“Please help me…I can’t keep my horse any more!”
Words we hear all too often. The past several years have been hard for many horse owners, with more and more people facing economic stress, job loss, illness, divorce, or foreclosure. In dire life-changing situations like these, the expense of horse keeping is often the first place people have to cut back. Many of these horse owners will turn to a rescue organization like SAFE for help, not understanding that our mission is to help horses facing life or death situations caused by neglect or abuse.
And the truth is that no matter how much we’d like to be able to help everyone, we are limited in the number of horses we can care for at any given time. We do take in owner surrendered horses for people in dire situations when we have the space available. For those we can’t help, we have a lot of suggestions that might help you find a solution on your own.
The important thing is not to wait until the last minute to try to rehome your horse! Making a responsible choice for your horse’s future takes time and effort, and the last thing you want to do is make a hasty decision that puts your horse at risk.
Here are some suggestions to consider if you find you need to rehome your horse. Keep in mind that these are just suggestions and that not every one of these ideas is going to be the right one for your situation. Our goal here is to propose some options that you might not have considered for your particular horse.
Suggestion 1: Keep your horse — by reducing your expenses
Before you rehome your horse, are you absolutely sure you can’t find a way to keep him? Yes, horses are expensive, but there are ways to reduce your costs while still providing adequate care. Here are a few cost-cutting ideas. Please be aware that these ideas are not right for every horse or every situation!
- Can you save money on feed and supplies? SAFE does not condone underfeeding any horse, but it may be possible to reduce your feed costs by cutting down on wasted feed and getting better deals on hay and grain. For example, can you and your friends pool resources and buy hay, grain, or shavings in bulk? If your horse is an easy keeper, consider buying less expensive local hay rather than imported hay from places like Eastern Washington. Repair tack and blankets rather than replacing them, and shop tack sales to find used items rather than new. Do you have any tack or other items you can sell to raise money? If you’re facing the possibility of losing your horse, you may have to sacrifice your saddle or trailer to prevent that.
- Can you find less expensive boarding options? In general, self care board, co-op board, or pasture board are less expensive than full care board. You may end up doing more of the work yourself, but the money you save might be worth it. There may be private barns in your area with empty stalls whose owners are willing to offer low cost board. Check out the Farm and Garden section of Craigslist.com for boarding opportunities. And don’t forget the power of networking! Let your friends know you’re looking for less expensive board; they may know someone who can help you!
Suggestion 2: Invest in your horse’s future with TRAINING.
Face facts: Untrained horses don’t sell easily. Neither do horses that have been languishing in a field for years on end. Before you try to sell or rehome your horse, can you scrape together the money for even a month or two of training? This is an investment that should pay off for your horse in the end. At SAFE we put a lot of time and effort into creating “solid equine citizens” — horses with basic ground manners and enough training to start them down the road to being riding horses. This gives them the best chance of not only finding a home, but finding one that is permanent. The same is true for your horse! Even if it’s the last thing you do for him, get him an education that will benefit him for the rest of his life.
- Identify your goals. Are you looking for someone who can start your horse from the ground up, or does your horse just need some refresher work? Are there specific issues or vices that need to be addressed by a professional? Make an honest assessment of your horse’s skills and identify areas that need work. If you can only invest in a month or two of training, you’ll need to be very clear with your trainer about what you hope to accomplish in that period of time.
- Find the right trainer for your horse. In the U.S., anyone can call themselves a professional horse trainer, regardless of their level of skill or experience. So if you don’t already have a good trainer available to you, you will need to do some legwork to find the right one — somebody who is a good fit for your horse, will help you accomplish your training goals, and fits your budget. The best trainers often rely on word-of-mouth to find new clients, so get ready to network and ask a lot of questions! If you’re not sure where to start, try visiting your local feed or tack store, or mingle with the spectators at horse shows. Once you’ve gathered the names of a few horse professionals to consider, set up appointments to meet them and discuss your goals. Take the time to watch them work with different horses. Remember it’s about finding someone that you can trust, not only to provide a service, but to treat your horse in the manner you expect your horse to be treated. Approach this decision with care! For more detailed information about choosing a trainer, Equine Legal Solutions has a great online article called Choosing the Right Trainer that can help your decision making process.
- Take part in the training process. Depending on the agreement you develop with your new trainer, you’ll likely be involved to some extent in your horse’s training. It’s important that you establish and maintain an open channel of communication with your trainer. It is also important to keep up to date on your horse’s progress by watching your horse being worked periodically. Also, let your trainer know you need to rehome or sell your horse. He or she may be able to help you by showing your horse to potential buyers or networking on your behalf.
