Sunday, June 9, 2019

Actually rescue them

I had a long talk with a fellow experienced rider/trainer today and our topics wandered about.  When we landed on a horse at the barn that was a 'rescue', we both had the same reaction:  many of those that 'rescue' horses really should not.

Please note the apostrophes around 'rescue'.  Because many of these are not rescues at all, such as OTTBs or pasture potatoes or Amish horses, but they're referred to as rescue horses by the people that pick them up, like it's a title of merit.  These horses are typically very cheap or free and have fallen on hard times of some sort.  They're more correctly termed a retraining project most of the time.  The example we were discussing is a Standardbred of questionable soundness and very little retraining.  He arrived a couple months ago.  He's been struggling and his owner is completely lost.

Almost on cue, a working student that is also older than I am popped out of the feed room and said 'but I've been online looking for a rescue because I don't have the money for a fancy horse'.  This is an absolutely rank beginner looking to trail ride once or twice a week.  She needs help with tack and cannot canter.  In absolute unison, the trainer and I said 'DON'T'.

Kids, news flash.  You get a wonderful horse one of two ways:  pay the money to buy one up front or invest the time to make one.   You can only do the second if you have the skills or hire someone with the skills.

Not a rescue, just a long term project

Most of the 'rescue's I see going through the barn are attached to people that find cantering nerve wrecking and are often a first horse.  A pair of OTTBs went through and I wanted to weep.  Fresh off the track and 'rescued' by a pair of girls that couldn't really manage their lessons on school horses.  If you can't tack and ride a horse on your own, you're not ready for an OTTB straight off the track.

No, the horses weren't around long.  Surprise surprise, a cheap OTTB is still expensive to keep, especially when it freaks out and crashes through a fence.  And funny thing, just because they're now 'rescued', they don't automatically turn into quiet, safe trail horses.  Surely with just a couple of days to settle they'd be happy to go for a bareback walk!  It's so relaxing, and they don't have a saddle that fits so bareback is the best option!  Why would they need helmets?  It's just a bareback walk on a four year old OTTB that hasn't been restarted yet or even let down properly, but the horses know they've been 'rescued' and surely will appreciate the stroll!  That has been a repeated conversation I've had with adults.  No, the horse does not realize it's been 'rescued' and will not magically bond with you because you bought it and brought it somewhere new.  Please put on a saddle and a helmet and consider ground work for your rearing four year old.  The horses moved on when the girls realized it was a lot of money each month to keep a pair of  horses they couldn't ride.  Free to a good home, hopefully to someone ready to give them a real home.

This is terrifying to me and I really, desperately wish many of the people with 'rescue' horses had left that horse alone.  It's a terrible thing to say, but I've done that rodeo and I know what it means.  You don't just throw a horse into a nice stable with plenty of food and instantly get a perfect partner.  No.  No no.  That's not how that works.

Let's assume for a second that you really did find a horse that is solid in it's training and a good citizen, just badly neglected.  You now have to nurse that horse back.  That requires vet support to handle parasite load, very careful nutrition, an experienced farrier to bring the feet back, and a careful reintroduction to work.  It's not an over night event.  It's months if not a full year of work to get that horse back.  My Hellbeast, Allen, was a complete wreck.  A bleeding, skinny, kill pen mess.  It took me a year to get him back into serious business riding horse condition.  He had to put hundreds of pounds back on, his feet required several trims and very fancy shoes, the list goes on.

I don't have pictures from when he arrived because I couldn't bring myself to take them, he looked that terrible

You know what happens when you take a neglected horse and give it a lot of fuel?  Energy.  A lot of energy.  They feel good for the first time in awhile.  The feet feel good, the stomach feels good, and they may very well like to share their happiness.  That's when the Hellbeast started bucking and bolting.  A solid citizen, very well trained, but he still went through a phase of being a rampaging nut because he felt good but wasn't strong enough to manage how good he felt.  I was in a program and am generally considered an advanced rider.  It was still terrifying at points.

And then you get to find out if your horse is actually a solid citizen.  A lot of these 'rescue' horses have behavioral issues due to neglect, inexperienced handling, rough handling, whatever.  If they didn't bother feeding them, why would they teach them to pick their feet up politely or stop when asked?  You could very well have a horse that has to be restarted from scratch.  There's nothing wrong with that, it's a very rewarding process, but you have to be prepared for it.

So no, I don't believe that the average good Samaritan should 'rescue' a horse they found online unless they are in a full fledged program with a trainer that has the skills necessary to manage whatever pops up. It is not a path for a beginner working on their own.

 Fiona's feet alone took months to straighten out

I'm not saying that a neglected horse is a waste or a loss.  I've seen the opposite many times and I've picked up horses in a neglect situation myself with life changing results.  I'm not saying that people shouldn't pick up horses that are being neglected when the opportunity is presented.  I'm saying that buying a sob story because you don't have money and thinking you can get your dream horse while saving a lost soul is a good way to be broke, overwhelmed, and possibly injured.  Unless you're ready to manage nutrition, vet, farrier, and training for a complete mystery horse, you're not ready to take on a 'rescue'.  And for the love of all the little gods, don't show up with some half broke, half starved beast in tow without talking to your trainer first.  Because that happens and I have had to fight back tears.  These poor horses, so confused and frightened.  Despite all of the good intentions, they're not going to get what they need.  And they'll get moved on yet again. That's not rescuing a horse.

I saw an ad in the local tack shop.  The Standardbred in question is now 'free to good home'. 
If you're not prepared for the mystery horse, go to a reputable rescue, pay the adoption fee, and get a horse that's been restarted by someone with experience.  Someone that can help you be matched with a neglected horse that needs a new home.  You are still saving a horse and your adoption fee will allow the rescue to save another one.  If you're going to rescue a horse, actually rescue them.


  1. There's a girl at my barn that this entire post made me think of. She "rescued" a neon green broke OTTB after her last horse (16yo, broke to death OTTB) died. She gave it the entire winter off and then decided his super anxious, super neurotic self was ready to magically go be a riding horse one day this spring. It took her literally getting run over the top of twice before she took everyone telling her that horses don't train themselves to start working with it like the complete retraining project it is.

    It drives me crazy when people don't do their homework and all they see are a tiny dollar sign next to a flashy looking animal.

  2. People actually tried to guilt me for buying my most recent horse rather than 'rescuing'. Totally agree with all your points. I have rescued (for real the vet bills alone were more than a nice horse would have cost, not to mention all the time I spent is not a cost efficient option :) before, but at this point I am looking for a horse that fits with my life and my riding goals and will be with me for the long term. I really wanted some background and care history this time. I didn't find 'the one' at a rescue or rehoming place, and that's OK. I wish more people were aware that cheap hose doesn't equal rescue and rescue doesn't earn you a magical connection with your horse (or the undying admiration of everyone around you, lol)

  3. Ugh yes, people read a couple black stallion books and think they have this whole horse thing figured out...