Rescue & Rehab Facilities

To most people, the aging process seems cruel. Your body becomes less dependable, you can't do things as quickly as you used to, and you take a long time to recover from illness and injury. For horses, all of this applies and, in many cases, to a greater extent. Young horses are useful for sport, while old horses are often too fragile for the show ring. The same goes for younger horses that have been injured on the job.

What's done with these animals once their careers are over varies. Some are kept in boarding facilities alongside show horses. Others are donated to therapeutic riding programs. Sadly, however, a great number remain unwanted or uncared for. Or their owners no longer have the financial means to support them.

In an effort to address this problem, some horse lovers entertain the idea of starting facilities that are specifically designed for accommodating and possibly rehabilitating retired or rescued horses. While the need for these farms definitely exists, potential facility operators should be aware of what they are getting into, according to those already in the business. Running a specialized facility is significantly different from operating an ordinary boarding facility.

Defining the Three R's

Kari DeLeeuw, DVM, at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital in Snohomish, Wash., notes the difference between retirement, rehabilitation, and rescue operations: "Retirement facilities are for when the horse may not necessarily be in a bad state at the moment; however, it is no longer able to perform its previous function."

Racehorses that are no longer winning at the track are a common example. "They are not sound enough to jump or maybe even ride, and it doesn't necessarily mean that they had any bad care in the past," says DeLeeuw. "It just means that they need somewhere to go to make sure that their future care is adequate."

In some way, rehabilitation plays a role in both retirement and rescue farms. "Rehabilitation can be involved in both places because often the horses that are no longer fit for their current purpose have to be rehabilitated in order to heal from whatever stopped them from being worked," DeLeeuw explains. "With rescue operations, the horses are literally being taken from a situation where the proper care is not being given. This requires rehabilitation in a sense, even if that rehabilitation is just about getting routine visits from the vet and vaccinations."

At Squirrelwood Farms in Montgomery, N.Y., Beth Hyman and Diane Butler oversee rehabilitation and retirement for an average of 25 horses at a time. The farm--which caters to performance sport horses from all disciplines, including Grand Prix dressage horses, show jumpers, Western pleasure horses, and retired racehorses--is set up to accommodate acute and chronic conditions.

"What we had found from managing other boarding facilities is that the horses that were injured were the ones that were really put to the side," Hyman recalls. "They received the least attention because they were no longer in the daily grind of showing. We found that the horses that needed the most attention got the least. That is why we decided that this is what we wanted to do. It comes down to good, solid horsemanship and good stable-keeping practices whether you are rehabilitating, retiring, or rescuing."

Among the services offered at these facilities are therapeutic ultrasound, laser therapy, magnetic field therapy, herbal blends, acupuncture, acupressure, massage, chiropractic, hot and cold therapy, wrapping, irritant and counter-irritant treatments, hand-walking, longeing, under saddle work, long-lining, and round pen work. "We have a good working knowledge of today's vet practices, the new treatments that are available, and any new advancements," Hyman says. Veterinarians, farriers, massage therapists, chiropractors, dentists, and acupuncturists are all scheduled according to each horse's individual needs.

"What we mainly do is a lot of sport horse rehabilitation; we take horses that come out of surgical facilities and rehabilitate them," Hyman explains. "On the flip side of that are the retirees. We take a lot of performance horses who are just finishing their show careers, but are still very much active. We continue to work them and slowly let them down until they are completely retired." On average, this tends to happen for horses around their mid-20s.

To the Rescue

DeLeeuw works closely with Hope for Horses, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that aims to rescue horses that have been abused or neglected, or run the risk of being slaughtered as a result of injury, age, or lack of performance. Hope for Horses is based in Leicester, N.C. "This organization specifically deals with the horses that have been tied to a truck tire for months--those that are underweight and under-cared for," she explains. "They will try to get them to a place where they can be suitably adopted."