Suggestion 3: Lease your horse
Leasing is a way to retain ownership of your horse while allowing you to take a break from expenses for a period of time. Leasing is essentially renting your horse to another rider, someone who wants to have a horse to ride and enjoy and can cover basic expenses but who might not be ready for the full financial obligations of horse ownership. You can arrange a full lease, in which the lessee has full custody of your horse and pays the full cost of its board, care, and veterinary expenses. There are also half-leases and quarter leases in which you share the costs of care with the lessee in exchange for a proportional amount of riding time. This can be a great way to reduce your monthly expenses while remaining in control of your horse’s care and well being, especially if you keep your horse at a boarding facility with an active trainer or a riding program. Your trainer may already know a rider who’d be interested in leasing or part leasing your horse in order to have a regular mount to ride in lessons and practice with. Things to consider when leasing your horse:
- Clearly define what you’re looking for in a lessee and what your horse has to offer. Make an honest assessment of your horse’s level of training and skills to decide what type of rider would be best suited for him. Is he beginner safe, or does he require a more advanced rider? Is he suitable for competition, and at what level? Do you want a rider who will be taking lessons and keeping your horse in training? Or it is more important that he just get regular attention and exercise?
- Spread the word that your horse is available for lease. If you’re lucky, you may find a great lessee by just networking with your trainer or your friends at the barn. You can also try posting signs at the local tack shop or feed store. Sites like Dreamhorse.com or Craigslist.com are also good places to post For Lease ads. If you want your horse to remain where at his current stable or stay within a certain area, be sure to specify that in your ad.
- Get everything in writing. Whether the lessee you chose is someone you know or someone you’ve just gotten to know, you will be wise to specify the terms of the lease in writing and have everyone sign the agreement. There are plenty of sample lease agreement available online if you search, but be sure the agreement you use covers everything necessary to prevent potential disputes or disagreements. Items to consider include the length of the lease, conditions for early termination, standards of care, stipulations on the use of the horse and how many days per week he can be used, insurance requirements, and terms for extending the lease. Be sure the lease clearly outlines who is responsible for scheduling and paying for farrier care, dental floats, shots, lameness exams, emergency vet care, and any other needs that may arise.
- Out of sight should not equal out of mind. Just because your horse is being leased does not mean that you are no longer responsible for his well being. You are still going to want to see him periodically to make sure that he is happy and healthy. Don’t let too much time pass between visits, and have a backup plan in place just in case the lease does not work out and you have to take him back without much notice.
Suggestion 4: Sell your horse…carefully!
If keeping or leasing your horse is simply not an option, you may be forced to sell. Once again, do not wait until the last minute to embark on this difficult task! Give yourself plenty of time to find potential homes, and check them carefully to make sure that they are safe. People often approach our rescue, us asking us to rehome their horses because “we know how to do it right.” But there is nothing that we do when checking out a potential adopter that you cannot do yourself. It just takes time, effort, and determination to do what is best for your horse, even if it’s difficult. If you have to sell your horse, please be careful and do your homework!
- Create an effective ad. We’ve all laughed at horrible sale ads on Craigslist, with their misspellings, poor grammar, and photographs of scruffy, unwashed horses. This is no way to sell a horse, and frankly, your horse deserves better than that. Craft your ad with care and include details that showcase your horse’s personality, including what makes him special and valuable. Be honest about your horse’s strengths and shortcomings; witholding information or misleading buyers is risky and could negatively impact your horse’s future. An honest presentation of your horse—both his good and not-so-good points—will help ensure your horse will be appreciated for who he is.
- Include the best photographs and videos you can get. Before you get out the camera, groom your horse until he gleams. Clean your tack too! A nice conformation shot is fairly easy to capture. Have a helper position your horse on flat ground against an uncluttered background. Make sure all four legs can be seen clearly. Under saddle photos can be a little more difficult to take but a good one will catch the attention of potential buyers as they scan through sale ads. Enlist the help of a friend with a digital SLR camera who can take lots of shots of your horse being ridden by the most skillful rider available. Choose photos in which your horse looks relaxed, happy, and extended in his gaits, with ears forward and tail flowing, if possible. Have your rider dress neatly and wear a helmet.
