Adoption Organizations: Charity Begins With Homework

If you're in the equine industry, you can't help but know about the many groups that struggle daily to save horses and give them new lives in better homes. You see their ads in local horse magazines, get their pleas for contributions in the mail, and read their stories in national publications. Your heart softens and your conscience urges you to help out: adopt a horse, donate money, volunteer your time--do something, anything, to make a difference. But before you jump headlong into such worthy and charitable action, ask yourself one more question: Am I being scammed?

The cold fact is, not every equine adoption or rescue organization is legitimate, no matter how official they might appear. Even those whose hearts are in the right place might not have sufficient knowledge to address the best interests of the horses or the people involved. Making matters worse, there are no overriding regulatory bodies to supervise these groups' existence or activities.

Thankfully, it's not as hard as you might think to sift the good from the bad. In this story, we'll give you all the tips you'll need to find out if a particular organization is truly worthy of your time, money, and concern. We'll tell you what to expect from the adoption process, relate some true adoption stories, and introduce you to an equine welfare organization with a slightly different twist.

First, Learn the Basics

Before you consider any type of involvement with an organization, find out the basics. Call the group directly and ask:

  • When was your program founded?
  • What is your mission? What are your goals?
  • Where do your horses come from?
  • How many horses do you handle each year?
  • How many horses have you placed?

We did just that for the following organizations. Here's what we found:

Days End Farm Horse Rescue, in Lisbon, Md., was established in 1989 and has placed more than 250 horses into new adoptive homes since then. The farm generally hosts 40 to 45 horses at a time, according to Kathy Schwartz, the group's president and co-founder. "Fifteen to 20 are available for adoption at any given time, and the rest are in the critical care section for medical rehab or training. Last year, we had about 78 horses here, total." The group primarily takes in horses impounded by the humane society or animal control, then rehabs the animals and offers them for adoption to qualified applicants. Days End also educates horse owners on proper equine care and helps new rescue groups get going. They've even published a book on the subject: Guidelines for Establishing a Non-Profit Horse Rescue (available for a $100 donation).

ReRun, headquartered in Carlisle, Ky., has additional branches in New Jersey, Virginia, and New York. Since its start in 1996, the group has found new homes for approximately 130 ex-racehorses, which have come primarily from local tracks when their careers ended. "We only work with Thoroughbreds, but we have helped some that didn't come directly off the track," says Shon Wylie, ReRun's co-founder, executive director, and president. "Here in Kentucky, some farms look to us to place broodmares that are no longer producing. But even those mostly were racehorses at one time." The Kentucky branch, where the group began, keeps an average of 20 horses available for adoption.

Standardbred Retirement Foundation (SRF) is based in Freehold, N.J., but maintains horses in 30 equine facilities across the country. The program has placed more than 1,000 Standardbred ex-racehorses into new homes since its inception 10 years ago. "We always have applications and horses. It's just a matter of matching them up," says executive director Judith Bokman. According to Bokman, most of the horses that SRF takes in would otherwise have gone into the Amish community. "But with as many as 100 horses per month coming off a single track, and the Amish community dwindling, these horses often end up at the livestock auction, where the primary buyers are from meat-packing plants. We try to place the horses into homes where they will be used for pleasure, not commercial purposes."

Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation has nine farms in operation at the present time, and one more in the development stage. Three of the farms combines rescue/adoption of Thoroughbreds with education of minimum security prisoners or at-risk youth. The benefits to horse and human are seen time and again at these facilities.

Begun in 1982, the TRF is the largest organization of its kind in the nation, providing lifetime homes for Thoroughbreds at farms in New York, Kentucky, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Vermont. Those farms include major facilities at the Wallkill Correctional Facility in Wallkill, N.Y., and Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington, Ky., where inmates learn vocation and life skills through care of the horses. Blackburn alone can house up to 70 Thoroughbreds, with some going through rehabilitation prior to being placed in adoptive homes, and some scheduled to live out their lives on the bluegrass pastures while being cared for daily by inmates being educated in horse care.

TRF also has a program at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore, Md., where at-risk juveniles benefit from a similar program. In early 2000, the TRF will open a facility in Florida similar to Blackburn.

The TRF is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) corporation providing dignified and humane lifetime retirement or adoption for Thoroughbreds. In 1995, the TRF created its Equine Outreach Division to identify and recommend to the board of directors other horse rescue operations with goals similar to those of the TRF in order to facilitate rescue and adoption of horses.

