Rescue operations have evolved to combat the issue of unwanted horses by rehoming and repurposing those in need. Here is an inside look at how these agencies work, the challenges they face and the lives they save.
It was an early morning in March 2008 when Susan Fyfe’s father asked her over coffee, “Did you hear about the hundred horses?” Exhausted from a business trip she’d just returned from only a few hours earlier, she told her dad she “didn’t have time” to listen to his story.
Fyfe, owner of Keno Hills Stable in Sherwood Park, Alberta, continued her busy day managing her Arabian horse operation. Throughout the morning, other people asked if she’d heard about the hundred horses, but still, she was too busy to pay much attention to the chatter.
That afternoon she went to the Canadian Arabian Horse Registry offices to do some paperwork on some of her own horses. “It was so busy, I asked them why. After all, it wasn’t foaling time,” she said.
The office staff looked at her. “Haven’t you heard about the hundred horses?” “
Okay,” she said, finally giving in. “What about the hundred horses?”
The ‘hundred horses’ were the herd of 100 starving Arabians that the Alberta SPCA seized from Axel Hinz-Schleuter, an Arabian horse breeder in Andrew, AB, who the SPCA had fined in 2005 for animal neglect. In February 2008, following a complaint from a neighbour, the SPCA returned to investigate the situation. By the time officers arrived, nearly 30 horses had starved to death at the farm.
Fyfe learned that the surviving horses, emaciated and riddled with parasites, would be sent to auction and most likely slaughtered. That’s when she decided to step in. Later that evening, while teaching some of her students, she asked them if they had heard about the ‘hundred horses.’ Every hand went up. Then she asked a second question: would they help her if she decided to take them all in? “Every hand went up again,” said Fyfe. “The parents, the students, everyone.”
The next morning, after a phone call to her lawyer, vet and farrier, Fyfe had the SPCA out to inspect her farm. “They checked me out to make sure I wasn’t a crazy cat woman, that I was legitimate and knew what I was doing,” she said. Within 24 hours, the horses began arriving.
Fyfe was no stranger to managing big herds of horses – she has kept up to 100 equines on her 160-acre farm. But doubling the herd’s size in 24 hours was a massive undertaking. Reflecting back, five years later, she said, “I don’t know how we did it.” But the massive outpouring of support – 500 people offered to volunteer in the first two weeks – proved to Fyfe that people believed in what she was doing.
In June 2008, when the final horses from that original 100 had been placed in forever homes, Fyfe and the volunteers had a meeting. They still had funds left over from donations. “We said, ‘What should we do? Do we give this money to the equine division of the SPCA or do we continue?’” Everyone wanted to continue, so they began the process of becoming a registered charity and, in 2010, the Rescue 100 Horses Foundation was born. Rescue 100’s mandate is to take in horses seized by the SPCA. Right now, Fyfe has 19 seizures at her farm. And to date, the foundation has placed 323 horses in forever homes.
Fyfe is one of the more notable rescuers in Canada who take on the tough task of providing sanctuary for horses that slip through the cracks. When I talked to her early on a Monday morning, she tells me she’s exhausted from the weekend’s work – hosting a major fundraiser, a barn dance at her farm, to raise funds for Rescue 100. And she says the foundation is a work in progress. “In the beginning it was just literally bodies trying to make it work.”
Types of Rescues
Just as there are myriad horses and disciplines, there are countless ways to operate an organization that helps horses. Some rescues are breed or discipline specific, others operate as placement agencies and still others pull horses out of feedlots, giving a second chance to those animals that are a day away from certain death at a slaughterhouse.
In 2001, Bunnie Harasym was attending a rural auction when she decided that she needed to do something about the number of horses being sent to slaughter. That year, she and her husband bought an 80-acre farm northwest of Saskatoon, and started Paradise Stable Horse Rescue. “When I started, horse slaughter was a hidden secret in Saskatchewan. We couldn’t get support, I was labeled the crazy horse lady,” she said of her efforts to draw attention to what was happening to horses that were sent to auction.
