Horse Rescues Prepare for Long Winter Ahead

Tawnee Preisner doesn't need a calendar to know that winter is approaching--all she has to do is count the number of inquiries she receives from horse owners wanting to place their animals at her California equine rescue. Calls from financially strapped horse owners in need of help spike every fall, she said. But this year, the number of inquiries is exceptionally high. And Preisner wonders how she and other rescuers will avoid becoming overwhelmed by the influx of horses in need of help this winter.

"Winter is always a tough time for rescues because people who have horses but don't feel like feeding them want to turn their horses over to rescues," said Preisner, co-founder of NorCal Equine Rescue in Oroville, Calif. "But this year, I'm getting 10 phone calls a day. People are panicking, and I know it‘s going to get worse."

Preisner's dire prediction comes at an already challenging time for rescue operators. Many facilities are filled to capacity with horses from previous rescues. At the same time, a recession-driven decline in donor financial support has reduced the operating budgets of some by as much as 50%. With no drop in the cost to maintain a horse, rescue operators are doing whatever they can to keep their organizations financially solvent this winter and beyond.

Day's End Equine Rescue Executive Director Kathy Howe began preparing for the anticipated surge in winter horse rescues early this year when she decided to make deep cuts in her organization's spending.

Howe began by slashing funding for non-essentials, such as community education programs, by nearly half. Then she downsized her organization's paid staff and recruited volunteers to fill in the gaps. Finally, when monetary donations to Day's End began to decline, Howe expanded her fundraising plans to include more non-cash contributions.

"For us the only good thing about the recession is that people have lost their jobs are doing more volunteering because they need something to do." --Kathy Howe
The strategies are working. In recent months, Day's End received enough construction material contributions to build a 12-stall barn on the rescue's property. Veterinarians also stepped up to make non-cash donations of vaccines and other medicines for horses in Day's End's care.

And thanks to a deep and diverse volunteer labor pool, Howe will not find herself shorthanded any time soon.

"For us the only good thing about the recession is that people have lost their jobs are doing more volunteering because they need something to do," she said. "A lot of these people are bringing skills we really need. Some are plumbers, electricians, carpenters. They're helping us to do the things we haven't been able to do before."

Meanwhile, Preisner is also preparing for the winter by preventing horses from becoming rescue statistics.

Twice monthly, Preisner offers low cost euthanasia clinics for owners who can no longer afford to maintain their horses. Owners pay $25 per horse for veterinary and disposal services. NorCal assumes the rest of the $150 per horse cost. Owners experiencing severe financial hardship pay nothing for the services and NorCal's costs are underwritten by clinic-specific donor contributions.

Until recently, sound horses with adoption potential remained in NorCal's adoption program until they found new homes. But with horses expected to flood NorCal in record numbers this winter, fewer horses will be entering that program this year.

"We're rethinking our euthanasia guidelines because I know there are going to be more horses in difficult circumstances this year. We have to make choices so that we don't become so overwhelmed we can't handle the horses we have."

Preisner believes the clinics represent a viable way to the number of horses abandoned or shifted off to rescues. Some horse industry organizations agree. The Arabian Horse Association awarded Preisner a $2,500 grant to share her clinic plan in booklet for distribution to rescue operators throughout California.

But it's horse owners she really wants to reach.

"We're looking at the big picture. Basically, we're letting people know there are consequences for what they do," she said. "You can't just give them to a rescue because you're kids have gone back to school or you've lost interest in the horse."

Both Preisner and Howe believe they will be able to weather this winter without having to turn away any horse in need. Others will not.

Pat Douglas established the Pheasant Hill Equine Foundation in Maryland two years ago to care for horses seized by animal welfare authorities. But recently, when donor contributions dried up and rescue operations exhausted her personal resources, Douglas decided to shut the rescue down.

"I don't know what will happen to horses this winter," Douglas said. "I'd hate to see rescues just do euthanasia. Even if everybody in a community could support a local rescue with just a $10 donation it would make a difference."

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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