When it comes to Thoroughbred retirement, Patti Shirley plays for keeps. As the founder of the non-profit Tucson, Ariz.-based Equine Encore Foundation, she is often the beacon of light trainers or owners are searching for when they have a horse in need of retirement. As a former racehorse trainer, she knows how heavily it can weigh on a horse's connections when that horse is one of your own. You care about the horse and want to insure its future is secure, but you don't have the resources, whether they be monetary, facilities, flexibility of schedule or otherwise, to care for them yourself for the rest of their life.
“I was training horses at Sunland Park in New Mexico in 2005 and was realizing more every day how much at risk Thoroughbreds were once they couldn't perform at the track,” said Patti. “I had just won a stakes race and was being interviewed in the winner's circle. TVG was televising the race and the interview, and I announced the birth of Equine Encore Foundation right there from the winner's circle. Within the hour I had my first horse, a Quarter Horse with a badly bowed tendon.”
The 120-acre horse farm she purchased with her late husband was once home to the Thoroughbred broodmares and racing stock they owned together. Today it serves as home for 73 Thoroughbred ex-racehorses, two Quarter Horse ex-racehorses and a lone mustang who wandered onto the property and became part of the family.
Many of the residents at Equine Encore Foundation are “lifers,” meaning they have physical issues that prevent them from becoming riding prospects.
“We usually get horses when they're 8-years-old or older and they are not sound enough to pursue another career, though we adopted out two horses in the past two years as pleasure horses,” said Patti.
The service Patti provides to owners and trainers at Arizona and New Mexico racetracks goes much deeper than simply taking a horse off of their feed bill. She has watched time and time again the sea of emotions that swell behind a trainer's eyes when she comes to their barn to pick up their horse.
Often the horse has been with the trainer for years, receiving hands-on care and personal attention from them day-in and day-out. Saying goodbye can be difficult, as the comfort of knowing they are doing the right thing on behalf of their horse only goes so far as they give that final pat on the head.
“In the past, there was just no safe haven for a gelding who had earned lots of money, but was not sound enough for another career. Now there are several facilities such as Equine Encore and larger organizations like the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and CARMA which help to fund them,” said Patti.
Equine Encore Foundation's funding comes primarily from private donations, grants and fundraisers.
“Our biggest annual grant providers are TAA and CARMA, and the ASPCA has also provided sizeable grants, but they don't offer them every year,” she said. “A Phoenix Thoroughbred breeder who passed away recently made Equine Encore Foundation one of her beneficiaries. We received $85,000 from her estate.”
Money raised goes toward daily operating expense, as well as the unique veterinary needs of her herd.
Patti explained that many of the horses who have passed through her care since she opened her doors have injuries that could possibly have been prevented simply by giving the horse a break or retiring them sooner.
“These horses are pampered like any fine athlete. The problems that face them as they age are the same that face all athletes, animals or humans. Giving them time off is a wise investment,” said Patti. “The most important thing [owners and trainers] can do is to not squeeze the lemon dry.”
Later this month Patti and her Equine Encore Foundation will be honored with an industry service award at the Arizona Thoroughbred Owners' and Breeders' Association dinner for the positive impact their work has had in the state's Thoroughbred industry.
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others. While she currently has no plans to build an arc, she is the go-to food source for two dogs, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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