Thursday, December 1, 2011
Earlier this month, Traveller’s Rest Equine Elders Sanctuary was invited to present a talk on Equine Elder care at the Equine Extravaganza in Doswell, VA. The talk lasted about forty minutes and the floor was opened to questions. The room became silent. Either I had told the listeners everything they needed to know about keeping weight on senior horses, or I had baffled them into a state of confused speechlessness.
Finally, in the last row of chairs, a hand rose. What a relief. Unfortunately, the question did not concern the topic of geriatric horse health.
“Do you take donated horses?”
I repeated the question into the microphone. “Do we take donated horses?”
I thought: “I can answer this question two ways.” First, I can explain why we don’t consider TREES residents to be donations. Or, probably more to the point of this specific instance, I can explain how we decide which horses we accept into the sanctuary. I chose to start with the latter.
The decision process is really quite straightforward. First, and perhaps most importantly, the sanctuary must have the room and resources to take in a new horse without jeopardizing the care of the current herd. Since the farm continually operates at maximum capacity, we often have a waiting list of sorts. There are always more Elders in need than there are places for them to go for care. Because we can’t take them all, we have a basic triage system. Horses who will immediately suffer hunger, untreated illness or injuries, or other life-threatening issues if left where they are at the time, are given first priority. Underlying circumstances may include outright neglect, abandonment, or owners’ physical or financial hardships.
The bottom line is that, when we accept a horse surrendered directly to TREES by his owner, it is because the owner is no longer able to provide even basic care, usually through no fault of his own.
Following this explanation, the lady in the back row began to explain that she had recently rescued a horse at New Holland (a large auction barn in Pennsylvania) but that the horse turned out to be several years older than she believed at the time of purchase.
I repeated the basics of our acceptance policy – horses not receiving even basic care, i.e. food, basic veterinary care, etc – and followed up with “Are you able to provide basic care?”
“I’d rather not.”
Silence. Her “I’d rather not” hung in the room like a noose.
Thousands of people who desperately want to be able to provide basic care to their horses, literally, cannot. You can see it on local bulletin boards, classified sites and on internet forums. They’ve been laid off. They’ve taken lower paying or part time jobs to put food on the table but don’t have much left over for hay. Some are working two or three part time jobs, which almost makes ends meet, but doesn’t leave time for the actual labor involved in horse care. Other people are losing farms, losing homes, moving into smaller, more affordable accommodations that don’t include space for horses (and if they can’t afford a mortgage payment, they certainly can’t afford to pay boarding facilities to care for their horses.) Even so, I am regularly amazed at what some people are willing to sacrifice to buy a bag of feed or a bale of hay.
Now, at the Equine Extravaganza, I stood looking at a woman who apparently could afford to care for her “rescued” horse, but didn’t want to. I took a deep breath and, for the third time, explained that those horses whose owners cannot provide basic care take priority and that there are always – always – more waiting in the wings. It will be a long, long time before TREES will be able take in a horse whose owner is able to provide feed and vet care but would “rather not.”