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Horse Rescue Facilities… A Savior Complex or a Safe Harbor? (Part 4 in a series)

This is the fourth installment of a series about the horse auction and horse slaughter pipelines. In this post, I will discuss recommendations made by the Animal Welfare Institute and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) for how to evaluate a horse rescue facility. Many well-meaning individuals enter into the horse rescue world with only the best intentions. However, as part of my research, I have learned that poorly managed horse rescue facilities are unfortunately an even greater concern than the bait-and-switch, online marketing scam that I discussed in Part Three.

The Animal Welfare Institute guidelines begin by explaining the need for establishing some basic guidelines:

Caring for a horse or other equine is a significant, time consuming, and long-term commitment not to be entered into lightly. No organization or facility should house more equines than can be managed with available resources, particularly where the health and condition of the equines and sanitation of the facility are concerned. Taking in more animals than can reasonably be cared for endangers the welfare of the animals and their caretakers.

Likewise, this article in The Horse discusses the hoarding of animals and shares research facilitated by the Tufts University’s Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC).

Any legitimate shelter, rescue, or sanctuary puts the needs of the animals first, recognizes when capacity to provide care is exceeded, and takes the required steps (stopping intake, increasing adoption, increasing staff or resources) in order to provide proper care.

Tufts University’s Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium
horse rescue facility
Horse rescue facility minimum standards of care

The Animal Welfare Institute has created a very comprehensive brochure that outlines all areas of care that must be considered when housing horses. The introduction of this publication states:

These guidelines, while applicable to general equine management, are designed especially for use by nonprofit equine rescue and retirement facilities. While not exhaustive, they offer basic parameters for operating such a facility. In addition, any facility or individual keeping equines must comply with all relevant federal, state, and local laws and zoning ordinances.

The absolute basics of minimal equine care

I started off describing, section by section, the nuts-and-bolts bottom-line recommendations. But it was boring… we all have a pretty good idea of what good quality care looks like when it comes to our horses.

We know that optimal recommendations are 1-2 acres per horse, even though many people can successfully house a significantly higher number of horses on fewer acres. That number applies to pasture maintenance if you are expecting a high-quality pasture to provide most or all of the nutritional needs of the horses in your care.

A successful rescue and rehabilitation facility will be knowledgeable about the nutritional needs of horses in various states of pregnancy, lactation, growth, recovery, maintenance, and unique medical conditions. Every horse that enters a rescue will come with individual challenges and special needs. This includes emotional baggage as well as physical ailments.

Any rescue operation or equine caregiver who intends to rescue and rehabilitate an abused, starved, or otherwise neglected horse needs to understand Refeeding Syndrome. This is the delicate dance that must occur to successfully and safely restore a horse’s gut to optimal function. This requires a labor-intensive, diligent approach that can be painstakingly slow and frustrating.

We all understand that minis have different needs than draft horses. We know that horses establish a hierarchy, and we must be mindful of that pecking order to ensure that all horses have access to all of the resources. Those resources include adequate shelter as well as food and water.

Anyone who has ever housed horses on their own property recognizes that safe and affordable fencing is one of many challenges. Barbed wire and high-tensile wire are frowned upon in the Animal Welfare Society recommendations.

Hoof care, dental care, and vaccinations

Again, those of us supporting our own horses for our own pleasure recognize that horses are expensive. How does the saying go?

If you want to be a millionaire owning horses, start off as a billionaire!

Remember the line in the Animal Welfare Institute recommended guidelines? Taking in more animals than can reasonably be cared for endangers the welfare of the animals and their caretakers. Any well-run rescue facility needs to have adequate funding to meet the housing, nutritional, emotional, dental, veterinary, and farrier needs of each and every horse that arrives on the property.

An individual is not successfully rescuing a horse if they substitute one form of abuse or neglect for another. Even if they have the best of intentions, and even if they love all of the horses in their possession, they are still making a commitment to provide appropriate and quality care. As a consumer evaluating a rescue to determine if you want to support that facility or obtain a horse from them, you need to have a high bar for the standards you require. If the horses are suffering, you need to alert the local authorities.