- Get your horse seen. There are many online sites for placing your sale ad. Dreamhorse.com is one of the best. It’s going to take a small investment of about $20 for an ad with a photo, but that is the best way to reach more potential buyers. You can place an ad on Dreamhorse for free without a photo, but it will be shuffled to the back of the list and won’t get as much attention as a photo ad will. In addition to online sales ads, create a full page flyer for your horse and post it where horse buyers will see it: at boarding stables, at tack shops and feed stores, and at horse show grounds. And don’t be afraid to network. The horse community is tightly knit and connected; chances are that someone you know knows someone who is looking for a horse to buy. A lot of good networking takes place through local groups of horse enthusiasts on social media sites like Facebook. Selling your horse is a process that can take quite a bit of time, so again, don’t wait until the last minute to get started.
- Make the most of the showing. Once you have an interested buyer, it’s time to show them your horse. Be prepared to demonstrate what your horse can do before handing over the lead rope or reins to a prospective owner to have a go. Once you’ve demonstrated your horse’s skills, you can then let the prospective buyer take over while you observe closely. Pay attention to how they handle your horse and how your horse reacts to them. If the interaction is going poorly, it’s well within your rights to inform the buyer that you don’t feel it’s a good fit and end the showing. And even if things are going perfectly between your horse and the buyer at the showing, don’t rush into making a decision on the spot at the first meeting! Multiple visits may be necessary before you can both be sure this is a good fit. Buying a horse is a very big commitment and should be weighed carefully by all parties. A buyer who shows up at the first visit with a trailer and a fist full of cash might someone who is willing to rush into a decision. And someone who is willing to rush into a decision to buy a horse might be inclined to resell the horse just as quick if the relationship doesn’t develop fast enough for them.
- Choose carefully. Before you sell your horse, the last and kindest thing you can do for him is to make certain that you’ve chosen a buyer who will care for him as well as you have. This is not a passive endeavor. At SAFE, we evaluate potential adopters by asking a lot of questions. You may not choose to have potential buyers fill out an application like we do, but you can certainly conduct an interview and find out everything you can about your buyer’s horse background, training philosophies, and future plans. In a way, you’re choosing your horse’s next best friend, so take the time to get a feel for what kind of person your potential buyer is. Consider asking for references — veterinarian, farrier, trainer, friends, and family who can vouch for their horse keeping skills — and pick up the phone and talk to them. While it is not part of a typical sales agreement, consider asking the buyer if you could visit their property and see for yourself that your horse will have, for example, adequate shelter and safe fencing. During your visit, be sure to take a good look at the other horses on the property —this will give you an opportunity to see how your potential buyer’s other horses are cared for and treated.
- Sell your horse with a contract. Once you have selected the perfect buyer, take one more step toward protecting your horse’s future well-being with a sales contract. The contract should include a provision for the Right of First Refusal, meaning that if your buyer has to resell your horse at any point, you will be contacted and given the option to either buy back or take back your horse. The Equine Rescue Network (ERN) has an excellent sample Transfer of Ownership form that could be a great starting place for your own Bill of Sale document.
Suggestion 5: Donate your horse
Donating your horse can be an option for horses who possess special skills but it’s not necessarily the easiest method for rehoming a horse. Nonetheless, here are a few possibilities to look into:
- Therapeutic Riding Programs/Animal Therapy Programs. Organizations that offer therapeutic riding programs for handicapped children or adults and animal-assisted therapy programs may be interested in accepting your horse as a donation. However, be aware that many of these programs will only accept certain types of horses – horses with specific temperaments and attributes that make them suitable for therapeutic riding or therapy work. For example, a therapeutic riding organization near SAFE accepts healthy, sound horses between the ages of 9 and 16 who have fully intact vision and can be ridden at all three gaits. A horse that meets the criteria will be tested and evaluated to determine if it is capable of working in their therapy program. Horses that are accepted into this particular therapy program are taken on a 30-day trial for further evaluation and training. As you can see, donating a horse, at least in this situation, is not a process that is going to happen overnight. Careful planning and preparation is essential.
- College Riding Programs. Colleges and universities with equestrian teams that compete in the IHSA typically have a string of school horses for their members to ride and compete on. Some of these programs will accept donated horses that are suitable for riding lessons and competition. If you have a school in your area with an equestrian team, you may want to research their requirements for donated competition horses.
- Riding Camps. Riding camps, run by community organizations, church groups, or private individuals, will sometimes accept donations of well-broke, kid-safe horses. When researching horse camps, be sure to find out two things before making a commitment: 1) How and where the horses are kept in the winter or off-season; and 2) what the camp does with horses when their riding career is over. Riding camp reputations vary, so visit the camp and talk to the people who manage it as well as those who attend it.
