Written by: Teresa van Bryce

More and more people are opting to rescue abused or unwanted horses. Find out how to make the process smooth and successful, and how to avoid the potential pitfalls.

Thumbnail for A New “Breed” of Horse: The Rescue

Yasmine Falkenburger photo

It used to be you’d hear “Thoroughbred,” “Arab,” or “Quarter Horse” when you asked what kind of horse someone owned. Now, you’re just as likely to hear “Rescue.” Horses have long been bought and sold by breed or discipline, but a whole new category is making inroads in the horse industry – the rescue horse. These horses may be unwanted, broken or labelled dangerous, but all have one thing in common…a story of kindness, of someone who cared. Following are three such stories.

The Unwanted

Jon Cooper and his wife Carmen were interested in developing a program that would use horses to help people, and felt rescue horses would be a great fit for the program. They visited Bear Valley Rescue in Sundre, Alberta, looking for the first of their prospects. After meeting a lot of horses, they fell for Bear, a small, sorrel two-year-old, who had come to Bear Valley as a weanling. A horse trainer by trade, Jon started Bear himself. Quiet and easy going from the start, Bear’s training progressed well and, at just three, he was being used as a lesson horse in one of Jon’s riding programs.

In the summer of 2010, Jon was invited to participate in the Cowboy Up Challenge at the Calgary Stampede, a sporting event that showcases both horse and rider as they manoeuver through a series of obstacles, demonstrating horsemanship skills and speed. The horse’s ability to trust his rider and be a calm, willing partner is put to the test during the three days of competition. Although not a horse Jon considers extremely athletic, Bear was solid and confident throughout the competition, finishing fourth in Canada and eighth overall.

Since his time under the bright lights at the Stampede, Bear has returned to a quieter life. Jon sold him to two of his students and Bear is now teacher to their young children, a set of triplets and their younger brother. The kids are able to climb all over him and regularly ride him in lessons with Carmen. Competitively, it’s just been lead-line so far, but watch for Bear in the Canadian Cowboy Challenge competitions as his young riders get older and more accomplished.

What they did right…

  • Jon and Carmen were experienced horse owners, with a background in training and an eye for horses.
  • They had the benefit of starting Bear under saddle themselves.
  • They got to know Bear well and put in the necessary training to make him safe and reliable before reselling him.

The Broken

The grey Arabian gelding was found at the back of an auction yard by Nicola Redpath of Prince George Equine Rescue in British Columbia. He was extremely thin, his feet badly overgrown and he had a terribly swollen face. When he didn’t go through the auction ring, Nicola went to inquire and was told the horse would be shipped directly for meat because of his injury. Knowing she might have to put him down if his condition was beyond the rescue’s means to repair, she bought him anyway. Two days later, Nicola’s worst fears were confirmed – x-rays showed a shattered lower jaw and the vet was given the go-ahead to euthanize him. Whether it was out of sympathy, due to the horse’s sweet temperament, because it was an opportunity to complete a unique and difficult procedure, or some combination of reasons, Dr. Jodyne Green became the grey gelding’s guardian angel, donating the surgery.

It took six hours to piece the jaw back together, wiring it all in place. According to the staff at Murdoch Veterinary Clinic, it was like piecing together a puzzle, which gave them the idea for the horse’s name, Jigsaw. Safely out of surgery, the next big obstacles were pain management, feeding and staving off infection. He was fed a liquefied ration several times a day, given regular mouth flushes and medicated constantly. Jigsaw handled it all like a champ, cooperatively going into his separate paddock for feeding and doctoring.

When he’d healed enough and gained some weight, Nicola was able to ride him around the field at liberty – no halter, no bridle, no saddle – controlling his movement with only her legs and seat. He’d obviously had a lot of training. Eight months into his recovery, it was time to think about putting Jigsaw up for adoption, a difficult decision. She invited her sister, Lorraine, out for a ride, pairing her up with Jigsaw, and before the ride was through Jigsaw had a new home, Lorraine had a new horse and Nicola kept him in the family.

Where things could have gone wrong…

  • While Nicola is an experienced rescue operator, the average person should not attempt to rescue an injured or unhealthy horse. Even in this case, luck played a huge role in Jigsaw’s happy ending. Most people should not rely on generousity to see them through the financial challenges of horse rescue.
  • Most people do not have the time to nurse a horse to the degree Jigsaw required. Daily monitoring and multiple treatments are a strain on the caregiver’s time and wallet.
  • There is a certain amount of risk involved with re-homing a horse with a traumatic past. Nicola was fortunate that a family member was willing to take Jigsaw on.

