Conservative estimates say there are 150,000 unwanted horses in the United States. Yet a study published in 2017 by the ASPCA suggested there could be as many as 1.24 million households with the ability and willingness to adopt a horse. These numbers don’t add up. It’s clear that a lack of connection between horses in need and individuals willing to provide care is a big part of the unwanted horse problem. Could you be part of the solution? Let’s find out.
In this article, you’ll learn how a horse becomes unwanted, what problems those horses might have, and what you can do to help. If you’ve ever dreamed of saving the life of a horse in need, here’s your guide to becoming an equine foster parent.
Why Does a Horse Become Unwanted?
As a horse lover, it’s hard to imagine how a horse becomes unwanted. Yet every day more horses enter the unwanted horse pipeline and find themselves on the road to neglect and abuse. The American Association of Equine Practitioners defines an unwanted horse as one that is “no longer wanted by their current owner because they are old, injured, sick, unmanageable, or fail to meet their owner’s expectations.” Here’s how it happens:
Medical: A wide variety of medical problems can cause a horse to become unwanted, such as chronic lameness that makes him unrideable, a disease such as Cushing’s that requires ongoing medication, or an allergy that demands careful management. If a horse’s medical needs exceed an owner’s capacity (or desire) to care for him, that owner may seek to rehome the horse, or will simply abandon him.
Old Age: It’s sad, but true, that horses are often cast out when they reach a “certain age” and are no longer able to meet an owner’s needs. A caring owner will have a retirement plan in place. Others simply look for options to avoid the demands of caring for an old retiree—including gifting the horse to a new home as a companion or donating him to a school or therapy program. If no new home is found, that horse becomes unwanted and at risk.
Training Issues: A lack of training is one of the primary risk factors for a horse to end up in a rescue facility. In some situations, this is simply because of over-breeding that produces horses that somehow “slip through the cracks.” In others, it can be the result of unskilled horse owners who aren’t capable of successfully starting a young horse or maintaining training in an older one. Perhaps most heartbreaking are the horses that become unwanted because they simply aren’t “good enough” to meet an owner’s demands for training or competition, although they might be perfectly suited for a different job.
Temperament or Behavior Issues: The “dangerous horse” is often on the slow train to becoming unwanted. Whether he’s a bad actor because of poor training, medical issues that lead to training resistance, or simply has a difficult temperament, he’s likely to pass through many different owners where he experiences abuse and eventual neglect.
Owner Challenges: Finally, a horse can find himself in trouble when his owner experiences financial difficulties or life changes, such as divorce or even death. Many horses in rescue facilities have been seized by authorities from hoarding situations where the number of horses in a herd has simply outstripped the owner’s resources.
A Horse Named Michael
It was about 10 years ago when my dear friend was diagnosed with early onset Altzheimer’s. She called me soon after her diagnosis to make a plan. “I want you to euthanize Mikey,” she told me. “He’s old, unsound, and I need to make sure he’s OK when I can’t take care of him anymore.” Mikey was her 20-something Thoroughbred gelding. He’d had colic surgery as a 6-year-old and had been retired for years.
Distressed, I told the story to my husband. His response? “You can’t put a healthy horse to sleep just because he’s old. How much longer can he possibly live?” Thus began my life as an equine foster mom.
Off I went to load Mikey up and bring him home. And how long could he live? A long, long time. Mikey (officially “Bob’s horse”) became a permanent fixture in one of my pastures. He served as chief babysitter to just-weaned babies, companion to my own retired show horse, and even took a couple of side trips to other client’s farms when a companion horse was needed.
Mikey died peacefully in my pasture several months ago. He had a long, good life and caused very little trouble. My friend has since slipped deep into the fog of her disease, but I know she had some peace in knowing that Mikey had his forever home.
Levels of Fostering
There are a wide variety of opportunities for fostering a horse available, ranging from taking over care of an old retiree when his owner dies, to working with a rescue organization to rehabilitate, retrain, and rehome a horse. Rescue organizations may offer many levels of support, including provision of feed and supplies, financial stipends to help contribute to care, and training opportunities to help you work with your foster horse. The most common fostering scenarios include:
Intake: When horses are seized by authorities or relinquished by owners, they often require extra special care during the first days or weeks. These horses may be ill, injured, starved, or impossible to handle. Medical care can be intense, refeeding requirements are critically specific, and safety is of utmost importance. Perhaps the most difficult thing to realize if you choose to participate in this phase of rescue is that some horses won’t make it. They may die on their own or require a euthanasia decision.
Rehabilitation: Following initial intake, assessment, and stabilization, some horses will require an extended period of rehabilitation. This is likely to involve continued feeding and provision of basic health care in addition to grooming and handling. Once a horse’s health has been restored, the rehabilitation process may include training.