- Pros and Cons of Horse Donation. Giving your horse away can be very risky, so please do your homework before making a decision. Your horse could end up making a significant contribution in the life of a disabled child or a young athlete, and that could be a wonderful thing. Be absolutely certain that your horse will be well cared for, not only during his new career but afterwards as well.
Suggestion 6: Find a retirement home
“My troubles are all over, and I am at home; and often before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my friends under the apple trees.” ― Anna Sewell, Black Beauty
Black Beauty’s dream of a life of safety and comfort and friends can be a reality for your horse, but it is a choice that comes with a price tag. However if you’re able to continue to pay for your horse’s care over the long term, a retirement farm might be a great option. Many retirement boarding farms provide horses with shelter and turnout, often in small groups or herds. The monthly cost can be lower than typical boarding facilities since retirement farms often don’t have riding arenas or training programs to offer. As with all rehoming options, the key to success is careful research. We recommend you download and read “AAEP Care Guidelines for Equine Retirement Facilities” before you begin your search for a retirement facility. And once you select a retirement farm, you will still need to visit on a regular basis to ensure your horse is receiving proper care.
Suggestion 7: Euthanasia
Euthanasia can be very difficult to talk about, but a humane end of life may be the greatest gift you ever give your horse. As rescuers, we have seen horrible suffering caused by neglect, abuse, and starvation. If there are no better options, humane euthanasia is always kinder than allowing a horse to suffer. At SAFE, we are often approached by people with horses they can no longer keep for a variety of reasons. There are some circumstances in which we will almost always suggest the owner consider euthanasia:
- The Elderly Horse. There is nothing that makes us sadder than when we are asked to take in an elderly horse, no matter what the reason for the horse needing to be rehomed. It is especially hard when the horse has lived the majority of his life in one home with one owner. After a lifetime of loyal service and love, it just isn’t right to send your elderly horse away into the unknown. Do the right thing by giving your horse the dignified end he deserves. Do it in a place that is comforting and familiar, and surround him with love and reassurance as he goes. It’s going to be difficult and painful for you, but your horse deserves this one last kindness from you.
- The Unwanted Horse. It’s a harsh reality to face, but unwanted horses end up suffering. If you have a horse that can’t be handled safely, has no marketable skills, exhibits dangerous behavior, or is clearly unhappy in the company of other horses, the best choice may be to give your horse a humane and dignified end. If you have tried and failed to place your horse into a new home, or if it’s too late to provide your horse with training to increase his marketability, euthanasia may be the only option left to you. And it may feel like a failure, but try to remember that it’s a far better choice that letting your horse end up in a bad situation.
If euthanasia is the best option in your situation, you have a few choices to consider. There is chemical euthanasia, which is performed by a veterinarian who will administer a lethal dose of barbiturates or other drugs that stop the horse’s heart. There is also euthanization by gunshot, which can be very humane and painless if done correctly. Once the horse has been euthanized, it will be necessary to dispose of the body, and that can be expensive depending on the area in which you live. Horse owners in Western Washington needing assistance with euthanasia are encouraged to contact SAFE to learn more about our Serenity Fund.
There are other options for getting rid of an unwanted horse than the ones we have discussed above, but frankly, we don’t recommend these to people who truly care about the welfare of their animals. There is a lot of risk involved whenever you relinquish control and ownership of a horse, but there are some methods that are not only risky but can be downright dangerous for your pet:
Don’t Send Your Horse to Auction or a Feedlot. In Western Washington, sending a horse to auction means sending it to a livestock auction. It may be tempting to tell yourself that your horse will probably be purchased by someone nice, but you can’t control who gets your horse at the livestock auction. Kill buyers attend these auctions to bid on low cost horses. The horses that leave with those buyers are hauled straight to Canada to be slaughtered for their meat. Horse slaughter is not a humane method for disposing of an unwanted horse. Not only is the manner of death inhumane and often ineffective, what the horses experience on their way to the slaughter house is unacceptably cruel. Please don’t risk letting this happen to your horse. Selling a horse yourself is a lot more work, but it gives you a measure of control over your horse’s future.
Don’t Give Your Horse Away for Free on Craigslist. This is also a very risky way to rehome your horse. Someone can easily pick up your free horse and turn around and sell him to a kill buyer to make a quick buck. If you want to give your horse away to someone you trust, that’s okay. But please do your homework and make sure the new home meets your standards!
We are here to help!
If you foresee having to rehome your horse (or horses) in the near future and you need advice, we are here to help you. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and talk with someone who can provide additional suggestions or specific information about the options outlined above. It’s in our best interest to help…because the last thing we want is for your horse to end up in the rescue pipeline.