Standing Ovation by Ovation Riding: Horse Plus Humane Society

“The small animal welfare community realized that open-door shelters and spay/neuter clinics were the only viable solution that would begin solving the crisis.” Learn more about Tawnee Priesner’s Horse Plus Humane Society and its innovative approach to horse rescue.

Contributed by Noelle Maxwell.

HPHS Staff Sarah Lake with a horse rescued/seized by a TN sheriff department. Photo courtesy of Horse Plus Humane Society.

Growing up in Northern California, Tawnee Priesner lived next door to a kill buyer, watching horses come and go. At 19, she started rescuing horses from local auctions. By 2003, she started the NorCal Equine Rescue, which grew into the Horse Plus Humane Society. Today, Horse Plus, now based in Hohenwald, Tennessee, has saved an estimated 5,814 horses over the last 15 years. We spoke with Priesner to learn about this innovative organization.

Horse Nation: Horse Plus has an “open-door policy,” meaning that horses can be dropped off with no questions asked, and no horse is turned away, correct?

Tawnee Priesner: Yes, we’ve operated as an open-door shelter for eight years, meaning no horse brought to our shelter is refused. Out of the programs we offer, being an open-door shelter has the biggest impact because we offer solutions for horse owners who have no other good option.

HN: Horse Plus offers several innovative programs such as the Equine Professional Adopter program, free gelding clinics, and the euthanasia financial assistance program, to name a few. According to your website, you’ve tried to model equine rescue after small animal shelters? How did you decide to take this innovative approach?

TP: We’re constantly seeking ways to improve our industry and motivate others to launch innovative programs that’ll help horses across the nation. I wanted to model horse rescue and sheltering after the dog and cat sheltering model because it’s industry standardized. We can follow their examples and protocols when appropriate. I’m an out-of-the box thinker and am not afraid to do something that may be considered controversial.

Rescues that shelter 30 horses a year aren’t solving any long-term problems. The small animal welfare community realized that open-door shelters and spay/neuter clinics were the only viable solution that would begin solving the crisis. Early in our training, we took animal control classes and learned everything we could about sheltering small animals, and applied it to our organization, including open-door sheltering. The idea of euthanizing unadoptable horses was unheard of when we started. We knew that when people called a rescue only to hear “No, sorry, we can’t help you, we’re full” it often left the owners with no option; their horses would go to auction for slaughter. We believed it better to euthanize unadoptable horses, rather than see them ship to slaughter.

Volunteer and a surrendered horse at a one-day Open Door Shelter in California. Photo courtesy of Horse Plus Humane Society

HN: You mentioned you’re “constantly seeking ways to improve the industry and motivate others to launch innovative programs;” what have you done to motivate others to launch their own, similarly innovative programs?

TP: For years we’ve encouraged others to implement open-door policies. We found most organizations knew it was the right thing to do, but feared public outcry and loss of support if they openly euthanized unadoptable horses. Many organizations would bring us horses for euthanasia because they knew it was the right thing, but they didn’t want to do it themselves. The ASPCA and the Right Horse Initiative have been helpful in changing the mindset on this issue.

HN: The website mentions you went undercover in the slaughter pipeline several years ago, what was your goal in this?

TP: The reason I went undercover was to discover who the kill buyers were and where their feedlots were. It wasn’t to help Horse Plus specifically, but to gather evidence for law enforcement and expose the kill buyers. Then, I was based in California, where every horse shipped to slaughter when the person “knew or should’ve known the animal would be slaughtered for human consumption” was a felony. My hope was to take down the biggest shippers in California, much evidence was gathered, and the first arrest for shipping horses to slaughter was made.

HN: Horse Plus had recently wrapped up a year-long collaboration with the ASPCA on a series of open-door horse surrender events around the country. What are the findings, how does Horse Plus plan to use them, and what do they tell you about the state of the industry?

TP: The interesting thing the ASPCA gathered from the one-day open-door shelters was that many people had horses who needed to be humanely euthanized, however they were unable to do so until we made an option available. I believe this is solid proof that open-door shelters are needed within a day’s drive of everywhere.

HN: What do you consider the biggest factors leading to an “at-risk” horse who might end up in the slaughter pipeline?

TP: Responsible people take care of their animals for life, but many horse owners believe when their horse is no longer useful, it should be shipped to slaughter rather than humanely euthanized. A lack of affordable euthanasia and disposal options lead to many horse owners being unable to make a good choice for their horses. Many are unaware that horse slaughter still happens and believe that since horses aren’t slaughtered in the US, it no longer happens.

A lack of training is also a huge problem for horses who are in the slaughter pipeline. A well-trained horse at auction has a better chance of being purchased by a horse trader and flipped for a profit, keeping it out of the slaughter pipeline. Training saves lives!

A lack of equine professionals available (farriers, vets, etc.) can be an issue, too.

As for slaughter, yes, it’s a hot topic in the industry, but the common person who has a household pet often doesn’t have a clue what’s going on in the industry. When I state that many are unaware, I’m not referencing those in the animal welfare industry, I’m talking about families who have a pony for their kids, etc. We run into this all the time, all across the USA.

To learn more about Horse Plus Humane Society, please visit the organization’s website!

A surrendered horse. Photo courtesy of Horse Plus Humane Society

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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