Horse rescues face an unceasing demand for their services. Whether animals arrive via owner surrender or through law enforcement confiscation, they often show up with physical or mental baggage that requires time and dedication to repair. There are never enough stalls to go around.
A new program at Colorado State University seeks to remove some of the burden from rescues while educating college students in the process.
Launched in 2016, The Right Horse program has grown from two horses in its first semester to between 15 and 20 now. The program is part of the Right Horse Initiative, which seeks new ways to pair horses in transition with a good home.
Kylie McGarity, a CSU graduate research assistant and student coordinator for The Right Horse program, was struck by two statistics during her studies. The first is that about 200,000 horses end up homeless each year, whether they enter a rescue, go up for auction or enter the slaughter pipeline.
At the same time, there’s a growing potential outlet for some of these horses. Equine-assisted therapies have become more popular, and these services are estimated to be growing at 300 percent per year. Barns that specialize in lesson programs are also struggling to keep their stables full.
“If you rewind to 2008, we had that really big recession,” said McGarity. “With that recession, people stopped breeding their horses as much. Now in 2019, all of those horses that would have been born at about that time would be now entering the age that’s right for lesson horses. We’re seeing a decrease in the availability of appropriate horses for lesson programs.”
Pairing horses in transition—McGarity says they no longer call them “unwanted horses” because “someone somewhere does want these horses”—with therapy or lesson programs seems like a natural solution, but it’s not as simple as sending a trailer over to the local rescue. It can take time, skills and some vision before a horse is ready for a long-term match.
That’s where CSU’s program comes in. McGarity scouts horses for The Right Horse program at Harmony Equine Center, Drifters Hearts of Hope and Colorado Horse Rescue. Some she expects will be riding prospects, and others will be non-mounted companion or therapy horses. She pays attention not just to age and conformation, but also to temperament and responsiveness to the environment.
The Right Horse program is an elective class in CSU’s equine science major. Classes include up to 20 horses and students, one student per horse, divided into two sections to keep numbers manageable.
“The organization of the class through the semester looks a lot like a tree,” said McGarity. “We all start at the same spot and evaluate horses’ body condition, basic ground manners, behaviors, etc. There are a few introductory lectures to lay out the structure of the semester and review basic knowledge and expectations. Then, we all start out on the same page when we start them in the round pen with basic skills like giving to pressure, desensitization and saddling.”
From there, students branch off in different directions depending on their horse. Some horses require more time, while others arrive with skills and can go right to work under saddle and progress to starting over poles, trail riding or learning basic rope work.
McGarity also tries to tailor the horses to the students entering the class each semester. Some come with showing or training experience and are ready for a mounted challenge. Others want to keep their feet firmly on the ground but are happy to help prepare a horse for a therapy career.
While people often think therapy work is an easy gig for retired riding horses, McGarity said there’s a considerable amount of burnout if the horse isn’t physically or mentally suited to the work.
“Some of these horses, they’re walking around in an arena for three or four hours doing their job,” she said. “Even when those hours are broken up, they’re still dealing with kids and sometimes adults that have very poor balance, and that balance affects their backs, which affects their legs and the whole way their body works together.
“They also have to have the personality and temperament to deal with a lot of stuff,” she continued. “They have to be OK with kids running and screaming down the aisle and pulling their tail because they’re so excited to see them.”
The variability of the horses in the program makes it difficult to develop a curriculum for the class, McGarity admits. Not all horses will meet the same goals, so there’s no test of skills at the end of the semester. Some won’t even be ready for adoption by that point, in which case they can stay. Instead, McGarity focuses on the students’ approach to their project horse. They create a training plan with goals for that individual, and they evaluate the horse’s strengths and weaknesses along the way. Students can also help a potential adopter decide whether the match is a good one. In the end, their grade is determined by the amount of work they put into improving the horse’s chances of success in a new home.
So far, the class has successfully rehomed 50 horses, which have gone on to do equine assisted activities and therapies, Certified Horsemanship Association riding programs, 4-H programs, cutting, hunter/jumper competitions, western riding competitions, trail riding, endurance, ranching, companionship and more.
(And yes, a handful of program horses have gone home with students or teachers in the program.)
Colorado State is the first university to work with the Right Horse Initiative to create a program like this one, but McGarity hopes that given the past three years of successful outcomes, it won’t be the last.
“They have a purpose in the world,” she said. “It’s just a matter of us finding out where they can go to accomplish that purpose.”