The Rehomer’s Dilemma

May 24, 2012 - 12:33 PM
With seemingly limitless numbers of ex-racers in need of good homes, sometimes rescues have to make tough decisions about which horses to work with and which horses to let go. Photo by Kat Netzler.

Over the years, CANTER Mid Atlantic’s retraining and rehoming model has evolved. At first it was very simple: Take horse from track—>Find horse new home.

Now it’s become: Take horse from track, give ample time off (three to six months), retrain for at least 30 days—>Rehome.

The current model is not the cheapest way of doing things, but this week I’m reminded of exactly why we do it this way.

Quite a while ago, a lovely horse was donated to the program. He was a beefy, well-conformed chestnut with just the right amount of chrome. He was stand-offish and very body sore when he arrived, and like all of them he really needed the time to heal his bruised body. He was clean-legged but had crushed withers. We made a mental note of that.

Last fall, he came down to our retraining farm, and we all oooh’d and ahhh’d. His movement was freakishly lofty, and he had push from behind that all of us “trot-nerds” long for. He was uphill and had cadence and rhythm and all of the drool-worthy characteristics of an upper level horse. We were excited to start with him.

The First Sign

Like all of our horses, we started by having his teeth floated. My first clue that maybe this wasn’t a horse I would personally retrain was when he would—quite on purpose it seemed—turn to WHACK me in the head with the speculum on. He only did this when the dentist stepped outside the stall for a moment. Hrmmm. Mental note: He uses his head as a weapon. I hate when horses use their head as a weapon!

I shrugged this off and down he came to my farm for some hacking out. The head-whacking continued. If you were asking him to do something he didn’t want, or you didn’t dump his grain fast enough, WHACK!

Horse heads are heavy. They hurt. They can knock you flat out, cause you serious harm, and give you a concussion. I don’t tolerate this in our horses, and he started getting some stern corrections and time in a rope halter. All of this I was willing to forgive—he was big! and purty! and the movement, oooooh the movement.

Our first hack out, he was a lovely ride, for about ¾ of it. Suddenly and out of nowhere, I had no steering, and he very quietly, and, to the outside eye, calmly started walking sideways.

No big deal. We have that issue in lots of horses, but he was ignoring any attempt to redirect his movement. Something inside my body was saying, “This is no good! Get down, get down, get down!”

I listened. My riding companion and fellow horse-retrainer looked at me funny and asked why I did that. I’m not one to jump off a misbehaving horse, particularly out in the woods where there aren’t places to get back on. It’s pretty out of character for me.

I responded that I know it didn’t look like he was doing anything, but his energy underneath me had gone south. He felt very much like a horse who was going to escalate and launch up and over if he didn’t get his own way.

My friend looked at me like I was crazy because he had looked so placid. We walked on foot for a while, and I remounted, and he walked back home quietly. Hrmm, that’s not quite typical.

The next day my friend rode him, and she was commenting how cool he felt—big bodied, lots of horse in front of you, great striding walk. Halfway through our ride, I see her face change, the horse pauses and gets this odd look in his eye, and she jumps off unbelievably fast. “I felt what you felt. It’s freaky!” (Hooray, Validation!)

A New Approach

We decided on a new approach with this horse—let’s stay in the ring for a month and see what we have.  

He was OK in the ring. Not great, not super horrible, but definitely not a quick study, and crash vests were worn each ride. The head as weapon tactic continued, as well as odd encounters of tractor vs. horse while dragging fields. He just Would. Not. Move. when you would come toward him with the drag.

We had long conversations about the horse: Is he dumb? Is he aggressive?  It was almost as though his flight instinct was missing, and his fight instinct honed, because he would stand his ground rather than turn and go away. Hrmm again…odd odd odd, and so unlike any of our other horses.

We decided he was not the right fit for my farm as my fiancé regularly handled the horses, and I couldn’t risk him handling a questionable horse. Add to that—and I’ll likely get speared for admitting this—I just didn’t like the horse. In order to give him the greatest chance at success I had to evaluate whether my attitude toward him was reflected back through his training, and so we decided to send him over with friend and retrainer.

Over the coming weeks, friend reported in regularly about this guy’s training. There were good days and bad, and milestones measured in “he walked around the pastures for the first time without throwing a fit!”

Throughout this retraining process, as with all of our horses that exhibit behavioral issues, we had him checked by vets as well as body work specialists. We are firm believers that misbehavior almost ALWAYS comes from discomfort. We X-rayed the withers (which served as proof that he was a confirmed flipper/rearer-—our deepest fear) which, while certainly crushed, did not elicit any pain response no matter how we pressed and prodded. We talked to his old owners and trainers about his history. He was chiropracted and accupunctured and stretched and flexed and you name it. His teeth were constantly checked, his saddle fit analyzed. We left all of the stones we know how to unturn on a budget like ours, unturned.