Good intentions become a horse-hoarding hell

Many studies have been done to evaluate the psychology of hoarding. This tendency is not just present in horse rescuers. It happens to dog and cat rescuers, to breeders of all types of animals, and to many other subsets of individuals in the animal world. We have all seen the news stories about animal welfare agencies “raiding” homes that contain dozens and dozens of dogs or cats living in filth. Likewise, we have seen the stories about “rescues” with dead or dying horses in the fields, and emaciated equines in population-dense dry lots that have nary a blade of grass visible.

As I was writing this post, Alan and I were in Kansas City. This story about a small animal rescue that has been operating for many years appeared on the local Fox channel. It totally exemplifies what I am talking about. The woman who runs the shelter truly believed that if she hadn’t taken in all of those dogs, they would be dead. And yet, the conditions were far from perfect for the animals in her care.

In Part Three of this series, I referenced the Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society when I discussed the two Arabian mares used for a “bait and switch” tactic. Jennifer Williams is President of that rescue facility, and she is quoted in the article in The Horse that explains the psychology behind animal hoarding.

We can’t be involved in rescue unless we have a great passion for it, because it’s really hard—emotionally, financially, even physically. But I think sometimes something overrides that, and you become convinced that you’re the only one that can help.

Jennifer Williams, MS, PhD, President of Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society (BEHS), in College Station, Texas.

The article in The Horse explains three potential psychological reasons why people morph from animal “rescuers” to animal “hoarders.” As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, this increasingly prevalent issue is apparently even more problematic than the kill buyer scam I discussed last week. I had no idea how frequently this happens.

The overwhelmed caregiver

Sometimes, you not only can’t see the forest for the trees, but you are so close to the tree you don’t even recognize that it is a tree! I learned this the very hard way. I stayed too long in a marriage… but the change in the relationship was so gradual, I totally didn’t see it. When I did start to acknowledge and admit that there were some problems, I still was convinced that I could fix it. I didn’t want to see what I didn’t want to see.

I believe that many very well-intentioned people gradually get in over their head, but the change is so insidious that they don’t realize it. Perhaps they were managing quite well with a reasonable number of horses, but something happened that upset a delicate balance. Illness, death of a partner, loss of a property, or some other major life event started a previously functioning rescue moving down a slippery slope.

Most of us can also appreciate how, when something in our life is going awry, we cling even more to the attachments we have to our animals. How difficult it must be to have a clear enough head to realize that you are not providing quality care and you must rehome some of your animals. Nevertheless, this category of “declining rescuer” is more apt to realize there is a problem, and more willing to accept help.

The rescuer

The individual categorized as a “rescuer” in this situation often believes they are the only ones that can save the animals in their care. This sentiment was expressed by the woman in the Fox News story that I mentioned above. She articulated on camera that if she hadn’t “rescued” the numerous dogs in her overwhelmed shelter, they would be dead.

Like the “overwhelmed caregiver” category, these folks often start out with adequate money, energy, and facilities. However, they simply can’t say “NO!” They truly believe they are that horse’s (or dog’s) last hope. As such, they are often quite unwilling to recognize there is a problem or accept any help. If their animals are removed due to abuse or neglect, they just collect more.

Some of the people in this category have co-morbid mental health conditions. Losing their animals or being told they are not adequately caring for their animals might precipitate further decline in their mental health. Many of these individuals depend heavily upon their animal relationships, perhaps to the exclusion of healthy human interactions.

The exploiter

This is the most sinister category of hoarder. It is believed that many of these individuals have Antisocial Personality Disorder or a similar relationship-averse mental health issue. (The “trifecta” of common behaviors in individuals ultimately diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder is fire-setting, bed-wetting, and animal cruelty.) They do not form attachments to their animals, unlike the people in the first two categories. For them, acquiring more animals is about control and they believe they are superior in their ability to manage the animals in their possession. These people are in complete denial about their issues and very resistant to making any changes.