Nationwide, there are about 170 Thoroughbreds in permanent retirement at TRF facilities, and more which are suitable and waiting to be adopted.

Next, Get Nosy

Your next set of queries, says Bokman, should revolve around one central question: Is the place run like a business? To make that determination, find out:

  • If the group has a 501(c)(3) non-profit status.
  • If it has a board of directors or a staff.
  • What types of records it keeps.
  • How it's funded--and how it spends the money.
  • What its reputation is in the industry and in the community.

Says Wylie, "The easiest way to weed out the bad apples is to ask the organization to send you budget figures and verification of its non-profit status. A credible organization will have no problem doing these things."

All four of the groups we researched are 501(c)(3) organizations with boards of directors and/or staff. Each also has established firm alliances and sterling reputations within the horse world and their local communities. The SRF, for example, has won an Animal Welfare Award from the Association for Racing Commissioners International and was a finalist for the American Association of Equine Practitioners' Lavin Cup.

At ReRun, says Wylie, "We won't open a satellite branch without industry need in that area, industry support, and a good adopter base. To create and maintain that support network, the group runs a booth at nearby tracks to let racetrack professionals know about the program. The payoff is that numerous trainers affiliate with ReRun by sending horses there instead of to auction, and some tracks offer fundraising assistance.

In Maryland, Days End Farm works closely with local animal control units and humane societies. They often accompany officers on abuse/neglect calls in order to teach owners how to care for their horses better. "If we just impounded the animal first, there's nothing to stop the person from buying another horse and doing the same things to it," explains Schwartz.

As a further educational tool, Days End has worked with the Maryland Horse Council to develop two brochures: If Only Love Were Enough," which discusses the pros and cons of, and alternatives to, horse ownership; and Maryland Horse Council's Guidelines to Minimum Standards of Care for Equines, which takes the state's cruelty statutes and defines them for equines--what qualifies as sufficient water, what is proper health care, etc. This second brochure has been endorsed by all associations in the horse council and can be used in court to prove neglect or abuse.

Now, Get Personal

If a group passes these preliminary screenings, your next move, says Bokman, is to get involved personally. "It's the best way to find out about any charity, because when you're involved, you can find out what a group is really doing," she says. If you're not quite ready to commit yourself to volunteering, but live nearby, visit the organization and tour the facility. At the very least, get back on the phone and talk to volunteers, adopters, and other people who've dealt with the organization. Among the things you can discover:

  • How well the group cares for its horses.
  • How much the principals learn about a horse before its arrival and during its stay.
  • If, and how well, the group screens adopters, works to match horses and riders, and performs adoption follow-ups.
  • How other volunteers and employees, as well as affiliated vets and farriers, feel about the program.

Days End, ReRun, TRF, and SRF all conduct stringent screenings of potential adopters, including reviewing the person's equine knowledge, checking references, and evaluating their horse facilities by personal inspection or photographs.

Next, they focus on pairing the person with the most appropriate horse. As Wylie explains, "We're not terribly democratic. We're trying to match the horse and adopter as well as possible. So, someone who's been waiting on our list for months and sees a horse they like might lose out to a newer applicant who is a better fit for that particular animal."

In the case of Days End, the adopter must come out to ride the horse several times under the supervision of a Days End trainer before the adoption will be confirmed.

All four groups require adopters to sign a strict and binding adoption contract, which includes a promise that the horse will come back to the group if the adopter no longer can care for it. Each group then follows up on placements for a minimum of two years--sometimes for the life of the horse--and will take the horse back if the adopter fails to meet minimum care standards.

This strict approach is necessary in order to serve the horse best, agree Wylie, Schwartz, and Bokman. Bad adoptions still happen, but with these guidelines in place, the happy endings far outweigh the sad ones.

Finally, Make Your Decision

When you've completed your research, you'll have enough information to determine whether or not the group really is worthy of your interest. It might not be exactly like Days End Farm, the Standardbred or Thoroughbred Retirement Foundations, or ReRun. Perhaps the group works not with ex-racehorses or abused equines, but with wild mustangs or burros. Or maybe it works in developing countries to foster better understanding of equine care (see sidebar at right for a look at such groups). Or perhaps it simply offers a place where older horses can quietly and contentedly live out their remaining years.