One of the most frustrating aspects of horse rescue, DeLeeuw notes, is that the definition of a "neglected" or "abused" horse is extremely varied. "It completely depends on the situation and even the counties that the horses are living in," she says. "In some areas, people get upset when horses don't have shelter provided for them. In other areas, the horse literally has to be skin and bones for anyone to even bat an eyelash. It really depends on who is paying attention."

The channels through which horse rescuers operate also vary depending on their geographic location and the specific situation. "Sometimes they will go through the police department, or someone will report them to the animal neglect or the animal cruelty department, then the authorities will seek something out like Hope for Horses," DeLeeuw explains. "But the horse community is so communicative that through word of mouth, someone from Hope for Horses will find out about a horse in a poor state and contact the owner and say, 'Would you be willing to let us take over the care of your horse and find it a better situation?' "

Work, Work, Work

While the temptation is to do it all--provide a comfortable place where horses can be rehabilitated, rescued, or retired--those already in the business warn that it's probably best to focus on either rescue or retirement, based on the workload involved with both ventures. "It is a huge endeavor to try and do the rescue, which has the rehabilitation and re-adoption," says DeLeeuw. "Some facilities will do rehabilitation and re-adoption, and others will set themselves up as a horse sanctuary--their last stop. They will take the horses, keep them until the end of their lives, and make sure that they are happy. It kind of all depends on finances. It certainly can be combined, but it would be quite an endeavor and involve such a huge spectrum of things that the people operating the facility would have to deal with."

As it stands, the workload for one or the other can be a bit daunting. As they age, retirees develop health conditions that require individualized treatment programs. Rescue horses--many of which require rehabilitation from either an injury or neglect--also require a great deal of one-on-one care.

"It's very horse-specific," says DeLeeuw. "They need lots of face time and a lot of treats because some of them have been scared or neglected, and in order to give them a good home, they require lots of personal contact. Ideally, these organizations need to have enough manpower to be able to meet the needs of each individual horse, which is probably one of the most difficult things for a rescue organization to achieve."

"The most critical aspect of running an organization like ours is tailoring a program to each horse. They are all such individuals," Hyman notes. "You can say, 'A horse requires five hours of turnout a day, so that is what we are going to provide.' But for a lot of horses, it doesn't work that way. Sometimes they will not tolerate it initially because they are not accustomed to it. We tailor our program to each horse and work with them as individuals, which is what we find to be the most successful."

This requires facility operators to adopt a different approach from the way many traditional barns are run. "You are normally trying to get the horse to stay within your routine," Hyman observes. "When you are showing, you are trying to get the most performance out of them, whereas when you are working with rehabilitation cases or retirees, you are now focusing on trying to manage that horse from their perspective and their personality type. The roles are reversed at that point."

With sport horses, one of the biggest issues is making them comfortable with a less-structured schedule, Hyman reflects. "It takes time to convince them that everything is not so high-powered and busy anymore," she says. "They need to become acquainted with the quietness and longer stretches of time without everyone running around doing things."

To facilitate this transition, Hyman suggests finding an activity the horse enjoys and incorporating it into his routine. "Some horses like to be hand-walked, so we would do that a couple of times a day," she illustrates. "Other horses don't want to be outside--they'd rather be groomed in their stalls because they are more comfortable that way. It comes down to the individual horse."

The same philosophy applies to the veterinary treatment of horses at Squirrelwood Farms. For example, the treatment of arthritis might be carried out differently from horse to horse, depending on the owner's wishes.

"We can either pursue it in an aggressive manner with injections or whatever it is to manage the horse, and some owners will say, 'That is exactly what I want to do,' " Hyman explains. "Other owners will say that the horse is going to slow down, and they will choose to manage the condition with supplements and feed. It really depends on the owner; we sit down and discuss what they want for their horse, then we go from there."

Compared to regular boarding facilities, those operating retirement and rehabilitation farms tend not to see owners very much. "Especially with the rehabilitation cases, we tend not to deal with the owners very much," says Hyman. "It can be as extreme as us dealing with their accountant, or we deal with the trainer. With the retirees it's a bit more involved; on average, our retirees see their owners every two weeks or so."

