In her 21 years of horse rescue, Colleen Segarra, humane committee chair of the New York State Horse Council, has saved many horses, ponies and donkeys. She has helped investigate equine cruelty cases, including the horrific seizure in 2009 of 177 malnourished horses at a farm owned by a leading racehorse owner. But none of that can compare to the unknown future of equine rescues in the time of COVID-19.
“Across the board, rescues have had to cancel most public interactions, which included volunteer workers, adoption appointments, facility tours and fund raisers,” said Segarra, who has 12 horses, ponies and donkeys at her Equine Rescue Resource in Pine Bush, N.Y.
“Think about it. Each rescue has a finite number of stalls and pasture space. Most are running at capacity, and can only intake after adoptions occur. Adoption fees and donations are what keep these programs going. No adoptions means no new rescues can come in. No fundraisers engaging the public means loss of revenue. Funds are needed for day-to-day care, and oftentimes the horses that rescues are sheltering have special needs and require special diets, special care or medications.”
A sudden drop in funding, a disappearance of volunteers, and an increased need for services is straining resources just a few weeks into the COIVD-19 pandemic. As the pandemic stretches on, the more than 500 equine rescues in the nation — from Thoroughbred aftercare organizations to donkey sanctuaries — are trying to find ways to cope with the new reality, while always keeping the welfare of their animals at the forefront.
A few equine rescues are already closing, a few others could run out of feed and hay soon. One rescue in California had 43 requests to relinquish horses the first weekend in April. Some rescues with funds for a few months worry the pandemic and the economy could worsen, resources could be strained beyond capacity and more owners will begin abandoning horses. While national animal welfare groups and Thoroughbred organizations are helping in unprecedented ways, this is a crisis the general public knows little about.
“Many dog and cat shelters are nearly empty,” Cheryl Jacobson, deputy director of equine protection at the Humane Society of the United States, explained. “Equine rescues are in exactly the opposite position. For dog and cat and dog shelters there is an outpouring of support, and they are very visible. But equine rescues are not visible to the average person.”
For two weeks in early March, the HSUS Equine Protection Program, with help from 30 volunteers, emailed all 440 equine rescue members of the Homes for Horses Coalition and asked how COVID-19 was impacting them. The 220 groups that responded housed 7,394 equines, along with 517 equines in foster care. The majority said their donations had stopped completely or slowed drastically by mid-March. Most rescues had a funding cushion of three or four months. However, approximately 30 said they'd be out of grain and hay in two to four weeks.
Helping Hearts Equine Rescue in Perrineville, N.J., and Ponytales Rescue, in Honesdale, Penn., are longtime rescues continuing as usual so far, though without volunteers.
“We try to maintain at least a few months' buffer, so as not to live hand to mouth,” said Helping Hearts president Lisa Post.
“I think we have an advantage over some of the newer rescues as we have been around since 2007,” said Laurie Brinkworth, executive director of Ponytales. “We try to budget for the rescue annually and raise our funds throughout the year ahead of time for the following year. So while we are currently okay on funds for the rescues that we do have in care, this may drastically effect our funds for next year.”
The epicenter is everywhere
For those rescues nearly out of money, HSUS has an emergency fund. A long list of other funders is posted on the Homes for Horses web page. Jacobson sent member equine groups information about the new Coronavirus stimulus programs, which includes the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan. Jacobson has not heard of any rescues attempting the complicated application process.
HSUS will help fund the Fleet of Angels emergency hay program, which in one month got hay to 700 horses across the country, including some as far away as Alaska. Approximately 500 of those horses were privately owned or at small rescues.
The goal, Fleet of Angels executive director Elaine Nash explained, is to allow owners who have lost jobs or have little money to keep their horses.
“We save horses and use them for kid's programs and offer free programs to the community,” hay recipient Faith Flores in California told Nash, “We also have paid programs for people who can afford it. Unfortunately, I completely self-fund, and with no work and having to shut down the programs, we have 14 horses who need hay and about a week before we completely run out but we have no income coming in and no savings.”
Fleet of Angels, Based in Denver, Colo., has provided hay, feed funds and transportation to thousands of equine owners and rescues during floods, hurricanes and fires. Nash makes sure all funds are spent for equine care. After applications are approved, she usually sends money directly to feed stores applicants use. She requires photos before and after feed and hay arrives.
Like so many others, Nash is overwhelmed by the scope of need during COVID-19.
“We usually deal with an epicenter [of disaster] somewhere in the country. In this case the epicenter is the entire United States,” she said. “We know that this is just the beginning of this crisis for equines. Even with the largest organizations funding all possible requests, we know that unless some major sponsors, patrons, and other donors step up in a big way, many horses will be put at risk of being sold or given away, with the likely takers being kill buyers. Our goal is to keep horses in their homes.”