Interestingly enough, studies have shown that the exploiter syndrome often goes hand-in-hand with child and domestic abuse. To me it isn’t a big surprise, given that the exploitation of animals and the need for an ever-increasing amount of control could easily spill over into human interactions as well. People who are not concerned about animal suffering and who are unable to form attachments with animals are not likely to fare any better with their partners or their children.

Regardless of the origin of the need to have more animals than a person could adequately care for, the results are the same. Horses are underfed, neglected, diseased and debilitated. SO… how can YOU, as a consumer, decide if a horse rescue is a facility that is one you would like to support?

Doing your due diligence

First and foremost, most legitimate horse rescues will have a 501(c)(3) classification and be registered nonprofit organizations. Go to GUIDESTAR and research the facility for yourself. You can also find nonprofit records and information on the government website for the state where they are incorporated. They should be totally comfortable sharing their financial information and details about how they fund their program.

Go visit the facility yourself! So much of the research and due diligence that goes into checking out a horse rescue operation is just like visiting a private farm where you intend to purchase a horse. Your eyes won’t lie to you if you are open to really seeing what you need to see. Don’t let your heart rule your head.

Again, just as you should have a pre-purchase exam when buying a horse from a farm or an individual, ask a horse rescue facility if you can have your veterinarian examine a horse you are interested in adopting. Good rescues work with one or more vets on a regular basis, but they should support a fresh set of eyes examining your potential future equine buddy.

Ask as many questions as you can think of as to what they know about the horse you are interested in. Get the down-and-dirty details, even if they are painful. Find out where they acquired the horse, what kind of condition it was in when it came to the facility, and what training it might have had.

Vera V-Abdallah, the founder of Love This Horse Equine Rescue, says that 85% of the horses they acquire have never been under saddle, and 20% have never had a halter on! They spend considerable time, energy, and money to train their horses, hoping to ensure a more stable future for them. This investment of time and energy costs money, but you get a horse that has been thoroughly evaluated and you have a much better idea of what you are getting. It is exactly the same with a dog breed rescue operation. They foster dogs first, assess their temperament, and place them in homes that fit that dog.

Have you ever tried to adopt a dog from a breed rescue group? Some of them subject you to the Spanish Inquisition before they will approve you! A good equine rescue should have lots of questions for you! They don’t want you to get in over your head, and they don’t want to get the horse back because of a bad placement. They might ask you how much horse experience you have, how you intend to use the horse, or will you board the horse or keep it on your property.

A reputable rescue will not be defensive when you ask them many questions, and neither should you be defensive when they do the same to you. A “hoarder” rescue operation might be defensive about any questions or observations you make, assuming you are even allowed on the property.

The best definition I have heard for “What is a ‘good’ horse rescue?”

Vera articulated one of the best explanations of what constitutes a “good rescue” that I have encountered in all of my conversations and all of my reading.

A “good” rescue is one that takes on a horse and sees the process through– rehabilitation, vet care, farrier care, and training, and then either finds a good adoptive home or keeps and cares for the horse as a sanctuary horse.

Vera V-Abdallah

Vera went on to articulate her view of a “bad rescue.” This is an organization that purchases large numbers of horses, fundraising on the skinniest, saddest looking horses on the lot. They keep a small percentage of the “good” ones, and often euthanize many of the others. Alternatively, they pawn the less desirable horses off to another rescue, neglecting to share any of the money they raised for the purchase of those very horses.

Vera has seen the latter scenario firsthand. A “flipper” rescue purchased a large number of horses and raised at least $1000 (per horse) over the price they paid for each horse. They then sent 38 horses to another rescue, but didn’t provide any financial support for the feed and care of those horses! The receiving rescue thought they were doing a good deed by saving these horses, unaware that the sending “rescue” had netted around $40,000 profit! Vera ended up fundraising for the impoverished rescue, to enable them to be able to feed those 38 horses.

