“…so that they may live the remainder of their lives in safety and dignity.”
This statement is the last line of our Mission Statement and it underpins our whole philosophy toward equine rescue. When we founded White Bird nearly ten years ago, we decided that we would be a rescue of last resort, taking in horses in urgent need and only after all other avenues had been exhausted. So when we are presented with a situation in which a horse is determined to be at risk, our approach is to first assess the needs of the horse and then assess our ability to help. The horse’s ultimate adoptability is not a consideration. This practice, which is fairly common among rescues, has sometimes been derisively referred to as the “warehousing” of unusable, unsound, unwanted and unadoptable horses at the expense of (presumably) useable, sound, wanted, and adoptable horses. The assumption is that taking in only sound, “adoptable” horses will result in more and faster adoptions and a higher number of horses saved.
But let’s examine that thinking more closely.
A “useable horse” is generally assumed to be rideable, at the very least for trail riding, but may have some other ability. However, we feel that usability has a wider definition. Here, useable horses also act as ambassadors for the Rescue in welcoming visitors, providing hands-on experience in teaching horse care to youngsters (and adults) who have little or no experience with horses and serving as gentle companions to timid or disabled horses. On a lead line, they can help teach the smallest of beginners to ride and they also teach compassion for equines to people who may never have had the experience of meeting one “up close and personal.” In that sense, being able to be ridden may have little bearing on the horse’s ability to be “useable.”
“Soundness” is a term that is both relative and temporal. A horse that is sound to trail ride is not necessarily sound to jump. And a horse that is sound to jump today may be unsound tomorrow. At the time we make a decision to accept an animal into the rescue, we rarely have sufficient information to evaluate soundness. And if we did? See above paragraph.
“Unwanted” is another term that is casually and frequently used to define some horses. There are very few if any, genuinely unwanted horses. Typically, the term is applied to horses that are unwanted at some point in time by whoever owns them. And if no one else wants them at that time, they are sometimes surrendered to us. But we know that given time and assistance, even the fugliest, goofiest, most ancient equines can generally find someone who wants them. Take Mr. Bowersox, one of our most senior residents. It appear that no one wanted him when he was abandoned at an auction, blind and emaciated. Yet, his gentle, affectionate personality has made him a hit at the Rescue, especially among children. Will he be wanted b someone else? We think he might be. Right now, his best friend Allison wants him more than anyone.
All of these descriptors are generally and sometimes legitimately considered to affect adoptability. But the adoptability of any individual is still a matter of opinion. Our healthiest, most talented horses have not been the fastest to adopt. Our best riding horses are often slow to adopt if they have any medical issue at all, however trivial. In our thinking, finding homes often has more to do with matching an adopter to a horse an vice versa than whether a horse is considered adoptable by those criteria. We understand that relatively few people have the wherewithal to maintain a pasture pet, especially one requiring regular medication, but that in itself does not make any of our horses unadoptable, or undeserving of a good home. And pasture pets are not necessarily more expensive to maintain than riding horses.
In fact, we question the idea that perceived adoptability should outweigh any consideration of the horse’s prior service to mankind. This is perhaps our strongest reason for not simply euthanizing senior and unsound horses to make room for new ones. We often receive little information on the horses who come to the Rescue. However, we can pretty quickly assess their level of training and socialization and it’s been clear to us that most of the horses that we have ever taken in have been trained as riding horses – even o 40+ -year old pony, Allison. Abandoned, blind and emaciated, she came to us after a vet’s assessment tha she still had some good years left, despite her medical problems. Although she was not fond of people, he ground manners were good. And the clinching argument that she had been more than just a pasture ornament came one day while she was in her paddock next to the round pen, where another horse was in training. We suddenly noticed that Allison, in response to the commands given in the nearby round pen, was lunging herself around her blind friend on an imaginary lunge line. Sightless, neurologic and ancient, she still remembered that she had once had a job and was ready to do it again.
We don’t subscribe to the argument that passing more horses through the Rescue faster is necessarily better. Often, more is simply more. And sometimes, more is actually less if you are not continuing to monito the health and whereabouts of your adopted horses. But the argument that horses with issues are taking u more space than sound horses is not entirely valid, anyway. With the great age and medical conditions of many of these horses, we have a natural attrition rate, as we must often say goodbye to them via humane euthanasia at a rate that may not be all that different from the turnover of sound horses with behavioral issues that are being retrained and placed.
Humans retire when their work is done. They’ve earned that. We think that horses deserve that, too. The problem is not in keeping senior or impaired horses alive in preference to young, fit rideable ones, but in ensuring that there are places for all. That is our goal, and the goal of the compassionate individuals who understand and support our mission. They support it because they are selfless and kind, not because they expect some sort of payment from the horses in return for their rescue. But only when we finally we achieve that can we can truly promise “…that they may live the remainder of their lives in safety and dignity.”