Stable Management

Additionally, the farms themselves should be configured to accommodate the special needs of their inhabitants. Facility operators must employ effective stable management practices that contribute to the recuperation and well-being of the horses under their care.

For injured horses, DeLeeuw advises against 24-hour stall rest. "In general, strict stall confinement is never ideal--even if the stalls are well-maintained," she says. "With older horses, their joints will get more arthritic, and with limited movement, there are problems. The ideal situation would be that horses can move around freely as much as they want, often in a large pasture situation, as long as it's one where they can be checked up on and monitored at least a couple of times a day."

Above all, it's imperative to create a tranquil environment that promotes rest and relaxation--especially for rehabilitating horses. "As far as rehabilitation goes, a big challenge is keeping the horses quiet and settled, especially if their activity is restricted," Hyman notes. "The main way to achieve this is keeping a very quiet barn, and keeping the activity level very low and manageable."

Money: The Necessary Evil

DeLeeuw warns that bringing a horse back from an injury or neglect comes with its costs. "A certain amount of money is required to be put into restoring the horse to the shape it should have been maintained in," she says. As a result, the proprietors of non-profit rescue operations aren't just horse people; they're fundraisers.

Mona Kanciper is president of the New York Horse Rescue Corporation in Manorville, N.Y. The non-profit organization was incorporated in 1998, and it now operates from its location in Manorville and a newer, smaller facility in Hart's Cove. Kanciper runs the facility in conjunction with her husband, Judson Butler, DVM, an equine veterinarian specializing in racehorses.

While Kanciper acknowledges that running a rescue barn is plenty of work in and of itself, the fundraising aspect of the job can be one of the most time-consuming tasks associated with the business of horse rescue.

"I had no idea that this would grow into as large a corporation as it is," she says. "It was inconceivable to me how many horses, how much work, how much bookkeeping, and how much fundraising this would require. It has turned into much more than a full-time job. Anyone who is running a charity is in the fundraising business no matter how you slice it."

And the work isn't done once the horse is rescued, rehabilitated, and adopted out. To ensure that the entire process accomplished what the rescuers set out to achieve, some follow-up is required.

"I'd recommend that these organizations track the horses they adopt out--whether it's a place where people are sending their horses to retire or a rescue organization--so they can make sure those horses don't end up back in the same situation they came from," DeLeeuw advises. "It's very common that someone will get a horse as a rescue, and that same horse has to be rescued again because it's not suitable for riding, or people may not realize that they are not getting as much from the horse as they feel they are providing for it, and it ends up being taken care of poorly."

Kanciper aims to avoid this problem by being completely honest and realistic about what to expect out of the rescue horses she adopts out. "I tell people what is wrong with the horse and give them reasonable expectations for the horse," she says. "People can tell that I am being honest, and they are very honest with me in return. It works out well. The horse is the one that matters--otherwise you just wind up taking horses in and out of these situations if people aren't happy. You also don't get referral business or second adoptions."

Ultimately, if a specialized operation such as a horse rescue or retirement farm is to be successful, its operators must have a clear idea of their limits. "For people willing to take this on, it is amazingly rewarding, but I don't think people realize how much work and commitment it ends up requiring," DeLeeuw emphasizes. "The horses just keep coming and coming, so you often get the feeling that you are never doing enough because there are so many more that need to be helped, and you want to help all of them. The people who do this are so compassionate that when they run across these situations, it is really difficult for them to say no."

For those investigating the possibility of opening a rescue operation, Kanciper advises much thought, consideration, and planning.

"Everyone has good intentions, but from my experience, one has no idea how much work it is and how it takes over your life," she says. "I love what I do, but it's a lot of work. People think that there is an abundance of government funding, but there isn't. We do get some grant money, but not from the government, and not enough to support our operation for a year. It's not a profitable business." 


