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Horse rescues - real or not?

From: Ashley

Dear Jessica, I almost bought a horse a few months ago. He sounded like the perfect horse for me. I was going to adopt him from a horse rescue, which made me feel good, but my best friend has done some work with rescue dogs, and she said that this place wasn't any good. She said that any real rescue place had to be a registered non-profit, and this place isn't. Another thing, it sells horses instead of giving them away for adoption. My friend's rescue dog place charged an adoption fee, but it wasn't very much, just a couple of hundred dollars and they gave the dogs all their shots and spayed and neutered them, so the money was really just to pay for the dogs expenses. I said okay and I didn't buy the horse.

Then about a week ago I was out at another friend's barn to ride with her because she has an indoor arena, and her vet was there because one of her mares needed a shot. I told him how disappointed I was to find out that this wasn't a good rescue place, and he asked me where I heard that. I told him and he kind of "tore my friend a new one". He wasn't yelling but you could tell he was angry. He said that there were a lot of bogus rescue organizations out there but this one was a good organization. He said he wouldn't hesitate to get a horse there himself, and he knew the vet who worked there and they took good care of the horses. When I got home I called the rescue place and the horse I wanted wasn't there any more, somebody else had bought him. I was so sad! I'm still a little bit mad at my friend about telling me it wasn't a good place, but doesn't it make sense to you that a rescue place would have to be a charity, and also doesn't it make sense that a good rescue place wouldn't sell the horses if it's supposed to keep them forever or find them good homes?

I'm going to start looking again, and this time I will check that rescue place first to see if they have another horse I want. I still want to rescue a horse. But what about other rescue places, how can I tell if they are any good? I'm making a list of rescue places in our state, but most of them are too far for me to drive I've only been driving for a month. So how can I tell about them? People can say anything on the telephone. When I bought my first horse, he came from a horrible home. On the telephone they sounded really nice and talked about their farm and how great it was, and when my Mom drove me out to look at the horse the place was filthy and their fences were half falling down wood and the other half barbed wire. And there was no grass and hardly any water in the tank and the horses were all thin. We bought mine because I felt sorry for him. He turned out to be a sweet horse but when he got strong with good food he was too active for me so we sold him to a friend of my Dad whose daughter is into gaming. Anyway what I need to know is how can I tell if a horse rescue organization is for real? I tried searching online but there are too many of them and I don't know if you can really tell by how their websites are. My Dad says any idiot can have a website and they don't mean anything. Do you have a checklist or something like that I can use? How do YOU check out a place if it's too far for you to drive? I still want to rescue a horse!

Please answer this soon, I want to find a horse soon! Ashley

Hi Ashley! That's a tough question. Your friend was wrong about that particular rescue organization, but it IS important to investigate any rescue organization thoroughly, whether you're planning to adopt or buy a horse from them, or whether you're planning to donate a horse to them.

I suppose the way to check out an animal rescue organization is to use the same process you would use to check out any other organization. I'm going to give you a long, detailed, complicated answer here, because with all the animal rescue scams that have been reported lately, a lot of people are wondering how to evaluate a rescue organization. So plan to print this and discuss it with your parents, so that they can explain any unfamiliar terms. (If I do it here, this will be ten pages long.)

Here's what I do:

First, I verify that is IS a registered charity if it's claiming to be one. Not all rescues ARE registered charities, and that's not a problem in itself, but when one advertises itself as such and is NOT, the alarm bells should be going off everywhere. Plus, if it IS a registered charity, you can easily find out what its status is, whether it's in compliance with registration requirements, how much of its budget goes for programs, how much for advertising, how much for salaries. 501(c)3 status doesn't necessarily mean that a rescue organization really IS a rescue organization, or that it's any good. You can't decide just on the basis of whether or not it's a registered charity. Some are, some aren't. You need to know more.

