by Paul Burdziakowski
There comes a time in the relationship between a horse owner and their horse when they need to part ways. It can happen after many years together or even soon after a new purchase. In some cases, owners give up their horse voluntarily. The reason for this may be because the horse has been injured or can no longer be ridden due to old age.
In other cases, horses are forcibly removed from the owner by the proper authorities. This type of action usually takes place when a horse is being neglected, starved or abused because owners don’t have the necessary finances, knowledge or understanding on how to properly care for their horse.
Whenever the time and whatever the reason, it is important for people to know that there are facilities all over the country which specialize in rehabilitating and finding a new home for unwanted, neglected and abused horses.
There are many of different ways that rescues get their horses. A few of the more common ways are through owner donations, state impounds, racetracks and auctions. Some rescues take horses that come from any background while others only focus on a specific type of horse. It all has to do with the type of resources that rescue has to care for their horses and the potential for a successful adoption.
Horse rescues are not only a humane alternative to euthanasia or slaughter but they are an ideal resource for law enforcement and animal control agencies. These agencies rely on rescues to take in neglected horses so they can be properly housed and cared for while investigations and court proceedings are taking place on the owners in question.
Horse rescues may be a valuable and beneficial entity within a local community but most people are not aware that they face a multitude of challenges to stay in business. One difficulty that most horse rescues face is getting sufficient funding to keep their facility in operation. Horse rescues sometimes struggle with finances due to the fact they do not receive any sort of local, state or federal funding. Most rescues operate independently and obtain funds in the form of grants, fundraisers, adoption fees, direct mail solicitations as well as through personal and corporate donations.
Due to limited funds most rescues rely heavily on volunteers to accomplish a variety of tasks ranging from office work to stable chores. The challenging part for rescues is finding enough qualified volunteers who can work enough hours each week. Most of the time volunteers have their own full time responsibilities and are not regularly on site during the weekdays. This means a lot of rescue work takes place after normal business hours and on the weekends.
Another challenge for rescues is the vast amount of compliance which is required while working under federal, state and local laws. This includes understanding laws pertaining to trespassing, search and seizure and animal ownership at the time of a rescue. It also requires creating detailed contracts which cover adoptions and ownership transfers as well as obtaining business licenses and other permits. A lack of understanding and subsequent noncompliance of the law can lead a rescue down the treacherous path of lawsuits, fines and other legal troubles.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of all for rescues is the actual process of rehabilitating the horses. The difficulty here stems from the fact that each horse comes to a rescue with its own unique set of challenges and circumstances. There are no shortcuts and no one-size-fits-all solutions. Volunteers at a rescue have no way of knowing how long the horse will take to respond. All they can do is make the best effort to work with them.
The first thing a rescue normally does when a new horse arrives at their facility is have a veterinarian conduct a complete physical examination. This initial check reveals the overall health of the horse and determines if there are any serious diseases that will require more advanced care and treatment.
There are also a number of common veterinary services performed on new horses and these include deworming, vaccinations, dentistry, Coggins test, dental exam, farrier care and in some cases chiropractic work. Basic health care such as this is necessary before rescue workers can begin working on rehabbing the horse.
Malnourished horses that arrive at the rescue are provided with care which is specifically focused on their diet. Rescue volunteers are fully aware that abruptly feeding a horse a high caloric diet can lead to condition known as refeeding syndrome. This condition causes a dysfunction in the horse’s metabolic system and can cause death within three to five days.
To prevent this from occurring these horses are put on a specific schedule and feeding program. Any adjustments to their diet are made gradually and in tiny increments. This diet initially consists of frequent meals of fresh grass hay and water. High quality alfalfa hay is introduced soon after this. The alfalfa plays an important role in helping the horse gain back weight because it has a good source of protein and provides essential electrolytes such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus.
The feeding of grain or other supplements are avoided until the horse is well on its way to recovery, which can take 60 to 90 days. From there a very small handful of a complete pelleted food can be provided three to five times per day. Any more than this can cause colic in the horse. If the horse doesn’t show any signs of distress more servings of grain is added and a regular diet is soon incorporated. Most of the time there is a marked difference seen in the horse after a week or two. However, it may be several months until the horse returns to its normal body weight.
Neglected and abused horses are also provided with their own set of specific attention and care. It often takes much more time and effort to work with horses in the category because they are either not used to being around people or are of afraid of them. The main goal is to earn the horses trust back by spending quality time with them and providing positive reinforcement.
Neglected and abused horses tend to be especially skittish and prone to making sudden movements. To combat this, rescue workers begin establishing a consistent daily routine. They usually start off by approaching the horse using slow and easy movements. As they draw close volunteers begin talking to the horse in a soothing and reassuring voice.
The horse eventually becomes more comfortable with them which allows the volunteer to begin gently touching different areas of the horse’s body. As more and more trust is built the volunteer will be able to apply a bridle. From here they establish leadership by leading the horse. It may take a while but when the time is right the volunteer will be able to put on a saddle and start riding the horse.
Rehabilitating a horse can be a long and arduous process but at the same time it can be an emotionally satisfying experience for those who work with the animal. There is no doubt that one of the most satisfying experiences for rescue volunteers is seeing a once broken horse restored to its former self and be given a new opportunity to live a normal life in a new home.