Such differences, insists Wylie, are good, because it means every person can find an organization whose mission aligns with his or her personal interests. When you're deciding where to spend your time, money, and emotions, that's what really matters.


Days End Farm Horse Rescue
PO Box 309, Lisbon, Md. 21765
301/854-5037; 410/442-1564

PO Box 96, Carlisle, Ky. 40311
• Kentucky branch--
• Virginia branch--
• New Jersey branch

Standardbred Retirement Foundation
PO Box 763, Freehold, N.J. 07728

Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation Inc.
450 Shrewsbury Plaza, Ste. 351,
Shrewsbury, N.J. 07702

What You Need To Know About Adopting

The best equine rescue/adoption organizations follow rules that help ensure the horses’ best interests. Here’s a look at what to expect if you’re adopting from that type of group:

  • Unless you’re working very closely with an experienced horse person, you probably won’t be able to adopt a horse if you’ve never owned one.
  • It’s important to be honest about your abilities, your experience, and what you want from the horse; otherwise, you easily can end up with a horse with which you won’t be happy.
  • You, your trainer, your vet, your farrier, and your facilities will be checked to ensure the horse gets a safe, suitable new home and ongoing good care.
  • You’ll be checked again, as the group performs follow-up inspections either in person or through veterinarian-completed forms.
  • These groups are looking for lifetime homes for their horses, so most contracts prevent you from selling, leasing, or giving the horse away for at least a few years. If you’re in the habit of selling and "trading up" every year or two, this isn’t the route for you.
  • Don’t expect to find that perfect, bombproof, child-safe horse in a snap; they’re just as rare in these organizations as they are elsewhere.
  • Even after adopting and taking possession of the horse, you might not immediately gain title; many groups require that you first pass a "trial period" of from six months to several years.
  • Many of these horses have special needs, from ground-up retraining or emotional rehab to metabolic adjustments or permanent medical management of injuries.
  • Listen to the group’s advice on caring for and riding the horse. If you have questions, call the organization; most are very happy to help you.
  • It’s okay and, in fact, a good idea to have your vet check the horse out before you adopt.

Adoption Tales

Standardbred Stories

Judith Bokman enjoys helping people find just the right retired Standardbred to match their needs.

"One woman wanted to do team penning, and I told her that the Standardbred mare she had probably wouldn’t do the job. As it turned out, the mare wouldn’t chase anything. Then we got this weanling in. He and his mother had been starved. He only grew to 14 hands. I told her that I thought he could work out for her. Well, she’s now having a great time competing that horse in team penning!"

Bokman also realizes that sometimes the happy picture you start with doesn’t follow through to a happy ending.

"We had one (adopter) convicted of neglect and abuse, and he served time. Another person took care of some horses for eight years. She spent thousands of dollars in vet bills for one, then suddenly she was starving them all."

From Days End to New Dawns

Karen Schwartz recalls a severely starved horse which came to Days End Farm and found a new beginning to life.

"This mare was down for 32 hours. She was so weak, we used a sling system to keep her standing, because if she went down, it took a tractor and a crew of people to get her up again. We’d take her out of the sling and walk her around the arena two or three times a day. At first, she could only make it around the ring once. Eventually, she regained her weight and her health, and went into our lesson program. She’s sort of our poster child."

Sometimes, though, twists in an adopter’s life mean more changes for the horse, acknowledges Schwartz.

"We had a couple adopt two horses. The wife was an experienced horse person, but the husband was pretty non-horsy. Well, the woman got pregnant and could no longer give her horse the attention it needed. The husband, who could care for his horse, didn’t have the skill level that his wife’s horse required. We explained to them that the second horse just wasn’t getting what it needed, and they were very understanding in letting us take her back."

Learning At ReRun

Success stories can tempt you into being lax, but Shon Wylie and her colleagues at ReRun were reminded this past summer of just why they work so hard to screen adopters and follow up on placements.

"We adopted two horses out of state. We didn’t get the first six-month follow-up from the vet, but we did get an odd call around that time from an hysterical woman saying someone had given her this horse and was now trying to take it away from her. We investigated and found that she had been given the (ReRun) horse, which is definitely against our contract. This woman did well with the horse and loved it, and she even paid for vet bills when it had an injury, but the original adopter was trying to take it back. We ended up going down there ourselves. We had found out that the gelding had strangles, and we told the man not to move the mare or put her in with the gelding. But when we arrived, that’s just what he’d done. We also saw that the mare’s legs were swollen and oozing from beneath her wraps. I told the man we were taking the horses away. He threw a fit, but we had commercial shippers standing by, and we loaded up the horses and brought them back. I was so upset that we could have misjudged someone so badly."

