I recently sold a horse I bred and love. He's 10 years old, sound, sweet, and a very fancy 3-foot hunter. He went to a great barn where he'll have the best of care, and will probably have several more riders before he's ready to retire. His new owner feels lucky to have found him; a happy transaction all around, the kind we all hope for when letting go of or acquiring a horse. But still, I worry. What will happen when he's old, and can't be ridden any longer? What if he passes through many hands and ends up abandoned or abused? In my worst nightmares, I see him on a slaughter truck to Mexico. Since I no longer own him, his ultimate fate is out of my hands.
Or is it? Is there nothing I can do to keep him from falling into the ranks of the unwanted? (See page 2, "Unwanted: 170,000+.") And what about the horses you may have raised and sold, or passed to another owner after your initial purchase of the animal?
I'm going to take you through the stages of a horse's life, beginning from the day he's born until he's ready to retire. I'll help you gain insight into that horse's life at each stage, and what can happen to threaten his status. Most important, I'll outline some options available for horses when things don't quite go as planned, and will help you devise strategies to lessen the chances that your own beloved horse will experience the fate of the unwanted.
Life Stage 1: Sweet Beginnings
A foal is usually welcomed into the world with excitement by an owner who's anxiously awaited his or her birth after careful stallion selection, diligent mare care, and months of anticipation. From the moment that foal stands on his wobbly legs to nurse for the first time, his future is already planned-perhaps with visions of futurities and championships. The cherished foal is haltered, handled, and loved. By the time he's 2, his training has begun in earnest. He's on his way, unless he breaks.
When that young horse gets his leg caught under a gate and experiences a career-threatening injury, his future doesn't look so bright anymore. Perhaps the most devastating and difficult of all the times when a horse is at risk for becoming "unwanted" is before he's really even begun. Not only will he not meet his potential, he'll also need to be supported for many years, at significant cost. At this stage in the horse's life, chances are there's one person who feels she owes that horse a future, the one who brought him into the world.
As a breeder, keeping track and taking responsibility for the future of the horses you produce is one of the most important ways to protect them. Three Chimneys Farm, one of the top Thoroughbred breeding farms in Midway, Kentucky, is a shining example of how well this can work. Three Chimneys' motto is "we take care of our own," and that's exactly what the farm does. Its policy is to protect any horse bred or owned by the farm that's discovered to be "at risk" for any reason. The farm will either take the horse directly or assist a Thoroughbred after-care program with its care.
If you're a breeder, a strategy of your own is something to consider. Track the progress of the foals you produce. Consider adding a retirement and/or a buy-back option to your sales contract. These clauses require that you be notified when the horse is sold, and will allow you to follow that horse's progress throughout his career. When he's ready for retirement, you'll know where he is, and be able to protect him from the fate of an unwanted horse.
Life Stage 2: Meeting His Potential
He was bred to be a champion, and that's just what he's become. He's sound, talented, and has so much heart, he can't be stopped. He's at competitions week after week, doing his job, and doing it well. This is the time when careers are made, and it's a lucky person who has this ride.
Chances are this horse will be sold at least once, or even several times while he's at the top of his game. Chances are even greater that one (or even more) of those riders will feel a debt of gratitude to that horse. In fact, if you're the rider who campaigned that horse for most of his best years, you probably owe that horse a secure future, even after he leaves your care.
The American Quarter Horse Association agrees, and its Full Circle program is designed to help you keep track of that special horse. The program is simple. Members who own an AQHA-registered horse can enroll the horse in Full Circle. When that horse becomes unwanted or is ready to retire, you'll be contacted and have the option of taking the horse or contributing to its care.
Thousands of horses are registered in the AQHA Full Circle program, and its popularity stimulated the American Morgan Horse Association to initiate a similar program. Other registries, including the United States Trotting Association, have similar programs, and they're likely to become more common as their popularity increases. Check with your own breed registry to see whether a retirement option is in place, and if so, be sure to register that "once in a lifetime" horse to help secure his future.
If your horse isn't from a registry that offers a tracking program, consider microchipping as an option to help identify him once he's left you. These tiny chips are easily inserted into the top of your horse's neck, and permanently identify him through an imbedded number that can be detected with a quick swipe of a microchip reader. Most humane societies and auction facilities routinely use a microchip reader to verify the identity of horses that fall into their hands, so if your beloved horse ends up abandoned or abused, his chip may help him find his way home to you.
Life Stage 3: Stepping Down
He was one of the great ones, but lately he doesn't seem quite up to the job. He's getting older, and a few minor injuries have caused some intermittent lameness issues that are making it hard for him to keep up. He's already stepped down from his position as trainer's top horse to a lighter work schedule with an amateur in the barn who's trying to learn the ropes. Now even that's getting hard.