In time, retrainer person saw some progress. She was able to walk him to the ring and do some very respectable flat work with minimal fuss. Maybe he was just a slow learner and really needed this much time to come together? We got our hopes up, only to have them dashed.

It was not to be. Six months of time, hard work and money, and I drove out to see his progress last week. What I saw was a horse that was behaving intermittently because the rider knew him inside and out. His periodic fits (head throwing, getting light in front and threatening to rear, running through the aids with head straight up in the air, balking, “napping”) were mostly diffused because of the rider’s skill and intimate knowledge of his behavior, not because he’d come any farther in understanding that his feet must stay on the ground.

The Right Thing To Do

I could not, in good conscience, put any human being on this horse. They could get seriously injured.

I pulled retrainer aside and told her that we were done. She’d worked her butt off, and she needed to realize that some horses are not going to be rehabable. Not only was the horse dangerous and a liability to the organization, but he’d also taken a spot that could’ve been filled by six other horses.

When you’re operating a program on donated money, you have to be especially vigilant in how you spend it, while staying within the parameters of your mission. We owed it to the horse to do our very best for him and give him the best chance for success, but there had to be a time when we say, “Enough is enough.”

Enough was certainly enough. Not only was I worried that we’d get him good enough to be placeable, only to hear down the road that he’d reverted to his old ways and really hurt someone, but I was also worried that my friend and retrainer would be seriously hurt in the process.

This particular horse either had an as of yet undetected physical ailment that made riding him uncomfortable, or he was compromised between the ears. Either way, we’d spent all we could justifiably spend on any one horse, and we had to make a decision.

We arranged to ship him back to the turnout farm where he currently sits.

The Dilemma

This horse, in all his fanciness, would have been easily sellable off of photos. He is the magic size of 16.2. He is fannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnncy. He is pretty. And he would’ve killed someone. If he’d been picked up by someone straight off the track it’s quite likely he would’ve ended up at auction.

This horse is the exact reason we no longer sell horses “straight from the field” and instead insist on a solid 30-90 days of riding evaluation. The risk of a horse being a bad fit for someone and coming back is too high. A horse coming back to the program is a step backwards, and often it’s in worse mental shape than when it left. We want horses out there representing the program in a positive light, and without a proper evaluation, we cannot ensure that happens.

So, what do we do with this horse? Placing him as a companion sounds like a good plan, however when you realize that companion or “pasture ornament” homes are exceedingly rare in this economy, coupled with the fact that he’s known to have injured people with his swinging head, the likelihood is small. And despite all the paperwork and bill of sales in the world, you cannot prevent someone from looking at this beautiful horse and saying, “He’s SO FANCY! I bet he just needs someone who understands him!” That person climbs up and rides him and gets seriously injured. Guess who gets sued in that scenario? No amount of paperwork and disclosures can prevent the legal bills the organization would require to defend the charges.

So here we are with a beautiful—and for all intents and purposes—a sound horse without a future. What do we do with this horse?

The rough part about the rehoming and rescue “business” (and it is a business, or at least should be run like one) is that we are faced with this dilemma too often. It used to be the kiss of death (OK, bad use of words) to mention euthanasia, but the fact is we are bound to protect the horse from landing in a bad place like auction, bound by our grantors and donors to use funding wisely, and bound to our public to ensure nobody gets hurt.

My thoughts on this horse are that there is a physical issue that we have not found either in his body or in his brain, because I do not believe horses chronically misbehave for any other reason. He has a scar on his back and on his head that is in line with his crushed wither. In my unscientific opinion the problem is his brain, and I feel as though it was compromised in one way or the other—birth, injury or DNA.

Of course we have this horse here that we are bonded to, feel bad for, and want only the best.

We’ve tossed the idea of further training around, sending him to a cowboy—all that stuff. But when do you say enough is enough? How do you determine what the cutoff point is for a horse that can be salvaged versus a horse that can not? How can we justify another $2,000 for training a horse that might never be OK to place, when 10 others load onto a truck bound for slaughter?

How do you put the lead shank on the last time and kill him?

Is it irresponsible to put him down? Or is it irresponsible not to?

The epitome of dilemma—morally, ethically, financially, a dilemma.

Allie Conrad is executive director of CANTER Mid Atlantic, which provides retiring Thoroughbred racehorses with opportunities for new careers. Allie founded the organization in 1999 at Charles Town Racetrack (W.V.) after purchasing her beloved Thoroughbred Phinny, who had more than 60 starts at Charles Town, at the infamous New Holland Auction in Pennsylvania. A resident of Southern Pines, N.C., Allie also works full time as a project manager for a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. You can learn more about CANTER Mid Atlantic on their website,


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