On Injured Horses and Saying “No”

After my last entry, we got a question on facebook about how we look at soundness issues when bringing horses into the retraining/rehoming program.  It’s sort of a complicated issue – in a perfect world, we would have the room and finances for all comers, and getting them all into new homes would be easy.  But we all know that the world isn’t perfect, and is instead a harsh and unfair place a lot of the time, which means that we have to make decisions based on a number of factors.

The giant issue when dealing with racehorses is soundness.  There is no getting around the fact that quite a number of racehorses will get an injury at some point in their career.  Those injuries range from bowed tendons and pulled suspensories on up to bone chips and fractures.  Each one of those injury types comes in a wide range of severity.  A horse that bowed once, and has had some stall rest, for example, is usually a very good candidate for recovery and eventual riding soundness (and as many have proved, jumping careers are not out of the ordinary).  A horse with a small knee chip that does not interfere with the joint can often go out and rest for a while, and be just fine after the injury calcifies. Other horses might need a minor surgery, but the prognosis is excellent for a full recovery afterwards.

Taking the same injuries to another level, you may have a horse who bowed multiple times, or was not properly treated when the injury occurred, making his future prognosis a little more shaky.   A horse with multiple chips in his knee, or a large chip, or one that is simply in a bad location, can be a horse that is only sound for very light riding (and occasionally no riding at all) after a lot of time off.  The big problem with horses like this is quite simply that they are very, very hard to place in appropriate homes.  Our goal is to place as many horses as we can in the right homes, where they can be successful and go on to lead fulfilling lives.  A horse with very minor issues, or a sound horse, is typically quite easy for us to find a home for (well, easy is relative, look at how long Klondike was with us!).  A horse with limited use, or a poor prognosis?  Not so much.  Even if we can get that horse sound, and going as well as possible, there are typically very few interested parties when we talk about the injury.  Or, when people look at the x-rays, they say “no way!”  People are scared away by old injuries, even when the horse has recovered enough to do perfectly well for their intended use.  While it’s a frustrating aspect of what we do, I can’t blame people either.   But the result of that is that difficult to place horses end up sticking around for a very long time – years, in some cases.  With limited resources and a budget to consider, this can be extremely taxing.

It is not that we are averse to the work that comes with an unsound horse, but our resources and basic mission come into play when the question of taking in unsound horses comes up.  A horse that needs extended stall rest, or surgery, is a much more expensive proposition than one who can go out on pasture immediately.  Sometimes the decision really is a choice between helping one horse who needs major rehab work (and the time and expense that goes along with it) vs. helping five or six that could go through the entire program in the same amount of time with the same amount of money.  This is a very emotional debate in the horse rescue community, which comes up with some frequency.  Some rescues really go the extra mile for horses with problems – getting them expensive surgeries with the best possible surgeons, and committing to a long and expensive rehab period.  It’s one of those things I often with we could do more of – unfortunately, our setup makes this extremely difficult.  We are entirely volunteer run and do not have our own property.  To put a horse on stall rest and get daily care means we’re spending about three times more per month on an injured horse than a sound one (and that’s before the vet bills).  To do that, we have to put ourselves in the position of saying “no” to even more horses, simply due to a lack of resources – even sound horses who could go into retraining very quickly.

Another, more emotional reason for us to be careful taking injured horses is euthanasia.  Over the last several years, several horses have come in that we had to euthanize.  Their prognosis for recovery was very poor.  In some cases, these horses seemed like good candidates based on the trainer’s description, only for us to find out the horse was non-weight bearing on one leg, or otherwise severely injured.  Sometimes horses can come off the track looking great, until their joint injection or anti-inflammatories wear off, and the true nature of the problem becomes apparent.  Euthanasia is something we try to be very matter-of-fact about, it is a fact of life, and at least we can offer the horse a kind end.  But at the same time, it takes its toll on people.  Not only the intense emotional toll of watching a young and kind animal lose its life (which is something I would wish on no one), but the additional feeling of being “dumped on” – that the people who should have been doing this are the people who made money off the horse and injured him in the first place.  Sending unsound horses off to rescues or rehoming groups can be a way of passing the buck rather than living up to one’s own responsibilities (which really is not something we want to encourage).  