Sometimes a good look at a pie chart is enough to turn you off - or on. ;-) If a rescue organization is making at least $25,000 per year - which is low-end survival budget if they're at all active and handle more than just a few horses! - they'll have to file a 990 and IIRC they'll automatically be listed on the guidestar website: This happens on an individual scale, too. For example, consider the guy who looks for ads posted by people who just want to get rid of their horses. Those are the ones that read "free to good home", "very sweet, gentle, can't be ridden", "needs special shoes", "would make good companion horse", etc. He shows up in his truck, pulling an old trailer. He is often accompanied by a young child. He charms the horse's owner, spins a tale that matches the horse-owner's wishes (these guys have a good line of patter and are usually excellent at cold readings), and takes the horse away "to a beautiful green field" or "to be my old horse's new best friend" or simply because "My little boy here is just crazy about this horse." Down the road a few miles, or when they get to the auction, the sale barn, or the feedlot where horses will collect until there are enough of them to warrant a trip to the auction, the child is given his $5 or $10, and they turn the truck around and go look the next horse-owner whose only desire is to get rid of an inconvenient horse.

So, what do you do if you want to be CERTAIN of what goes on at the rescue organization's facility - or even certain that they HAVE a facility? It depends on whether you're able to visit and see for yourself.

If you live within an easy driving distance, go and see the place. Look at the fences, the pastures, the stalls, the hay, the feed, the water, the medicine cabinet, and look at the horses. Talk to the people who are doing chores - there are always chores to be done, and someone will be doing them - and find out how much they know about what they are doing. Look at the horses. Watch them interact with the horses. Talk to the volunteers or to the staff member(s) on duty - they should know all the horses by name and by sight. If there are so many horses that nobody really knows which is which or even how many horses are on the place, that's a very, very bad sign. Above all, LOOK AT THE HORSES. If they're filthy, thin, and terrified of humans, they had better be horses that were brought in as a group about an hour ago. If they were starved and mistreated, but have been at the rescue facility for more than a few days, they may still be thin and timid, even ill, but they shouldn't be filthy. If you see cheerful, solid, shiny horses that have been there for years, cheerful, solid, shiny horses that have been there for months, horses that look too thin, with dull coats, but are much better-looking than the pictures taken when they were first rescued, and a few tragic, frightened, filthy horses that have just arrived, then all is probably well. Responsible rescue organizations WILL be able to show you photographs and discuss each horse's background and situation, because, because they will carefully document the before-during-and-after state of each horse. And they'll have files. LOTS of files. They should have files on every horse that has ever been through their hands - case histories, photographs, videos, medical information, court records (sometimes), adopter information and adopter facility information, and the comments of the trained investigators who did follow-up checks on the horses after they'd been adopted.

If you're too far away to visit and see for yourself:

You can ask a knowledgeable friend in the area to visit and report back to you. Or you can ask your vet if s/he knows anyone in that area, or if s/he knows of the rescue organization itself, is familiar with the people who run it, and has seen its facility. Vets are great sources of information - if your friend had asked her vet before talking to you about that rescue organization, she wouldn't have said what she did, because she would have had more accurate information - and the horse you wanted might be in your pasture right now. Vets know each other, see one another at conferences, correspond with each other, and exchange information all the time. If a rescue organization has a sterling reputation (or a terrible one), your vet is likely to know - or at least, to be able to find out. If you know the name of the vet who works with that rescue organization, you can call that vet and ask questions. You can also call OTHER vets in that area and ask questions. Farriers network with one another in a similar way. They're very observant, and they travel a lot, so don't discount your farrier as a possible source of information. If there's a veterinary teaching hospital anywhere near the rescue facility, you can probably find someone there who knows about the rescue organization. Ask! "Oh yes, they do a good job, we work with them a lot" is a good answer. "Who? Never heard of them, are you sure they're around here?" is not a good answer.

Not all answers are going to be as clear as the two above, so you'll need to learn to read - and listen - between the lines. If a vet you trust says "This is a good organization", that's perfectly clear. If, however, he doesn't think it's a good organization, he may hesitate to say that in so many words. You'll have to listen carefully. "You might want to look elsewhere for a horse," "You might want to talk to 'so-and-so' about that," and "I'm not sure that would be such a great idea" are words that translate to "I don't think this is a good idea."