Equine rescues can apply to the $2 million ASPCA Relief & Recovery Fund, Dr. Emily Weiss, Vice President of ASPCA Equine Welfare explained. Priority will go to members of The Right Horse Initiative, the ASPCA equine adoption coalition.
Working with the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the ASPCA funds veterinary care that enables owners to keep their horses. A new program could help rescues open slots for more horses. People with space in their barns of fields are invited to briefly foster horses from rescues in The Right Horse Initiative.
“It's something that hasn't happened that often in the equine world that has been going on in the dog and cat world for a long time,” Weiss said.
The ASPCA also maintains a list of adoptable horses looking for homes.
Thoroughbred groups bracing for spike in retirements
While racehorse aftercare organizations rely on individual donations, some also receive industry funding.
The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance supports its 74 accredited facilities with grants, paid in two parts during the year. However, this year, COVID-19 prompted immediate payment of the year's second round of grants totaling nearly $1.7 million. Thoroughbred Charities of America supports backstretch and farm employee programs, racehorse retirement retraining and rehoming, equine research and equine assisted therapy. In the first week of April, TCA's Horses First Fund gave $23,500 in emergency grants to aftercare facilities seeing an increased demand for services as tracks shut down racing. Another grant was planned for the second week of April. TCA also presented a webinar on fundraising during COVID-19.
“The longer we are in the throes of the pandemic I would suspect that owners will likely need to cut their losses and retire their horses as to not continue amassing day rates, vet bills, and farrier bills,” TCA executive director Erin Crady said.
While the spike in retirements hasn't begun, COVID-19 still is impacting aftercare facilities.
“I'm working 70-plus hours, seven-day weeks,” said Bonnie McRae, director of After the Races in Elkton, Md. “My live-in assistant manager is also working seven days a week, though closer to 48 hours a week. We miss our volunteers tremendously, but need everyone to stay safe.”
After the Races rehomed 15 horses in 30 days in March and early April.
“In an effort to make room for ones coming back from the track, and ones that I believe will inevitably start being returned as our economy struggles, we've been utilizing adoption initiatives combined with our strong social media,” said McRae. “At the moment we are financially stable, but this is an unprecedented time. We are trying to engage in fundraising efforts and work with pursuing emergency grants and forgivable loans. We are lucky to have a good stockpile of hay, green pastures coming in, and a feed store willing to work with us if we get in a bind.”
At ReRun in East Greenbush, N.Y., program director Lisa Molloy has had tons of adoption applications, seven in progress in the first week of April, and another eight awaiting review. In February and March, 22 horses were adopted.
“I think people were staying at home with nothing else to do,” Molloy said of the strong adoption activity.
While many aftercare facilities require prospective adopters to come see horses first, ReRun's online adoption system isn't impacted by COVID-19. ReRun mostly has horses who were with New York trainers and owners. Some are well-known, including Uncle Sigh who raced in the 2014 Kentucky Derby.
The arrival of the second half of the TAA grant has been huge for ReRun, Molloy said. ReRun has additional revenue from Moneighs painted by famous horses, including American Pharoah and Justify. Still, Molloy worries that even after the pandemic ends, people will be reluctant to attend large fundraisers like ReRun's at Saratoga Race Course.
In Lisbon, Iowa, Unbridled Spirits Thoroughbred Retirement Ranch, primarily a sanctuary with 34 horses aiming to provide a unique perspective on the thoroughbred, has been severely impacted by COVID-19. Half the volunteers are gone. Scout troops couldn't do annual cleanup. Regular tours are cancelled, as are fundraisers, including the annual Kentucky Derby event that normally brings in $10,000. Donations from regular contributors are down by 50 percent. All greatly reducing its basic annual budget of $140,000.
Unbridled Spirits also lost its net $12,000 income from riding and horse care lessons with the retired racehorses.
The shutdown of racing could severely impact revenue streams for aftercare organizations associated with tracks, including Second Call at Monmouth Park. Like many tracks, Monmouth charges an aftercare fee every time a horse races. That donation adds up, said Laurie Lane, co-founder and program director of the New Jersey Chapter of Second Call. Most of Second Call fundraisers happen at tracks, and some track concessions donate a percentage of sales.
CANTER (Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses), founded in 1998, helps market horses ready for new careers through its 14 affiliate chapters. Health concerns have prevented CANTER representatives from visiting the backstretch, where they would normally talk with trainers about horses in need of retirement, said president Jonathan Horowitz. Some had fundraising events cancelled, and multiple adoptions were withdrawn. CANTER's national fund will help fill gaps, he said.
“It is heartwarming to see the good side of people,” Horowitz said. “Like the TCA webinar. They said we don't have all the answers right now, but this is something we want to help with. The fact of how much people want to step up is so positive.”
Penny Loeb is an award-winning journalist, author, and hunter-jumper rider who has a Thoroughbred on every farm she's lived on her entire life, and found 22-year-old OTTB Fairest Riches on Craigslist. Loeb's investigative work has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2020 Paulick Report.