Vera also provided some insight into the mindset of the average “rescue donor.” Well-meaning individuals will generously give donations when they perceive that a horse is in danger at an auction or a kill pen; however, once the horse is perceived as “safe”, the donors seem to forget about that horse and move on to the next one. This is what enables the bad high-volume “rescues” to do what they do… there is no follow-up or accountability for what happened to the vast majority of horses they acquired.

The mare and foal featured in the cover photo were rescued by Vera. It is her opinion that many of the “flipper” rescues would not have even tried to save that mare and foal. There was a significant concern as to whether or not the pair would survive. The foal was weaned immediately and placed on a milk replacer, a very expensive proposition. The mare was so debilitated, no one was sure she would avoid refeeding syndrome. She did, as her “after” photos indicate!

Chance, the foal in the feature photo. He is now a healthy yearling!

I spent hours writing Part Three of this series, doing my best to encourage you to support good rescues and quit lining the pockets of “Kill Buyers,” many of whom no longer have slaughter contracts. Remember the comment Vera made about the mindset of the average “rescue donor.” If you are in a position to use some of your expendible income to improve the life of a horse, spend it with a good rescue who truly is creating a better life for horses. Don’t fall for the “bail money” scam. Don’t buy a steak dinner for a horse trader. Make it possible for truly rescued horses to have adequate hay for dinner.


The Equine Info Exchange has an incredibly detailed list of facilities that can help you rehome your horse, or assist you in finding a new buddy. A Home for Every Horse also has a state-by-state listing of rescues. Other options are Sidelines Horse Magazine Directory of Horse Rescues and a List of Draft Horse Rescues in the USA.

AGAIN… YOU MUST DO YOUR OWN DUE DILIGENCE! This is a place to start. Visit the facility. Ask questions. Bring your vet. Ride the horse.

For more detailed information, see the following articles:

What comes next?

I have quite a few other avenues I intend to pursue on this subject. However, I’m not sure that I won’t take a break for a week or two. Alan and I are heading to Belize to go scuba diving shortly after this blog posts! It has taken a ton of time to write this series. More coming… I’m just not sure at this moment what it will be or when it will be!

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4 thoughts on “Horse Rescue Facilities… A Savior Complex or a Safe Harbor? (Part 4 in a series)”