More than a decade later, all that has changed. Today, Harasym is a go-to voice for horse welfare in her province – in April, she was interviewed by Global News, offering her commentary on the uptick in horse neglect cases in Saskatchewan.
When Harasym first began, she went to auctions and bought horses destined for slaughter, but over the last winter, she stopped going to auction. “Right now, there are owners instantly handing them over,” she said. “It just never stops,” she added, referring to the neglect and abandonment cases. “The phone rings every day with somebody who can’t look after their horses, or people telling me there are horses down the road starving that have been standing in fields all winter. It’s getting really bad.” Currently, Harasym is caring for 26 horses – full capacity for her farm – and is unable to take on any more. “It’s really, really hard [to turn horses away].”
Paradise Stable will open its barn doors to any horse that needs help, but Harasym admits she has a soft spot for the old horses. “I tend to feel extremely sorry for them,” she said, her voice softening. “They need so much care that people won’t put into them. They need medicine and special feed and people just won’t do it.”
In Ontario, Mindy Lovell has been operating Transitions Thoroughbreds for the last five years. Her organization is dedicated to retraining former racehorses for new careers. But what started as a small aftercare program has morphed into a rescue operation that now houses 65 horses at two farms in Cumberland.
Her program exploded last year as more and more horse owners and trainers faced an uncertain financial future after the Ontario Government announced they were pulling out of the slots-at-the racetrack program, a revenue-sharing deal with the province’s horse racing industry. “I never started off to do this; it evolved into a rescue this past summer with the huge increase in horses. I pulled about 45 Thoroughbreds out of the kill pens in the last few months. I haven’t pulled that many horses out in years. So there was a rapid increase, far more than what I can handle,” said Lovell.
Unlike Rescue 100, neither Paradise Stable nor Transitions Thoroughbreds is a registered charity. Both Lovell and Harasym cite red tape and legal and accounting costs as barriers to becoming incorporated non-profit entities. The government licensing fees alone can run close to $500 to incorporate a non-profit, and a minimum of three people are required to act as directors on a board. On top of this, lawyers and accountants need to be hired in various capacities to ensure transparency.
Benefits of a Registered Charity
Like Rescue 100, LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society operates as a registered charity. With its offices located at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Ontario, the organization runs a placement service for off-the-track Thoroughbreds and, last year, helped place 30 horses through its program.
Aside from being able to provide tax deductible receipts for donations, LongRun benefits from being a registered charity in many other ways. Vicki Pappas, chair and founding member of LongRun, said that a registered charity ensures accountability and also, because it requires a board, brings to the table talented people with various skill sets. “All of our board members have been involved in this particular industry for years. It would be almost impossible to leave our operation up to one person to make every decision,” she said.
Pappas added that as a registered charity, LongRun is forced to have a strict mandate, which keeps the organization focused on helping a specific type of horse – recently retired racing Thoroughbreds. She admits it’s hard to turn away people who have broodmares or former racehorses that are years removed from the track, but notes that it’s important for LongRun to remain focused on the horses it initially set out to help. “We’ve had dealings with some other charities that have opened themselves up to everything and some are now defunct. I think it becomes overwhelming. I don’t think that anybody is going to save every horse and, unfortunately, sometimes there are difficult decisions to be made. If you don’t make those decisions, you’re going to cost the whole program and all of the horses,” she said.
Fyfe agrees that when running a rescue, a strong mandate is important. “If we didn’t limit our operation to accepting SPCA seizures, we’d have 3,000 horses sitting in our backyard. We chose to limit the rescue to within our skill set, which was taking horses seized by the SPCA that couldn’t go to auction.”
A Costly Proposition
While most of us may occasionally grumble at the high costs of keeping our horses in hay, feeding one horse is nothing compared to keeping a whole herd healthy.
