped to slaughter each year.

In recent years, many nonprofits and other groups have begun trying to intercede on behalf of the horses. These “rescue” organizations can run the gamut from legitimate nonprofits that focus on rescuing, rehabilitating, and rehoming “kill pen” animals, to sketchy groups that provide no accountability for their donor dollars or the animals in their care.

There are three primary ways to adopt a kill pen horse. We’ll focus on these methods over the next three weeks.

Choosing a rescue organization

First, be brutally honest in your assessment of your skills as a horseperson. Are you the type of rider who likes quiet, well-mannered horses? Do you only like “known quantities”? If so, you should avoid the auction houses and instead adopt your rescue horse from a reputable nonprofit who can help you find the right riding partner for you. Just like nefarious private sales, auction facilities sometimes drug horses (or ride them hard) to make them appear calm.

Auction horses are under extreme stress, so you rarely see their true personality and training until they’ve been out of the pipeline for at least a month and had time to decompress. Some horses seem to realize they have been rescued and become like giant lap dogs who follow you around and adore you for life. Sadly, the stress of being run through an auction actually fractures some sensitive horses’ minds and they become so unmanageable that euthanasia is the kindest outcome.

Bonnie – a hackney pony – was in the slaughter pipeline. Photo by Sarah Andrew, used with permission.

Second, be bold when investigating the nonprofit itself. Ask to see their IRS 501(c)(3) affirmation letter. A reputable nonprofit will have it posted on their website. Sadly, however, there are cases where folks say they are running a nonprofit when, in truth, no “1023” paperwork has been filed with the IRS. So ask questions. Ask for references from donors. Check those references. A nonprofit that does not steward its donor dollars well may also have issues with providing appropriate medical care and facilities for the animals in their care.

A nonprofit enjoys tax benefits due to the fact the organization basically exists to serve the public and not to make a profit. That public benefit also carries a high burden of responsibility: a nonprofit should be absolutely transparent on all financial and operational matters.

Ideally, the administrative costs of the nonprofit should be minimal and the vast majority of donated dollars should be used for programmatic purposes such as the costs of care and training for the horses the organization rescues and rehomes.

A reputable rescue organization will welcome any question. Ask: how many horses they pull at a time? What are their quarantine procedures? Who is their veterinarian? Does each horse complete at least 30 days of quarantine? Will they show you their quarantine facilities? Are those facilities adequate? (For example, is each horse separated by at least ten feet of open area on all sides? Does the quarantine area have adequate ventilation and sunlight? Open air and sunshine are two of the best contagion-killers so good quarantine facilities have plenty of both.)

Has the horse you’re interested in adopting been given a clean bill of health? Do not assume a horse that has “completed quarantine” automatically has a clean bill of health. Ask the vet. Better yet, ask YOUR vet. Ask if you can get a prepurchase exam, just like you would for a non-rescue horse.

Can the rescue organization provide several prior adopters as references so you can verify the organization correctly states a rescue animal’s training and temperament? What is the organization’s return policy if the animal does not work out?

These are all questions that a reputable rescue should be able to answer easily. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Bonnie after completing her quarantine. Photo by Esther Roberts

Adopting your horse

If you adopt from a nonprofit, be prepared to pay a reasonable adoption fee, probably in the $500-1000 range for most healthy, rideable animals. Such an adoption fee helps assure the animal is going to a home that will value their new family member. The adoption fee helps offset the high costs involved in rescuing horses; however, the adoption fee typically covers only a fraction of the total costs of rescuing and rehabilitating the horse you finally adopt.

Whether you take your new adoptee home or board him, make sure his new home also has a proper quarantine facility set up and keep him isolated from all other animals for at least a few more days. Rescue animals often have been hauled from one auction to another, and many of them get anxious when they first arrive at yet another new place. Don’t overwhelm your new addition by tossing her into your main herd right away. Give her some time to settle in quietly, observe the other horses, and get comfortable with her new daily routine.

Spend as much time with your new horse as you can. You may find that instead of making immediate performance demands on a rescue horse, you’ll need to focus on quietly just “being there” for him so he understands his new home is a reliable and trusting environment where he will be loved and cherished. The auction environment is traumatic for every horse. With enough time, quality care, and patience, however, auction horses can turn out to be some of the best riding partners you’ll ever find.

Bonnie showing her sparkly personality, some months after being rescued. Photo by Esther Roberts

Go rescue horses! And go riding.

Read the rest of the series: Part II: Finding the Right Horse; Part III: How Auctions Work; Part IV: Buying Your Horse

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