Your Dad is right about websites - any idiot can have one. Like newsletters, websites can be very useful ways of providing information about an organization, but they can also be deceptive. Websites and newsletters are an organization's "public face", so they usually try to make that face as attractive as possible. Although a badly-designed newsletter or website with blurry photos and incoherent, poorly-written, or overly sentimental text is certainly cause for concern - after all, how serious can they be if THIS is their idea of "putting their best foot forward?", a really good, well-designed website or newsletter isn't necessarily a guarantee of a quality organization. When you're looking at a website, look for the same things that would matter in a newsletter. You want a mission statement, a vision statment, and a plan - and a record of what they've done in the past. You want to know whether there are credible people associated with them. All of this should be on their website. As with the newsletters, look for facts, figures, and names - information that can be verified. Read through the text, find the genuine information, and then CHECK ON THAT INFORMATION.

Now, as to the rest of your question:

The fact that a rescue organization sells horses - or charges an "adoption fee" - doesn't necessarily mean that it's a bad organization or that the rescues and adoptions aren't real. ALL kinds of horses are abandoned, neglected, abused, and end up being taken by rescue organization ... other horses are directly donated to rescue organizations. One or two valuable, attractive animals that are sound and trained or even trainable, especially if they are of a popular breed, size, and colour, can be sold to an approved home ("approved" is essential) for enough money to pay for the hay and bedding and medical care needed by some of the less desirable, less adoptable horses. Since most rescue facilities don't have unlimited stable space, pasture acreage, and staff, it's important to prioritize, and bring in and care for the horses than are most in need. Horse that have been rehabilitated need to go to new homes, thus making space and help available to other, mnore needy horses. When valuable horses are donated, or when horses become much more valuable after their recovery or rehabilitation, they need to move on, as well. In addition to making room for other horses, these horses can help generate always-needed income for the facility.

Reputable rescue organizations will take great care to ensure that the horses in their care, including these income-producing horses, all get good homes. The organization with which I work, the Hooved Animal Rescue and Protection Society (HARPS), has a rule that when they get such horsehorses suitable for sale are made available, they will go to the highest bidder OFFERING THE BEST HOME. Often, this means that the horse goes NOT to the highest bidder, but to someone else who seems likely to be a better owner. On one occasion, I saw a kind, riding-sound, trained and experienced "schoolmaster" horse handed over to a new owner who was actually the lowest bidder! The rescue organization could have made twice as much money by selling him to the highest bidder, but this woman was in a position to give the horse the best home, and THAT was the top priority.

There's another good reason for adoption fees... remember the phony "rescue" that involves taking horses and then turning around and selling them to anyone who will buy, including the killers? Well, that works both ways. There are individuals who think it's very clever to offer to "adopt" horses that they have no intention of keeping and every intention of selling at auction. This is why I always advise people who are selling their horses to ask AT LEAST $50 or $100 OVER the horse's current value based on the price of horsemeat... and it's one of the reasons why many rescue organizations have such stringent requirements of their adopters, and why they often either sell the horses or charge an "adoption fee". These practices don't guarantee that the horses will get perfect new "forever" homes and perfect new "forever" owners - NOTHING can ever guarantee that - but it does serve as a very effective deterrent to the "adopt, take to auction, collect the money, do it again" crowd.

So do your "homework" and find out everything you possibly can about any rescue organization that you plan to become involved with in any way, whether you're donating a horse, asking to have an investigator look at a horse that you believe to be at risk, or adopting (leasing, buying) a horse.

This is also a good practice to follow when you're approached by charities in search of financial donations. Find out whether the charity is legitimate and how your money will be used, THEN give.

Best of luck in your hunt for a nice horse to rescue. If you're patient and work with the people at a good rescue organization, you'll eventually find that horse.


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