Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Million-Dollar Question

Here's a topic that has been making the rounds in the horse blog community the past week or so:  How much are horseowners allowed to get away with before they are not allowed to have any horses?

This topic can be somewhat controversial, so I'm going to ask it from a rescue's point of view: Are there any issues in someone's situation that would make us not consider them for adoption? Yes, absolutely.  Every time we adopt out a horse, we expect it to be a forever home, so we do all we can to learn about the potential adopters and match them with the perfect horse.  And if we don't have that perfect horse, we are upfront about it and tell them that we don't have anyone at that time who will suit their needs.

Every adopter goes through an intense process of evaluation.  One step involves several visits to the farm to get to know the horse, and if the horse is broke to ride, it is ridden to see how well the rider's abilities complement the horse.

If a horse is deemed appropriate for an adopter and they seem to have a bond over the course of those visits, we will allow them to put a deposit on the horse, which puts them first in line to adopt that horse, pending further evaluation.

On our webpage, you will sometimes see "Adoption Pending" next to a horse's name.  This means that the potential adopters still need to have their references checked and/or have the facility the horse will be kept at inspected for the safety and comfort of the horse.  Most of the time, they will get through the reference stage with flying colors.  When we get to the inspection phase, we are absolutely meticulous in determining if a facility is good enough for our "furry children."  In almost every case there is room for improvement, and as long as the adopters are willing to work with us it usually works out.  It can be something as simple as getting a better trashcan to store feed in or replacing a few boards in their fenceline.

So where in the process do things tend to go wrong for potential adopters? Everywhere!  Fortunately, Christine is very good at filtering the good from the bad over the phone or via e-mail.

Phone/e-mail screening gives us a general idea of who that person is and what they are looking for.  If they are nonspecific in their needs, most of the time they are not ready for a horse.  If they want a companion for their own horse, and then mention their horse is a stallion and the horse they want is a mare, they are not ready for another horse until the stallion becomes a cute gelding.

Adopters meeting the horses is a no-brainer.  These visits not only give the adopter a chance to choose and bond with a horse, but they give us the opportunity to determine what the adopter is like.  For example, some adopters play up their riding abilities, and once they're on the horse, they don't have a clue what to do.  Heck, we've had people put saddles on backwards, girths around necks, completely dismantle bridles, the list goes on and on.  Seriously, you can't make this stuff up!  Fortunately, the horses tend to let us know when someone is "off" and won't work out.  If the horse doesn't like them, there's no way we're going to adopt them out to that home.

References are a crucial part in evaluating someone's readiness to adopt.  We contact friends, family, vets, employers, barn owners/managers, farriers, etc.  If someone's vet hasn't seen their current horses in several years, that may be a sign they have a form of husbandry that doesn't quite meet our standards, as there are vaccinations and routine veterinary procedures that all horses need at least once a year.  We talk to everyone we can as there is almost always someone who is going to spill the beans that not all is good at someone's farm.

For someone to make it to the inspection stage, it means that we are extremely confident in their ability to provide for the horse.  No one has exposed any skeletons in their proverbial closet, they have a good and honest air about them, the horse really likes them, and there are no signs of a fallout on the horizon.  But every once in a while someone's facilities are so deplorable that we wonder how we were fooled for so long.  How did they get through such a rigorous screening process?!?!  THEY DON'T SEE ANYTHING WRONG with how they keep their current horses, and the people who are around them ALSO see nothing wrong.  I'm talking about tiny paddocks crammed with not just their current horses, but also other livestock, all skinny and in two feet of mud, urine, and feces, no hay or clean water in sight, falling down barbed wire fences, the whole shebang.

We ALWAYS take the opportunity to tell people why we will not adopt horses out to them, and ways they can improve to be considered for adoption in the future.

But here's the thing: Everyone who wants to adopt from us believes they already would be a good home.  From the second they decide they want a horse (and not just from us), they believe they will provide a good home for that horse, no matter what their level (or lack) of experience is.  Some people take critiques of their horsemanship, facilities, whatever to heart and try very hard to make changes, while others see no problem with what they are doing and take great offense to our attempt at education.

So here's the million-dollar question: How do you educate people who believe they already know it all?

Fortunately, we are not obligated to adopt out to just anyone who wants one of our horses.  While we would have a fantastic turnover rate, we would just be putting horses into another situation from which they would need to be rescued again.  That's not fair to the horses in the least.  When we initially rescued the horses, it was with the promise to them that from that moment on, they would have a better life.

Adopters have to agree to a MASSIVE contract before they are allowed to take a horse home.  Obviously (or not so obviously to some), we have a strict no-breeding clause for all mares we adopt out (we do not adopt out intact males, everything is gelded before it leaves the farm- apparently this is not a practice observed by all rescues!). 

