As the last-minute holiday shopping season gets into full swing, the organizers at the Kentucky Equine Humane Center in Nicholasville, Ky. are hoping that racing fans will be competing to put a halter under their Christmas trees.
The Center launched its first eBay auction of halters from well-known racehorses and breeding stock on Sunday, Dec. 8 and will continue through Dec. 15.
The auction features 11 halters from well-known retirees, including Cigar, Orb, Smart Strike, Serena's Song, and now-deceased stallion Storm Cat.
“We've had really nice participation from the local farms here and they've really been very generous with what they've donated,” said KyEHC executive director Karen Gustin.
Founded in 2007, the Kentucky Equine Humane Center serves all breeds but Gustin guesses that at any given time, half of the shelter's stalls are occupied by Thoroughbreds.
The Center also works with animal control officials to take on abuse or neglect cases, and has many horses surrendered by people who no longer have the budget or physical capability to care for them. Gustin also sees a regular influx of feral horses who have been dumped or turned loose by their owners.
As the equine economy continues its slow recovery, Gustin said her work has changed in some ways and remained very much the same in others.
She still gets occasional calls from the state's racetracks, where the Center maintains a surrender stalls for horses to be donated to the program, no questions asked. She still hears from Thoroughbred breeders who are culling stock or dispersing.
“I do get calls from trainers and owners whose horses have broken down at the track or who otherwise cannot race, but I don't get as many of those as you'd expect.
“What I've found with a lot of these people is that they'll call us, but they're also calling other people. They have a lot of irons in the fire trying to figure out the best option for the horse … I would say that's probably a little bit of a change.”
Not all of the trends of the last year have been positive, however.
“Most recently we've had a lot of challenging medical issues,” said Gustin.
She points to a 3-year-old Standardbred who she estimates degenerated from a healthy weight to a 1.5 out of 9 on the Henneke Body Condition Scale in eight months. The filly, named Jessica, had rocks impacted so far into her hooves that they had begun causing abscesses, one of which left an egg-sized hole when it erupted at the top of her hoof.
Jessica's case was extreme but not totally atypical of the kinds of situations Gustin sees on a regular basis. The Center is almost always at its 45- to 50-horse capacity with more waiting to come in–some in dire straits physically and others simply homeless.
Keeping the barn doors open for horses like Jessica is expensive, too. Despite its association with law enforcement, the KyEHC is not a state facility and receives no funding from the government. Instead, it gets by on volunteer hours, grants, and donations.
Gustin says the cause of the neglect cases she sees is probably some combination of heartlessness and ignorance.
“I think some people think all you have to do is throw a horse out on some grass here in Kentucky where the grass is really good, and they're just going to be fine. Well, that is not true,” said Gustin, who reports that the two biggest areas of neglect she deals with are teeth and worming. “They aren't in a situation where they have advice or resources to help them understand exactly what needs to be done.
“I do try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I guess it would be easy to get very cynical and feel poorly about people at this job, but I tell myself that a lot of people are just in a bad spot for whatever reason and it's not necessarily completely their fault.”
Gustin, who has been with the Center for a year and a half, said that she is able to soldier on through heartbreaking and expensive cases like Jessica's because of the happy endings.
After months of intensive treatment by the Center's farrier, together with podiatry veterinarians working pro-bono, Jessica is beginning to thrive. The Center's Facebook page, where fans followed the case intensively, is now full of photos of a shiny, healthy-looking (and sometimes bucking) Jessica enjoying turnout. Gustin anticipates the filly will be ready for under-saddle work in a few months, hopefully on her way to a new, better-prepared home.
“It's encouraging to see these horses who come in looking like death warmed over and they leave happy, healthy, and it's such a tangible thing to watch. So gratifying,” she said. “We get attached to them, but as they load on the trailer we turn to each other and say, ‘This is the point. They can't stay here.'”
Besides bidding in the halter auction, Gustin said there are other ways people can help the Center and its horses. The organization spends about $8,000 in round bales for horses outside and can use financial donations to help cover the cost. It is also seeking donations of square bales for easy feeding to horses who are spending time inside to recover from illness or injury.
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