Harasym estimates that the basic feed and maintenance costs of each horse in her care run between $100-$200 per month and that she and her husband fund about 96 to 97 per cent of the rescue out of their own pocket (Harasym’s husband has a full-time job outside the farm, while she runs the rescue full-time, “but you can’t call it a job because there’s no pay involved” she joked). The remaining three to four per cent of the costs of running the rescue come from donations and fundraisers, such as steak dinners and postcard sales.
Harasym also offers interested people the opportunity to ‘sponsor’ a horse. For $25 per month, people can visit their ‘sponsored’ equine on Saturdays. “If the horses were people it would be interesting to hear what they had to say because all these volunteers show up with bags of cut up vegetables and fruit and bags of feed and I think the horses go ‘Woo hoo! They’re here,’” she said.
“It’s tough. You don’t vacation, you don’t buy fancy clothes, none of that,” Harasym added, explaining that she is able to keep costs down because she grows her own hay at the farm. It’s not necessarily the ‘average’ horse that eats into the pockets of the rescues. It’s those that require TLC and are often tough to adopt out that end up chewing up bank accounts. Harasym, with her penchant for the older equines, has a 34-year-old Thoroughbred mare named Arla who costs $10 a day in feed alone. “It costs a lot of money and it’s really time consuming, but it’s really a labour of love,” she said. “You’ve got to do it because, if you don’t, they’ll starve, but it’s really, really rewarding to see them fattened up after coming in with their ribs sticking out.”
LongRun received $380,000 last year in funding from the racing industry, the majority of which went towards boarding, training and veterinary fees for the horses in their foster program.
According to Pappas, their program is also at capacity with the number of horses they can take on as they don’t have a facility to take them in and must pay boarding fees. They will, however, assist owners in finding homes for their animals if the owners are able to take care of them until a suitable adopter is found.
At Transitions Thoroughbreds, Lovell said the basic costs to keep her 60+ herd runs about $8,000 per month. And she added that currently she is only bringing in about 25 per cent of the finances needed to cover her basic monthly expenses. Lovell admits it’s a precarious situation, but said that “every time a horse is adopted out, that money goes back in and gets us a little further out of the hole, or every time someone decides to send us a donation out of the blue, that’s a bonus.”
Lovell tries to take a business model approach to her operation. As a trainer, she is capable of putting the time into a rescue horse that will increase its value and allow the animal to be sold to an appropriate home for a profit, which can be put back into her rescue. “I look at the market. I look at horses that have a comparable level of schooling and what the going market rate is. If you look at some of the non-profit Thoroughbred organizations in the United States, some of the horses, with an appropriate training level, are selling for $6,000,” she said.
“The bottom line is whether that horse is sold at the base adoption fee, or whether we’re marketing horses at a higher price because they have training on them, all of this helps support the horses that might take longer to find a home because they are limited to what they can do or because they’re a little older. So the horses that are a little more marketable have to support the ones that are not quite as marketable.”
Shelley Grainger, director of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, finds nothing wrong with rescues making money from adoption fees, if that money is reinvested in the rescue. “The rescue may be able to help some younger horses and turn them around and in the bigger picture it will help more horses,” she said.
Finding your next equine partner at a rescue and knowing you gave him a second crack at life can make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. But, it’s important that adopters do their research to ensure they end up with a suitable horse and are supporting a rescue that does a good job taking care of its animals.
Reputable rescues and rehoming agencies are first and foremost interested in finding a stable, long-term home for their horses so the animals do not end up back in trouble.
Fyfe corrects me when I ask about Rescue 100’s adoption process. “We don’t adopt out horses. We place them. We check out your facility, we check out your references, we choose you. “We’ve declined a lot of people.” Plus, she noted that if a person is no longer able to care for the horse, they must “contact us immediately. We will, if circumstances warrant, take the animal back and rehome it if necessary.
Rescue 100 doesn’t have a dollar value attached to the horse. Instead, they ask the potential placement homes for a donation.