This is the time of life where a horse is likely to make a career change. He'll step out of the spotlight of high-level competition, and into a less demanding job such as school horse, trail companion, or even in a therapeutic riding program. This transition may happen several times during a horse's life as he moves into less and less demanding jobs.
For some breeds and disciplines, the end of one competitive career means the beginning of another, the classic example being the Thoroughbred racehorse that steps down from racing to become a hunter or a three-day event horse. The Thoroughbred industry is known for having a number of programs designed specifically to place retired racing Thoroughbreds into alternative careers. Perhaps the best example is CANTER (Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses), a Web-based non-profit that's helped to rehabilitate and place thousands of horses into new careers after leaving the racetrack. In 2012, this organization helped transition over 1,000 horses to new homes at the end of their racing careers.
Whatever his job, when your horse is ready to step down, make sure to explore all of the options that might be available. He'll be less vulnerable in some situations than in others. Consider leasing him rather than selling, and if you do sell, remember that retirement/buy-back clause in your contract.
Life Stage 4: Twilight
He's too lame to ride, even for light duty. He requires special feed because he can't chew anymore, and it's hard to keep weight on his bony frame. If this horse is lucky, his "end of career" owner will feel a debt of gratitude, and will care for him until the end of his days. If not, he's the most at risk for helping to fill the "unwanted bucket." This is the horse that can only hope his breeder has followed his career and is prepared to welcome him home to live out his days, or that one or more of his former riders has enrolled him in a Full Circle program and is willing to support him in his golden years.
When it really comes down to it, the big question at the end of the day is "who owes that horse a life, and a humane end to life when the time comes?" The person who bred it? The one who rode it to multiple championships during years of campaigning? Or the person who owns the horse at the time when he becomes no longer "useful"? One of those people has to love that horse enough to provide for his future and its inevitable conclusion.
Do I love that horse I bred and sold "enough"? You bet I do. The retirement option is written into my sale's contract, and when the time comes, he'll be able to come home.
An enormous amount of attention has been paid to the unwanted-horse dilemma in recent years. But how does a horse become "unwanted" in the first place? The American Association of Equine Practitioners has defined an unwanted horse as "one that is no longer wanted by its current owner because it is old; injured; sick; unmanageable; fails to meet the owner's expectations in terms of performance, color, or breeding; or is a horse the owner can no longer afford to maintain." According to recent estimates, the U.S. unwanted-horse population exceeds 170,000. Rescue facilities and foster homes are overflowing as they try to save these horses from abandonment, starvation, or an inhumane death. Unless, of course, someone loves him enough to provide for his care even if he's old and sick. And that's the key. Someone has to love him enough
A wise man once told me that "the best way to empty a bucket is to stop filling it." And think about it. At some point in his life, every horse lucky enough to survive into his golden years is at risk of being added to the "bucket" of unwanted horses. How do we stop filling the bucket? Responsible breeding is an obvious first step, and programs such as the Unwanted Horse Coalition's "Operation Gelding" are doing a lot to help prevent unwanted foals from being born in the first place. This program provides funding for clinics that encourage stallion owners to castrate their horses unless they're intended for the breeding shed?thus helping to avoid accidental breedings that will produce unwanted foals. The UHC will help individuals or organizations set up castration clinics, and provide $50 per horse (up to $1,000 maximum) to help defray costs. Find more information about the clinics at unwantedhorsecoalition.org.
I visited a farm to vaccinate a horse last month and fell in love. Bob is a 16.3-hand grey Thoroughbred gelding with big brown eyes. Owners Vicki and Pete purchased Bob off Craigslist to be a family pet after they lost their gelding to a horrible injury. They just wanted a kind, quiet horse that Vicki could ride on the trails or around the farm, and they have a young friend who uses him in 4-H. Bob was a perfect angel for his appointment, and when Vicki told me his story, I realized that Bob was no ordinary horse.
Registered as Harolds Beginning with the Jockey Club, Bob started his life destined for the racetrack. He spent his early years as a quality racehorse at Santa Anita in California where he started in 35 races and earned $22,000. When he bowed a tendon, he was retired from racing and turned out to pasture before someone discovered him and started him back to work in dressage and jumping. After several successful years in his new disciplines, Bob reinjured his tendon jumping over a log. The vet recommended an easier job, and that's how he landed on Craigslist.
Bob was one of the lucky ones. He ended up with people who love him dearly and are committed to caring for him for the rest of his days. Will your horse enjoy the same fortune?
Ready to find the best family for your horse? Go to Equine.com, the premier classifieds site of the Equine Network, and place your ad.