Combating the problem of the unwanted horse in the United States often feels akin to emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. As anyone in the rescue world will tell you, there are a variety of factors influencing a horse's change in status from 'employed' to 'in need.' Tawnee Preisner, founder and president of Horse Plus Humane Society, discovered this several years ago and decided the rescue world needed to offer a variety of solutions to owners as a result.
Preisner grew up riding horses and ponies in her backyard, where she lived next door to a horse trader/sometimes-kill buyer. She knew how cheaply the man bought his horses and thought, 'I can do that.' So she saved her pennies, went to the local auction, and bought a Quarter Horse mare and put some miles on her. Then, Preisner got to thinking about what a difference those few skills made in the horse's economic value and therefore, her future.
“I realized she could have shipped to slaughter,” Preisner said. “Because she wasn't trained, nobody wanted her. Now, because she was trained, she was a really nice horse and I was able to rehome her.”
Preisner sold the mare to a good home and took the profit she made back to the auction, buying horses, training them and selling them to riding homes. She launched NorCal Equine Rescue as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2005 to expand her rescue/rehoming efforts. NorCal's work grew from Northern California to the whole country and became Horse Plus Humane Society.
Horse Plus Humane Society goes beyond the standard adopt-a-horse program. The group maintains an open-door shelter at its base in Tennessee, where horses may be dropped off with no questions asked and placed up for adoption. Some people bring their horses to Preisner because they can't afford them anymore. Others lack the resources or knowledge to confront a medical or training issue.
The organization also works to intercept horses at auctions or before they end up at sales frequented by kill buyers. Preisner said in the early days of Horse Plus Humane, she worked with kill pens offering horses for bail; now, she believes it's not the most effective use of donated funds.
“At first it was a good, honest thing that the feedlot was doing. Then they started hiking their prices more, realizing people had bleeding hearts. They started being dishonest about horses,” said Preisner, recalling one mare she received who was supposed to be healthy but turned out to be blind. (Blind horses can't legally be shipped to slaughter.)
“We don't try to get involved in that because the kill buyers ask so much for some of the horses, and you could go to the auction and buy three horses [for the kill buyer price]. We don't want to enrich the kill buyers, so we'll try to get horses before then.”
Additionally, Horse Plus Humane recently concluded a year-long series of 13 open-door horse surrender events around the country. Owners bring in horses they can no longer care for, and a team of veterinarians and professional trainers assess each horse for health and skill set. The team uses the University of California-Davis guidelines for assessing unwanted horses; those judged to be seriously ill or unsafe for adoption are euthanized at low cost, and others are sent to recognized, nonprofit local rescues with reports on what they can do and what they need to become ready for adoption. The rescues benefit because they don't have to pay for medical or training assessments themselves and can often get horses into new homes more quickly as a result.
As far as Preisner knows, her organization is the only one to host this type of event on this scale and the only to have a completely open-door policy. That's because it comes with some difficulties.
“A lot of organizations are scared to open up,” she said. “They think they're going to get bombarded with horses. But you can be an open shelter and ask for a surrender fee to cover the cost of that horse coming in. A lot of organizations are afraid if they bring a horse into their program, they don't want to euthanize the horse or get labeled as doing that, so they'll turn horses away that may need euthanasia, and then those horses end up at auction and ship to slaughter. It's a vicious circle that's going to continue until organizations wake up.”
Horse Plus offered an open-door surrender event in Kentucky earlier this year, where Preisner said 21 horses were surrendered. Veterinarians deemed nine of them in need of euthanasia based on serious medical issues with poor prognoses, which is a pretty standard proportion.
Some owners resist euthanizing old or sick horses due to cost, or limited options in disposing the horse's body afterward. For others, it's an emotional choice.
“They just keep putting it off because they don't want to make that decision,” Preisner said. “Sometimes they're just not emotionally equipped to handle it. Some people are very adamant that they think the horse does need euthanasia. It really comes down to where the person is at emotionally.”
The events weren't cheap — veterinarians, trainers, and technicians had to be compensated for time and supplies, and Horse Plus Humane sent each adoptable horse to a local rescue with a $150 stipend to help cover initial expenses. The surrender events have been funded by a grant from The Right Horse Initiative, though that grant has now reached an end.
Preisner said she saw a pattern as the surrender events moved from state to state: the horses who came in usually reflected the biggest management trends in their geographic area.
“In Colorado everyone has to feed their horses because there's not a lot of pasture, and they grow a lot of good quality feed, so we saw a lot of obese and founder cases,” she said. “In California, we see a lot of horses that are really skinny being surrendered. Price of hay is really high out there so I'm sure that has a role to play. We did an event in Missouri and there were a lot of mustangs being surrendered. There's a mustang adoption center in Missouri, and a lot of people don't handle or train them.
“In Kentucky, there are a lot of feral horses that get up in the mountains there. One guy brought in three mature stallions. I guess he had been trying to find homes for them for five years. He could have taken them to an auction and that would have been the end of it, but he wanted to make a good choice for them, so he brought them. We were able to find local adoption agencies there to take those horses. One of them is in the Appalachian Trainer Challenge.”
Horse Plus Humane has launched a new initiative to stand in the gap for at-risk horses: its We Buy Horses program will use donated funds to purchase horses for sale on social media whose listing prices are low enough they may attract kill buyers or end up in the slaughter pipeline. Preisner anticipated the project would launch this summer.
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