Once they have brought a rescued horse to their property, the first order of business for horse rescuers is to conduct a vet check. The challenge? Many of these horses are fearful of human beings as a result of abuse, making examinations more challenging than usual. The trick is to enlist a vet who is calm and patient in these situations.

Kari DeLeeuw, DVM, of Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital in Snohomish, Wash., regularly works with rescue horses through Hope for Horses, a 501(c)(3) non-profit horse rescue organization based in Leicester, N.C. "The very first thing they have me do is come out and examine them to see if they have any potentially contagious problem that can be spread to the horses nearby," she says.

DeLeeuw describes her experience with one mare that had injured her leg in the trailer en route to the farm: "Just to get a halter on her, we had to feed her sedatives, because she had never had a halter on her before," she explains. "Once she was sedated, we had to sedate her even more in order to look at the wound."

In other cases, a simple needle results in extreme panic.

"The first problem is that many of them won't let you get near them, then in terms of their condition, most of them come with parasites because they haven't been de-wormed properly," says DeLeeuw. "Most of them are underweight--whether it is due to the parasites or inappropriate feeding."

Mares are extra tricky, because it can be hard to determine if they are pregnant. "They could have been outside with whomever, and if they have never been handled during a pregnancy exam, it's difficult."

Teeth, too, tend to need immediate attention. "From the get-go these horses need their teeth done, all of their vaccinations, and a lot of deworming," says DeLeeuw.

Considering all of these initial problems, those investigating the adoption of a rescue horse might be hesitant to do so in fear of the increased probability of health problems down the road. According to DeLeeuw, this is not a huge issue if the horse is rehabilitated properly once rescued. "They can definitely be easy keepers once you get the appropriate amount of weight back on them," she says.

The same goes for odd behavioral traits. "I would say that the potential horse owner can expect the horse to be a good horse. Sometimes they are even more appreciative because they came from a bad situation to such a good situation," DeLeeuw notes. "Often they have baggage, where perhaps there will be that one specific thing that makes the horse terrified, and you may not know why, but it is such a small thing compared to this wonderful horse that you now have because you have been through this whole rescue and rehabilitation with it, and now it has a good home. It can be very rewarding."--Carolyn Heinze

ONE FARM'S EXPERIENCES: Moonlight Farms Caters to the Older Crowd

When Melissa Sass and her husband purchased a farm in Medina, Ohio, 1998, she was seeking a pasture buddy for her horse. A friend donated her retired mount, and a business was born.

"This business kind of started by accident," Sass recalls. "I had other people call to see if I could board their horses. I was just planning on having two, and I have eight now, and we have a waiting list."

Sass has embraced her role as facility owner wholeheartedly. "It's something I really enjoy," she says. "It gives them a chance to live out their lives and be well cared for. And it seems that people who don't have their own farms are really looking for something like this."

For retired horses, Sass finds that the more time spent on pasture, the better. "Most of our horses are out on pasture, which is the best thing for them because they are happiest to be there," she says. "They all have stalls that they come into at night, but for their older joints and bones, it is more comfortable for them (outside)."

Sass has used her experiences with traditional boarding facilities to shape the way she operates her own. "When we bought this place, my horse was having a lot of problems with arthritis," she recalls. "He was put out to pasture here for a few hours a day, and his arthritis has improved greatly. It has made a world of difference for him. Basically, the horses here live the life of leisure--they are out to pasture all day and they are spoiled and pampered. We handle them exactly the way the owner wants. With a lot of boarding facilities that doesn't seem to be the case, but here it is."

The horses at Moonlight Farms are between 20 and 25 years old. Many of their owners live far away and rely on Sass to provide them with regular updates. "They will come out a few times at first to see that their horse is comfortable and well cared for, and that he has probably gotten a little chubby," says Sass. "I send pictures out a couple of times a year for them. The majority of our owners have purchased a new horse or are busy with their careers, so this is just one thing that they don't have to worry about because they know that their horse is happy and well-cared for."