Even such an intense evaluation process and placement of a horse cannot weed out every single person who might not be a permanent home.  In fact, everyone starts out as a great owner and gives fantastic updates with tons of photos, but a change in their circumstances may inhibit their ability to properly care for their horses, such as divorce, job loss, medical problems, etc.  Every so often an adopter will just get into a rut and will not contact us for help until the horse is in dire straits.  Fortunately this doesn't happen often, and most of the time we can intervene before the horse is neglected.  In such a rough economy, horses are oftentimes the first luxury to go, and if someone is hesitant to have the horse taken away from them for another day or holds out hope some miracle will come along tomorrow, they may be willing to overlook another visible rib or the hip bones poking out.

So now that you've made it through yet another of my lengthy posts, we could really use your input!  While I'd like to say there are no right or wrong answers, we, as a rescue, have to draw the line somewhere to ensure our horses get into the best homes possible; there are just certain situations we would NEVER subject our horses to.

What conditions do you believe are totally unacceptable for being allowed a horse?

To what lengths would you go to improve your property to be allowed a horse? For example: If you have barbed wire fencing and we said it was unacceptable, would you replace it?  Or would you just go to another rescue that doesn't care?

Is it unreasonable to ask potential adopters to improve themselves (i.e. take lessons on how to handle a draft horse, or take lessons to make them a more competent rider) before being allowed a certain horse?  Should we expect ALL adopters to spend a specified amount of time with us learning how to handle their draft?  Or create a class/program/test they should go through?  Would this deter you from wanting to adopt from us?

And the really big question once again: How would you educate someone who sees nothing wrong with the way they keep their animals, and believes their method is right simply because nothing has gotten seriously injured or died (yet)?
 (Okay, that's a little different than what I asked previously, but that's the ideology that we meet on an increasing basis.)

Whew, some heady stuff.



  1. I'd have to start by saying, you can't fix stupid. If someone refuses to be educated, there's no point in beating them over the head with your thoughts. They're not going to listen.

    As for the rest, I see nothing wrong with any rescue having strict requirements, classes, programs, etc. I would personally be more inclined to use that rescue rather than less- some of the "rescues" I see have such low requirements for adoption (i.e., a pulse and a checkbook) that I don't believe they are in it for the animals at all, but rather that they are just brokering animals to turn a profit. I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all approach to educating/evaluating adopters either though... for instance, someone who's adopted from you before and has been a good home to that animal for years, while they would probably be more than willing to attend a class or lessons, it's time you could be spending on someone who needs it more.

    Unacceptable conditions: if there are not clean, safe, secure, spacious premises for the horse to be kept on, they should not be allowed a horse. I realize it's a vague answer, but anyone who's kept a horse can tell a safe and secure space from an unsafe and insecure space. If it's obvious that stalls don't get mucked for weeks and pails are never scrubbed and green murk is floating in all the water, it's a no.

    To what extent would I personally alter my property: If an educated horse-person showed me a situation on my property that needed fixing, I would be happy to fix it. I do think some rescues ask for too much. (Dog rescues that won't adopt to anyone who plans to ever crate the dog in it's entire life? Over the top.) But any reasonable request that would improve the safety of the property, I would be happy to oblige.

  2. Well I just recently posted that everyone has their own ways of dealing with their horses and some people insist their way is the only way. That being said I believe that there are exceptions to every rule. One example would be your rule for vaccinations, that is becoming a very controversial topic both in livestock and domestic pets, so if you have vets that agree they shouldn't have them are they wrong and your way the only right way?? I just believe every adoption should be handled individually and not by a set in stone standard.

  3. Any reasonable measure by the rescue to determine how the potential new owner treats and care for horse is acceptable. Determining the new owners riding and horsemanship abilities are key to a successful adoption. i dont see anything wrong with a rigorous screening process. And I certainly agree with making suggestions on improvements. First off because everyone always has room to improve, and second because how they take the critique tells you a lot about what kind of person they are. If they cant handle someone telling them to fix a fence or similar, will they listen to the vets suggestions?

    However I have seen some rescues that take it too far. There is one that wont allow you to adopt if you dont practice "natural horsemanship" and they also require you sign a thing that says you will let the horse remain barefoot and never shoe it EVER ... ?!?!? (thats a whole different can of beans as I believe To Shoe or Not To Shoe is based on an individuals needs)

    I personally would gratefully accept any suggestions to improve my property, and be thankful for pointing out a potentially dangerous situation for me. Also I would definitely attend a class or a few on how drafts differ from other breeds. I want to learn as much as I can about horses and especially how to keep them happy and healthy.

    PS: there is a rescue in MD that re-homes OTTBs, and they have an online book that explains how race horses are brought up and trained and treated on the track, also how they are retrained and why they do some of the seemingly crazy things they do. It is free for anyone to download and it gives lots of great info on how race horses differ from your regular riding horse. They wrote it to help educate the potential adopters on former race horses. I know you all are probably really busy and publishing a mini book on drafts and their care would be time consuming, but i think it could be worth it.