The Dangerous

“He’s dangerous.” That’s what Christine Curtin was told about the 16.2 hand Clyde/Hackney/Thoroughbred cross. An experienced rider and an instructor at two Toronto, Ontario stables, Christine decided to go and have a look. Brodie had been passed from owner to owner and finally turned out in a field – neglected, underweight, needing deworming, feet overgrown. What Brodie had experienced in his seven years was uncertain, but he had become extremely fearful of people. He was difficult to catch but, once he was on a lunge line, Christine saw the potential – lovely movement and balanced gaits.

Brodie was terrified of being mounted and dismounted, roaching his back and crow hopping as soon as a foot went in the stirrup, and running backwards when the rider tried to dismount. Knowing she couldn’t do it alone, Christine enlisted the help of a good friend and fellow horsewoman, Meaghan Perry. Christine started off mounting and dismounting very quietly from the right side. They discovered that Brodie’s negative experiences had mostly involved someone on the left side, and making this small change gave her an opening. Brodie’s other great fear when under saddle was having a rider move around on his back in any way. Patting him was an absolute no-no. For three months, with Meaghan holding the end of the lunge line, Christine worked solely on mounting, sitting very still while walking and trotting and dismounting. During this time, Christine also worked on desensitizing Brodie to many types of human contact. Initially, he would cower at the back of his stall when people were in the barn and jump away when anyone tried to pet him, but through consistency, patience and reward he slowly began to trust.

It’s been two years since those first tentative rides and Brodie has continued to astonish Christine with his progress. Last year, it was the hunter division where he proved himself a reliable and honest jumper. This year, they are working on dressage with plans to compete in eventing. Brodie is extremely brave on the cross-country course, is never spooky and never stops at an obstacle. Now that Christine has earned his trust and developed a bond with him, it seems that Brodie will literally follow her anywhere and approaches new situations with confidence, as long as she says it’s okay.

Why time is important…

  • Not everyone has the time or patience needed to bring some horses around. Christine is an experienced horsewoman and instructor with the facilities and access to other professionals’ help and advice.
  • Christine’s background gives her an advantage when it comes to knowledge of training progression, when to push and when not to. An inexperienced handler could set back a horse’s recovery, and come to harm along the way.
  • At this point, Christine still owns Brodie and is revelling in her hard work, still moving forward. She is aware that he is a work in progress, and that more time must be put in to help him meet his full potential.

Rescue Realities

Rescuing a horse can be a very rewarding experience, but not one to be taken on by the impatient, inexperienced or, in some cases, underfunded. Although often inexpensive to purchase or adopt compared to others on the market, a rescue horse should not be viewed as simply a “cheap” horse. These horses may require the support of professional services (i.e. trainers, veterinarians, corrective farriers) and a significant amount of time and patience to bring them to a place that meets the needs of the owner, not to mention the standards of soundness – mentally and physically.

If you are looking at adopting a horse, clinician Nettie Barr of Canadian Natural Horsemanship recommends you look at the realities of your situation and not let emotions lead your decisions. Consider the physical needs, the mind and the background of the horse, and adopt one that matches your skill level, experience and resources. Does the horse have any foot, dental or other health problems? Are there conformation issues that may limit its use or require custom saddle fitting? Has there been an injury or experience that will impact the horse’s behaviour or physical abilities?

When considering adoption from an equine rescue organization, take a look at the facility, structure and policies of the rescue. Many organizations are operating on a very tight budget, so don’t expect anything fancy when you drive onto the property, but do expect safe and clean, with well-cared for animals. Otherwise, find another rescue to visit.

Carolyn Stull is the Animal Welfare Specialist at the University of California. She said, “Selecting a rescue organization is important. I would ask about the longevity of the rescue – how long has it been in business? What is their policy for adopting or purchasing a horse, and is there a return policy if the horse is not suitable?” In addition, you should ask about the evaluation process for the horses, particularly if you are looking at those promoted as trained under saddle or in harness. A failed rescue can be traumatic to the horse and the rescuer. Getting in over your head or selecting an unsound horse can have disastrous consequences.

Despite its potential for difficulty, people are drawn to the rescue horse. Why? Patti Colbert, creator of the Extreme Mustang Makeover, believes that “with the awareness around dog and cat shelters for the past 10 plus years, ‘rescue’ has become a badge of honour that animal lovers proudly wear. This same ‘badge’ is now proudly worn by horse enthusiasts.” Kathy Bartley of Bear Valley Rescue believes that people adopt horses “because they want to feel they are saving a life.” Horse rescuer, Christine Curtin, puts it simply, “He needed someone.”