  1. Unless you have boots on the ground, you’ll miss the heroic efforts of the MANY rescuers on FB who have been working hard to keep horses alive. There are a few bad eggs but the rescue community is tight knit and has done what politicians and others have failed to do. Rescuers have worked 24/7 networking horses into homes and keeping the awareness of what happens to your horse when they leave your hands either by sale or being stolen. We have been attacked mercilessly by naysayers and those who want slaughter kept alive so they can dump quickly or make money off the blood of horses. Why has the amount of horses going straight to slaughter gone down so drastically? It is because of the heroic thankless job that the rescuers and networkers do on a daily basis. We have to fight against the constant lies of “there are too many unwanted horses”, “all the horses will starve if we make slaughter illegal”, and “I can’t afford humane euthanasia” even though people spend thousands on their horses every year. Rescuers get messages on a daily basis by people who wait till the last minute with no plans in place to care for their horse and need them gone. We have to somehow keep our cool and remain healthy while being under attack and still focus on getting the horse into a hopefully safe place. We have to try to help horses who are older and have no skills but were used for breeding for years while the breeder made thousands off of them but couldn’t take the time to give their mares skills. Every comment rescuers make on Facebook is under attack by the good ole boy system that both men and women embrace that doesn’t want change, doesn’t want to be held accountable for making their horse safer.
    Many rescuers are just individuals who care about horses above any agenda. They know something needs to be done but few are willing to help. The good news is because of all the selfless work, people KNOW what is going on out there and whether they care or not, people are wary of selling their horses. I used to get so many messages with people dumbfounded when a well bred horse ends up in a kill pen. They think they are only “junk” horses there. Rescuers know that NO horse deserves a kill pen; “junk” horses have gone on to be steady wonderful mounts. Yet, kill buyers won’t be shut down and money flows to make sure they flip, buy, sell, barter, and send as many horses to their death as possible over greed. They are running the show and pay off legislators so that our bill to end this madness gets buried every time, yet somehow the rescuer always gets blamed. They get blamed for saving horses, they get blamed for telling people what is going on. Shoot the messenger.
    Rescuers understand that they are the reason that slaughter has gone down tremendously because they are the ones telling the truth. The mountains everyone faces just to save one horse usually takes a village just to get done. You have the pages on FB that show the horses, you have people searching auctions, kill pens, craigslist, fb, and horseclicks looking for at risk horses,you have the sharers that get that horse’s post out there, you have the ones who bump up the post, you have the ones that talk up the horse, then you have the donators, then the rescuer. Many rescues get done on private messages when a neighbor or friend dies and there are the horses to place. All unpaid positions. All volunteers; everyone has a job and they do it very well with no time off. Burnout is very real.
    On the opposite side you have the naysayers, the ones reporting rescue groups to facebook, facebook jail.
    The Jeering of fellow “horse lovers” who demand we slaughter horses in the USA again when humane euthanasia already exists. Legislators who waste our time saying just call, write, tweet and we will vote for safe act, over and over but there is no change. We have millions of dollars being spread to kill the safe act. We have kill buyers being deceitful; lying, cheating, stealing, costing the rescuers so much money they don’t have. We have the tribes coalition killing the safe act because they want to slaughter horses on their lands thereby getting around a national law. We have Wild horse roundups so ranchers can get cheap land, so wild horses need to be disposed of via slaughter. Herd dispersals hitting the kill pens with unskilled broodmares and babies. Broken down ex Amish horses barely able to walk and in horrendous shape. We have the majority of race horses going to slaughter or kill pens. You read that right, the MAJORITY. We have owners waiting till the last minute after their horse is low in weight, then they dump them at auction, whereby stress continues that loss of weight. We have kill pens exposing a healthy horse to diseases, bad feed, horrible unsafe conditions with no vet care; terrified horses trying to trample each other and very often hurt each other. We have BLM titled horses in kill pens. We have owners throwing away totally blind horses in kill pens. Can you imagine how terrifying this is for horses?
    So you mention hoarders, there have always been hoarders, there will always be that category of animal abusers, it has nothing to do with the slaughter pipeline. That is where better laws could help, but we are very far away from where we need to be with welfare laws in most states. This is a legal problem which the good rescuers are not responsible for since most fight for better laws and again have an uphill battle.
    So where are we at today? We have a tremendous drop in actual slaughter horses. We have people waking up that maybe this isn’t a good idea to have slaughter legal. All the hard work has homed a larger percentage of Equines than we even provide for cats and dogs. Out of 7 million horses in the USA, only 20-30K actually go to slaughter. Obviously, even 1 abused in this way is too many. Dogs and cats at least get humane treatment upon euthanasia. Most horses at risk get homed, a tremendous amount. What we need to do now is get better laws state by state so the trauma being done to these horses by kill buyers and neglectful owners gets prosecuted. All the abuses I mentioned above, NONE of those owners are held accountable for their neglect and abuse. And it is all abuse.

    1. It appears that you think that I think most rescues are bad or that I am missing the point but I agree with the vast majority of what you said. I know that Rescuers with boots on the ground are the ones doing the hard work. The numbers have gone down because the export needs have gone down because of EU regulations. I agree that the real problem here is with owners who dump horses. It is also very disgusting to me that there are large numbers of equine organizations who supposedly are thinking about the best interest of the horse who fight the safe act. That will be a future blog post.

  2. Horse Plus fits your definition of a “bad rescue”. They fundraise on skinny sad horses whom they just euthanize. Now they are buying them directly from traders and lining their pockets more..thoughts?

    1. I wrote this blog series to educate myself as well as the equine community. Based on what I have learned, I agree with you.

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