At Paradise Stable, Harasym asks that interested adopters come out to her farm on evenings and weekends for at least a month. “I need to see them interacting with the horse to see if it’s a good match,” she said. When the adopter-to-be has been matched with the right horse, she will then do a home check. “We see the place to ensure they’re going to a good home and we ask a lot of questions.”
The practice is much the same at LongRun and Transitions Thoroughbreds, and all three agencies have contracts that adopters must sign promising to return the horse if they find themselves no longer able to care for it. Adoption fees range from $500 at LongRun, to $500 to $750 at Paradise Stable and are dependent on market value at Transitions Thoroughbreds.
There is no accreditation body for horse rescues, but the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (CHDC) lists ‘qualified’ rescues on its website. Any rescue can contact the CHDC if they wish to be included on their list. The CHDC will ‘check out’ the rescue to ensure its legitimacy. In Grainger’s mind a qualified rescue meets certain criteria. “I like to see the rescue up and running for at least a year, have a long-term lease on a farm, or own their farm, be an established horse person, have a solid business plan and a good adoption application,” she said, noting there are many instances of people trying to start horse rescues and failing because of lack of money or no long-term vision.
Harasym and Pappas both say that transparency is another indicator of a good rescue. “You should be able to go out and see the farm and look at the condition of the horses,” said Harasym.
Grainger recommends keeping an eye out for facilities that appear to have too many horses. “Some people out there are hoarder types,” she said. “They have good intentions, but they can’t follow through on the care for their horses, they don’t see the big picture sometimes.”
One issue of contention that has cropped up with the growing awareness of horse slaughter is the origins of some of these rescue horses. There has been controversy over pulling horses out of feedlots, in the way that Lovell does. When Lovell buys a horse from a feedlot, the money goes directly to the meat dealer and in Lovell’s words, “it’s much more than the meat price he’d get for the horse.” This doesn’t sit well with some horse advocates who don’t like the idea of padding the pockets of people who deal in slaughter. Lovell defends this practice, however, saying, “That horse doesn’t deserve to die just because some a**hole didn’t step up to the plate and do the right thing.”
Grainger echoes this sentiment. “Some people have such a pessimistic view and say ‘Oh the kill buyer made $200 on that horse and he’s just going to bring in another horse to fill that horse’s spot.’ You can look at it that way, but how else are you going to help horses that are actually in the slaughter pipeline?”
Euthanasia or Rescue?
The CHDC has implemented some ‘horse protection initiatives’ to encourage people to adopt from rescues and aid those who need to make tough end-of-life decisions about their horses.
People can apply to receive $150 towards the cost of euthanasia of their horse. As well, the CHDC offers a $50 rebate to those who adopt horses from the qualified rescues listed on their website (defendhorsescanada.org).
All of the organizations, however, which are bursting at the seams with equines in need, agree that people need to take greater responsibility for theirhorses.
The Thoroughbred industry has recently addressed this issue with an initiative called the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. This program, implemented by the Jockey Club Canada, increased the fees of all registry-related transactions by $25, as of January 1, 2013. This money will be pooled in a slush fund and donated to Thoroughbred aftercare programs that apply for funding and meet strict requirements as laid out by the Alliance. “The Thoroughbred industry is really working hard to make sure these horses are able to move into new careers after racing,” said Stacie Roberts, executive director of the Jockey Club of Canada.
More work still needs to be done, however, to ensure horses aren’t viewed as disposable commodities. In Harasym’s part of Canada, she gets particularly irked by people who call her up with an older horse that they no longer want to care for. “I get so many calls from people saying ‘I have a 23-year-old horse, we’ve had her since she was two years old, wonderful horse, we’d like to now find her a retirement home.’ I’m like ‘Are you serious? You are that horse’s retirement home. You can’t dump that horse on a rescue because you want to get a younger horse,’” she said.