So, considering all these issues, we have to do a sort of risk assessment when we consider bringing horses in.   Is the horse able to go out on full turnout?  Is the horse going to be riding sound after layup?  If the horse needs rehab time or surgery, do the race owners care enough about the horse’s future to contribute to the costs of that (we do have several horses where this was the case, and we want to reward those owners and trainers who really want the best for their animals)?  Based on our experience with that type of injury, how difficult will it be to find a home for the horse later on?  With our limited space, is there actually room for a horse that needs a stall for an extended period of time? 

We currently have several horses that came in with soundness issues – we certainly don’t turn away every horse that isn’t perfect.  However the common denominators with these horses are that they have a good prognosis for being riding sound (which means it will be easier to find them homes), and many received support from their race connections so that we were financially able to offer them the stall rest or minor surgery as needed.  Or they are horses that were at least able to go on turnout right away. 

Whisper came to us with a condylar fracture to a hind leg. The early part of his rehab was done by a caring race connection. He came to us later pasture sound and ready for turnout. Now riding sound, he is enjoying life in North Carolina with his new people.

Cecil came to us with a bowed tendon - his second on that leg. We were able to help him largely because his owners contributed for the several months of stall rest that he would need. He is now sound and being trained in North Carolina.

Unfortunately, we just can’t take them all.  We have to prioritize, and we have to focus on getting the horses with a real chance of a good future into good homes.  Horses with very iffy conditions, especially in their joints (where problems have a way of getting worse as time goes on), are horses that we know from experience that we’re going to have a very hard time placing.  What we also run into are horses that might have been OK, if they had been rested as soon as their injury was discovered.  When we find horses that have been injected and then raced on compromised limbs, we have to assume that the injury might have gotten worse, and might be harder to rehab than otherwise anticipated (we also can’t assume the horse will stay as sound looking as it currently looks – if he received a joint injection to race, there’s a strong possibility that the picture will be very different as the effects of that injection wear off).  Without further diagnosis and consulting a vet, these are very risky cases to take on.

See why I couldn’t answer this question in the space of a facebook comment? 

I will say that we work very hard to network horses and find homes for them even when we can’t take them into the program.  We have also advised owners when the best course is euthanasia.  We also try to educate owners when these questions come up, to let them know that racing a sore horse (even if the vet can inject him so he can run), is exactly the kind of thing that makes his future tenuous.  Hopefully, over time, if more and more people make good decisions, we will see fewer injuries and won’t have to make these kinds of decisions as often. 

Saying “no” is never easy – we all love horses, and want to give them all a chance.  It can be heartbreaking to have to say no, and we get through it by focusing our attention on all the other ones that we can help, and keeping our eyes on the bigger picture. 

The facebook question also asked about saving horses from slaughter auctions.  In recent years, brokers that typically buy horses at low-end auctions to ship to slaughter have started working with rescues, to network those horses instead (and let’s face it, often earning more in the process than they would have shipping to Canada).  All this has made the issue of low-end auctions much more visible, so when Thoroughbreds come through those sales, they are quickly identified and networked in hopes of finding them a home.  This sort of activity has saved many ex-racehorses from a dismal end (as have many anonymous individuals who attend those auctions in hopes of rescuing a horse or finding a diamond in the rough).  All that said, we do not make a practice of buying horses in this situation.

In fact, we generally do not buy horses at all – as an organization, it is our goal to encourage the right sort of behavior.  We want to educate people, then reward them for making the right decisions for their horses.  Rewarding people for using emotional blackmail (“$300 or the horse gets it!”) does not, in the end, help encourage responsible behavior.  While it’s clear that horses in that situation need help, as an organization our focus is on giving trainers and owners options before that point, and rewarding the people who do the right thing. 

Of course, for every rule there is an exception.  We are sometimes called or notified by exercise riders, grooms, and concerned individuals when horses face making a trip to an auction or dealer (and sometimes a trip directly to the Canada border – as tracks enacted no-slaughter policies, some people have begun sending horses “direct to kill” – no stops along the way where the horse may be identified).  When we can, we will intervene in these cases.  Some horses are the beneficiaries of concerned horse lovers, who make contributions towards their purchase (two horses like this: Calabria Rose, the little bay mare this blog is named after, and Lily, who came to us late last winter thanks to a donation made just for her).  These are horses who never made it to the slaughter auction but we feel were rescued from a dire fate just the same.  Similarly, we’ve found out about horses that were shipped direct to slaughter, and been able to intervene, in one case as the horses were only a short distance from crossing the Canada border.  Sometimes these horses come to us, other times, we are able to get them networked to people right away (one recent case of this involved a very successful stakes horse, who had slipped down the ranks and was about to be sent to Canada – it took a lot of legwork by our director, and a few well placed phone calls to recover him, and he was immediately placed in a new home when he was found). 