Sass points out that one of the biggest challenges associated with operating a retirement facility is the amount of time and commitment that is required out of the facility owners. "We tried to take a vacation once and it was really hard, because it's difficult to find someone to take your place," she says. "You really need someone to look out for them all of the time, because things can happen."

Sass advises those interested in opening their own facilities to start gradually. "Start out slow and small, and make sure that this is what you want to do and that you are committed enough and have enough time to do it," she says. "You can't just throw an old horse out to pasture and think that it will be fine. You must make sure that this is what you want to do."

For a retirement facility to truly work, Sass believes that it should house retirees only. "I know that some of the other retirement facilities will do boarding and showing as well, and there is a lot of coming and going with trailers in and out," she says. "I think it's kind of nice (at a retirement-only farm) if they don't have to worry about what's going on, or what's happening in the next barn or the next stall. I think they like being in a retirement home."--Carolyn Heinze


Ryerss Farm for Aged Equines first opened its door to aged equines on June 11, 1889, and has been in the business of helping horses live out the rest of their years in a peaceful environment ever since. It is the country's largest and oldest retirement farm for horses.

The farm was originated as the result of an endowment as the legacy of Anne Waln Ryerss, and it was originally a hospital for ill, aged, and injured animals. Ryerss' infirmary became a haven for old hunters, ponies, and work horses from around Philadelphia. Now, the farm is located in Coventryville, Penn., and resides on 384 acres.

"There are all kinds of horses that are retired here. We mainly have hunters and jumpers, but there are also dressage horses, several from the New York City Police Department, some Belgians from pharmaceutical companies, and three abused horses from the ASPCA and Large Animal Protection Association," says Joe Donahue, president of Ryerss. "Currently, we have 100 horses, two of which are 40 years old."

The admission requirements for a horse to live at Ryerss are:

  • Horses must be at least 20, basically sound, and in reasonably good health;
  • An up-to-date veterinary certificate showing the horse has no communicable diseases;
  • Current rabies and tetanus vaccinations, and a Coggins test within one year;
  • Teeth checked and floated if necessary;
  • Deworming within 30 days;
  • Shoes removed and feet trimmed;
  • Signed contract by the owner relinquishing all rights to the horse; and
  • One-time admittance donation of at least $4,000.

The daily routine for a horse at Ryerss consists of everyone being fed and turned out (weather permitting) early in the morning into one of the numerous large pastures, spending the day grazing and socializing, then coming back inside around 2:30 pm, when everyone is fed grain (if needed), fresh water, and free-choice hay, says Donahue.

"Funding for the program is raised by Ryerss. We send out an annual appeal by Nov. 1 each year for donations. We also have an auxiliary that raises funds through a paper chase, auction, and horseless horse show. There is also a 'Support a Horse' program, where for $30 a month you can support a horse here," he notes. "Also, of our 384 acres, 160 are tillable. We raise our own hay and grain each year, and we sell the surplus after our own barns are filled."

Owners are encouraged to visit their horses. "There are quite a few owners that come faithfully to see their horses and groom them. One man drives from the far end of Ohio to come see his horses," says Donahue. "Many local owners visit their horses frequently and are volunteers around two or three days a week. They clean stalls and water buckets, and groom other horses."

Donahue says that Ryerss is a very special and unique place for horses that are no longer able to perform in their intended capacity. "This is the best situation in the horse world. For an initial fee of $4,000, we keep the horse and supply everything it needs from the day it comes to the farm, including all vaccinations, dentistry and farrier care, feed, stall cleaning, turnout, grooming, special care (from injuries), and whatever else the horse might need," he concludes.

If you are interested in donating a horse to Ryerss, volunteering at the farm, or making a financial contribution, visit or call 610/469-0533.--Marcella M. Reca

About the Author

Carolyn Heinze

Carolyn Heinze ( is a freelance writer/editor. She currently works from her pied à terre in Paris, France, where she continually dreams of convincing the French Republican Guard to let her have a go-round on one of its magnificent horses. One can dream, can't they?

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