The good news is that cases like that are rare compared to the happy endings, says Wylie.

"A woman in Chicago adopted a 17-year-old mare we had nicknamed Big. Big had been a top broodmare, but had slipped through the cracks as her ability to reproduce diminished. A man who owned her in partnership finally called us to take her in so she could go to a good home. Although she was underweight and still had her winter coat when she arrived, within two months she was looking great. We posted her on the web site, and this woman called me from Chicago saying she’d just felt a connection with the horse and fell in love. She passed our screenings and adopted the mare. Now, she trail rides with the horse, they’ve started in dressage, and have been in parades—the horse was a dragon for Halloween! The new owner called members of the racing industry to trace her mare’s past. She got in touch with her breeder, and he was ecstatic to hear what the mare was doing. He sent the woman all kinds of win photos and pictures of Big’s babies. This industry does have a heart, and it’s so neat when people connect like that. That’s what keeps you going when you feel like you just can’t look at one more horse that’s been raked over the coals."

Thoroughbreds At Rest

The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, based in Shrewsbury, N.J., was founded in 1982 to provide dignified, humane retirement for Thoroughbred racehorses no longer able to continue their careers on the track. What sets this rescue organization apart is where it keeps horses and how it rehabilitates them. TRF’s primary equine retirement facilities are based in state correctional facilities, including the Wallkill Correctional Facility in New York, Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for juvenile offenders in Baltimore, Md., and the Blackburn Correctional Institute near Lexington, Ky. Through this system, not only do the horses receive closely supervised care, but the horses’ caregivers learn marketable skills while gaining emotional and psychological ground. "Responsibility, pride, self-esteem, respect for other living creatures—feelings instilled by the glowing condition and spirited affection of a well-cared-for horse—carry over into how the men deal with other aspects of their lives," notes information from the group. While the TRF is first and foremost a retirement-oriented organization, when appropriate, it also places retired racehorses into private adoptive homes, equine education programs, and riding programs for the mentally and physically challenged.

A Different Approach

In some cases, adopting horses simply isn’t feasible. Such is the case with organizations concerned with equine welfare in developing countries. In those nations, horses are as vital to work and transportation as are computers and cars in developed countries. Often, horse owners are so poor that they struggle simply to provide their families with the absolute basics—worrying about an animal’s well-being might not enter their minds.

Groups such as the International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH), Working Together for Equines (WTFE), and Remote Area Medical Veterinary Services (RAM-VS) work to make a difference to animals and people in these situations.

ILPH and WTFE educate and train horse owners in developing nations not only in the essentials of equine veterinary care and nutrition, but also in saddlery and farriery. This tactic has a multi-fold result: Owners learn to care for their animals better so the horses’ suffering is reduced and their productivity is increased; and people gain marketable skills, allowing them to better their personal financial situations. Also, knowledge is passed around to other members of the community, improving the local economy and the entire community’s view of animal caretaking.

RAM-VS has a somewhat smaller, but no less important, scope. Through semi-annual (or more) visits, the group brings professional veterinary care to areas inside and outside the United States that don’t normally have access to such attention. Aside from attending to animals’ immediate health needs, RAM-VS workers educate horse owners about preventive and ongoing care—such as deworming, vaccinations, and dental and lameness care—as well as humane treatment. They also train locals to provide basic health care between RAM-VS visits. Much of their impact, however, comes by setting an example—demonstrating the positive affects on the animals’ attitudes and productivity rendered by gentle handling and routine veterinary care.

Contact Them

International League for the Protection of Horses
Anne Colvin House
Snetterton, Norwich, Norfolk, England NR16 2NL
Phone from U.S. to UK: 011-44-953-498682

Remote Area Medical Veterinary Services
Dept. of Large Animal Clinical Sciences
University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine
Knoxville, Tenn. 37901-1071

Working Together For Equines
PO Box 1102
Albuquerque, N.M. 87103
Phone from U.S. to UK: 011-44-131-445-5539

About the Author

Sushil Dulai Wenholz

Sushil Dulai Wenholz is a free-lance writer based in Lakewood, Colo. Her work appears in a number of leading equine publications, and she has earned awards from the American Horse Publications and the Western Fairs Association.

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