And, while she wants to save horses, she knows the limits of rescues and has changed her view son euthanasia. “It’s okay to put a horse down, even if it’s a healthy horse,” she said. “Rather than see it suffer or be abused or neglected, put the horse down. I’ve really changed my opinion on that over the years. It’s not such a bad thing for the horse in the end.”
THINKING OF STARTING A RESCUE?
Legal considerations for running horse rescue operations
by Catherine Willson, B.A., L.L.B. and Adrian Roomes, B.A., J.D.
When establishing a horse rescue operation, first of all, people should consider what form it will take. If running it as a business, will it be a sole proprietorship or a corporation? Sole proprietorships are businesses run by individuals. Profit, loss, and all risk belong to the individual. Sole proprietorships are easy to start, and financial reporting requirements are fairly inexpensive.
Corporations, on the other hand, are standalone entities. They can buy and sell property, generate income and loss, and shelter their founders from liability and risk. Corporations are more expensive to create, and yearly financial filings are more onerous and expensive. Where a business has significant risk, or where a business may generate significant income or gain, its founders will usually incorporate that business.
In addition, horse rescue operations should consider whether to become not-for-profit corporations or charities.
A not-for-profit organization is a non-share corporation. It doesn’t have shareholders or investors. It is a corporation formed for social good and not to make profit. It has members instead of shareholders. It must have an executive and a board of directors, who guide the activities of the organization and are responsible for its corporate governance.
A registered charity is a non-profit organization approved by Canada Revenue Agency to issue tax receipts for eligible donations. There is a special application, review and approval process required for a charity. Also, charities are restricted in the purposes and activities they are permitted to pursue in order to maintain registered charity status.
It is best to research all forms of set up and speak with an accountant before making the choice. For more information, check the applicable provincial government website as well as the federal government website for setting up charities and not-for-profit corporations.
In terms of the day-to-day operation, there are steps that should be taken to minimize risk for its founders, employees and volunteers. This includes both the physical risk of harm, as well as legal risk.
When accepting horses into the horse rescue operation, at a minimum, the following steps should be taken:
- Obtain, where possible, a comprehensive history of each horse through site visits, discussions with any treating veterinarians, barn staff, owners, etc. This will provide the operation with information necessary to treat the horse and protect it and the rescue staff from any foreseeable risks.
- Insist that a written surrender/waiver form be executed by the owner of the horse prior to acceptance. This is the contract that will permit the rescue operation to treat and adopt out or sell the horse to a caring home.
- Initial assessment by a veterinarian on intake is important to determine any health risks for the horse or others and to plan a course of rehabilitation.
- Document through video and photo evidence and witness statements, where important, the condition of the horse on intake.
When adopting recovered horses out to new homes or selling them to new homes, certain safeguards should be in place:
- Prepare a written agreement, listing both parties’ rights and obligations on the adoption or sale. Will the operation retain any rights to monitor the horse’s health and well-being and possibly, to recover the horse if it is not being treated properly? What information is given to the adopting home about the horse’s character, behavioural traits and history? Is there any liability to the horse rescue operation for failing to disclose a dangerous trait of the horse to its new owners?
- The adoption process should include, at minimum, an intensive interview and a visit to the prospective new home. Requiring references is also common.
- If the adoption does not go well, for whatever reason, a take-back option in the adoption contract would help to ensure that the horse does not suffer.
These are just a few of the many legal considerations for a prospective horse rescue operation. The most important thing to do, for any person or organization seeking to engage in this work, is to speak to someone with knowledge and experience who can guide them through the process step-by-step. A little forethought can prevent many problems and enhance the experience for the good of all and especially for the horses!
Catherine Willson is a partner at Willson Lewis LLP in Toronto (www.willsonlewis.com). This information deals with complex matters and may not apply to particular facts and circumstances. The information reflects laws and practices that are subject to change. For these reasons, this information should not be relied on as a substitute for specialized professional advice in connection with any particular matter.