Support and Rehome: A horse that’s been restored to good health and is sound enough to find a “job” with a new owner needs someone to care for him until an adoptive home is found. This will involve basic care, as well as maintaining training. Many rescue organizations have a strong network to assist with the adoption process; others will welcome your help with rehoming your foster horse.
Sanctuary/Hospice: Perhaps one of the most rewarding foster care opportunities is to take on lifetime care of an older horse that can’t be rehomed for another purpose. These horses may have soundness problems or medical issues that require maintenance, and are simply looking for love and a forever home.
Foster Care Questionnaire: Do You Have What it Takes?
Could yours be one of those 1.24 million households with the ability and desire to take on a foster horse? Answer these five questions to find out what you need to know.
Question 1: What type of facility do you have available?
a. I keep my horse boarded and do not have a barn at home.
b. I have property and keep my horses at home in a large pasture with a loafing shed for protection.
c. I have a barn with stalls and separate paddocks. My horses get turn-out in pasture every day, and I have several pastures available so I can rotate. I have a small indoor arena.
If you answered:
a. Fostering a horse at home is clearly not an option for you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help. Consider volunteering at a local equine rescue, or even sponsoring a horse that lives at their facility.
b. With this type of facility, fostering at the intake or rehabilitation level may not be possible, as those horses often have special needs that will require they be housed separately from other horses. This could be the perfect environment for a support or sanctuary foster, however, provided the horse can be successfully integrated into your existing herd.
c. Your facility should be suitable to meet the needs of a foster horse at any level of required care.
Question 2: Do you have financial resources?
a. You are broke, but you love horses and have always wanted one. You think fostering might be a way to realize that dream.
b. You have had horses all of your life and have a well-equipped barn, but finances are a little tight. You have to budget carefully to cover feed, farrier, and vet bills every month.
c. Finances are not a concern.
If you answered:
a. It is very hard to understand the costs involved with caring for a horse, and they can be staggering. Even if the rescue facility has resources available to help there will be hidden costs that they can’t cover such damage to your property that may require repair. Taking on a foster horse may not be a wise idea—consider volunteering instead.
b. You understand how costly it can be to house a horse, but it would be wise to choose a foster situation carefully. Make sure you discuss financial arrangements with the rescue group and be clear about your limitations. It might be wise to avoid taking on a horse that requires significant medical care.
c. If you’re willing and able to take on all of the costs associated with caring for a foster horse, you’ll not only help that horse but will spare resources that might help others. Finances won’t limit your fostering opportunities.
Question 3: How skilled are you at handling horses?
a. I’ve never had a horse, but I rode a couple of times as a kid. I love horses and really want to help.
b. I rode and showed horses as a kid and currently have two horses living at home that I handle all the time.
c. I have had horses my whole life, and spent four years working as an assistant in a veterinary practice where I handled everything from barely halter broke yearlings to mature stallions. I still ride every day.
If you answered:
a. With help and support you can probably provide a wonderful foster home for a horse, but don’t try to go it alone. Consider a sanctuary or hospice foster for an older horse that’s easy to handle.
b. You could be well equipped to handle a rehabilitation or support and rehome foster, but you’d be wise to avoid those with known behavioral or temperament problems if you have limited experience with difficult horses. It’s important to recognize that a horse that may seem easy to handle when he’s starving or sick can become much more difficult as his health improves.
c. Your experience could prove extremely valuable during the intake process or for rehabilitation. You would be well suited for any level of foster care.
Question 4: How skilled are you at riding and training?
a. I don’t ride.
b. I ride my horse every day, but he’s very well trained, and I take regular lessons.
c. I have several horses that I train and actively compete.
If you answered:
a. Depending on other criteria, you would be best suited to help with intake fosters or with sanctuary or hospice care where training and riding isn’t necessary.
b. If you enjoy riding and training but don’t have strong independent training skills, you could be very helpful for maintaining training during the support period when looking for a potential forever home.
c. Your skills would be extremely useful during the rehabilitation phase of fostering, where evaluating a horse’s previous training and/or establishing a training base is important for paving his way to an adoption path.
Question 5: How emotionally strong are you?
a. You love animals more than anything in the world, and every time one of your pets die, you’re so distraught you can hardly function.
b. You love animals and would do whatever it took to care for them. You hate to see suffering, but when difficult decisions are required, you have a very hard time making them.
c. You love animals and feel very strongly about protecting them from harm. If an animal is suffering, you’re capable of doing whatever it takes—even though it’s hard.
If you answered:
a. Foster care may not be for you. Many of these horses come from very sad situations, and the outcome isn’t always good.
Consider volunteering to protect your sensitive nature.
b. You should still consider foster care, but might want to avoid becoming involved with the intake or rehabilitation phase where difficult decisions may need to be made. You might also find hospice care difficult.
c. You would be an asset to any foster care program. Although it might be hard, your temperament would be well suited for any level of care.