Lily (on the right) was almost sent off with a dealer who is known for shipping straight to slaughter.

While we don’t typically do “auction saves,” one exception was Major.  I talked about him on this blog before, as he had an interesting (and altogether too typical) story.  He was listed on our Delaware Park listings at one point, before seemingly disappearing.  We had knowledge of a trailer heading to Canada with a group of horses including, we thought, Major.  We did manage to get that trailer turned around and helped those horses, but it turned out Major was not one of them.  A short time later, he showed up in the Camelot auction pen – where a rescue called Helping Hearts found and identified him.  Some legwork indicated that he had been brought off the track by some very well meaning people, who gave him to a neighbor who was looking for a horse.  That friend then had him posted for sale in a very short time, then posted him as a free horse.  The story goes that the person who picked him up spun a story about looking for a nice family horse for his wife.  Instead, the horse ended up at the Camelot Auction.

Several people contributed towards the purchase and immediate care of Major, and we were able to purchase him thanks to those donations.  Fortunately, we were also able to place him in his new home after only several weeks of his quarantine board (during which time he went from a miserable and stressed out horse to a perky and bright-eyed one, thanks to the care he received there).  We recently got a nice update on how Major is doing, along with pictures, so I’ll have to post that later this week.

I’m hoping some discussion about this helps everyone understand how we make decisions.  I know it’s a bit of a departure from the usual happy-go-lucky sort of blog entry I try to write, but it’s important stuff and I know people have questions about it.  Also, as different rescues and rehoming groups operate in different ways, we want our supporters to understand how we work and be comfortable with it.

9 responses to “On Injured Horses and Saying “No”

  1. Excellent commentary! I too, work for ex-race horses and have to be careful what I can realistically accept into our foster program or the horses that I believe we can effectively network for, to find them a new home or career.
    I am posting on my Facebook page, you were able to say here, what others may need to know.
    When I say “no” to the auction horses, or to those that are too old or infirmed, I know I don’t make friends, but as a new organization, I have to be practical too.
    Thank you for writing this piece.

  2. The best piece I have read on the issue in some time. You’re doing all the right things, and I wish you nothing but luck. My blog is always available if you have horses to share!

  3. Really well written-these policies, whether they are official or more of a guideline, make so much sense. It’s a shame you still have to reward the good guys and ignore the bad behavior (usual from emotional extortionists), but it’s absolutely the smart thing to do, and ultimately will help more horses. Thanks for all you do for OTTBs, my favorite horses!

  4. I have the most wonderful horse, that I got thru CANTER. His name is Yellow Tavern and he is my event partner. He is perfectly suited for eventing and is so special in about every way. What a loss it would have been if his owner/trainer hadn’t been one of the “good ones”, that did the right thing by this horse. You guys do the work of angels and I don’t envy you the hard choices you have to make.

    • Oh Tavern!!! He is so lovely. Patty, if you ever want to, feel free to send in some status reports and pics we can post (either me or Jess) – he is just such a beautiful and cool horse I love to hear how he is doing!

  5. jessicamorthole

    Kelly, really excellent post.

  6. I have kept Allie and Jess updated with photos and text..not sure how to to that for you without an email address. He is doing great and looks amazing. I couldn’t be happier – he’s a cool horse. And, he’s gotten bigger. sticks at nearly 16.3. I think he’s done now! email me directly if you want photos. He loves XC, still working on the whole submission thing for Dressage, but he can do it all.

  7. I thought this July 2010 Canter article about “saying no” was excellent and I want to thank the author. I’m dealing with a very nice formerly successful race horse that has had, according to testing, several previous bows, and had another 6 months after I acquired him. There is a lot on the internet about HOW to rehab horses, but very little on WHETHER to rehab a particular horse. This is a very tough decision. As a practical matter, sound horses are being put down for lack of a buyer/recipient, and keeping a horse barely able to walk usually means one less space in the world for a very usable horse. It’s a very though decision to put down a horse. Personally I would like to see more focus on the factors and problems in making such a decision.
    Thanks again.

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