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May 24, 2012

The Rehomer’s Dilemma

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, www.canterusa.org/midatlantic.

socalcanter
1 year 49 weeks ago
ALLIE!! I can't believe im
ALLIE!! I can't believe im just finding this article from you. I am one of Ali Dachers "retrainers" here in california and i have the EXACT issue with my mare. Ive been working with her since march,... Read More
Carol Ames
2 years 6 weeks ago
TRY tELLINGTON tOUCH, tteam
i HAVE EXPERIENCED AMAZING CHANGES WITHE USE OF tteam, BODYWORK, AS WELL as GROUND EXERCISES;yOU MENTIONED Crushed WITHERS? have YOU HAD HiM EVALUATED BY A VETERINARY CHIROPRACTOR? iT HAS BEEN MY... Read More

Comments

easyrider
2 years 7 weeks ago

Thanks Allie for this

Thanks Allie for this wonderful and informative article. I've been in your shoes. It's amazing what you can feel when you're up on some horses that no one can see from the ground. It takes experience and courage to trust those feelings and understand what they signify, but it's what helps keep us alive as trainers. It's so sad when a horse with huge talent doesn't have the mind to go with it. If you're lucky enough to give that horse a forever home and know that no one is ever going to get on and get hurt, that's one thing. But a dishonest horse is always a danger and the more talented they are, the more attractive a danger they are. You make the point that serious misbehavior almost always has a physical component, but often we can never know whether it's physical, mental or a combination. I don't envy your position, but I've had several OTTBs and I'm so appreciative of the work that CANTER does.
123horsegirl123
2 years 7 weeks ago

Great points about the

Great points about the dilemnas in placing horses. I don't think it is irresonsible to euthanize the horse, from any standpoint. You tried your best and the horse is still homeless. The irresponsible thing would be send him down the road to hurt someone and likely end up at the slaughterhouse. I wish all horse owners would discuss euthanasia more openly and take responsibility for their horses. It is a far kinder option than turning a blind eye and sending your horse to an auction. Plus, if owners actually had to be part of the euthanasia process, they would not support the overbreeding and mass production of horses. They might step-up and demand responsibilty from the trainers and breeders before throwing their money at them and encouraging the process. It is much easier to send a horse down the road (even half-knowing it could end-up at an auction) than to call the vet and euthanize it.
Thoroughbred1201
2 years 7 weeks ago

Excellent article

I read this article with interest. I've alway had TBs (with the exception of 1 Zangerschiede Warmblood), and love the way they think and react. As such, I follow your blogs, and enjoy seeing what you have to say. CANTER is impressive in its care and its mission. This article reiterates this. I don't see euthenasia as irresponsible. On the contrary, in certain cases it is the most reponsible. But as you state, to be the person making the decision and holding the lead rope takes it from the academic to hard reality. There is no easy answer. Once, when it was clearly time that my OTTB (my best friend, long time show horse & then retired pet) needed to be put down, and I was having a hard time letting go, my trainer told me that she was acting as his advocate, and it was time to do what was best for him. She was right. She was acting as his advocate - just as you are for this horse and so many others. You and your organization make the hard decisions and do the hard work so that the rest of us may benefit. Being the true advocate for these horses show in the care that is taken for each one. Keep it up.
jkswbester
2 years 7 weeks ago

bravo

Thank you, Allie, for bringing to light this VERY REAL dilemma. It is a shame that so many people didn' t view euthanasia as the unthinkable...it is not an easy decision but in some cases, the safest and most responsible one.
Thoroughbred1201
2 years 7 weeks ago

Excellent article

I read this article with interest. I've alway had TBs (with the exception of 1 Zangerschiede Warmblood), and love the way they think and react. As such, I follow your blogs, and enjoy seeing what you have to say. CANTER is impressive in its care and its mission. This article reiterates this. I don't see euthenasia as irresponsible. On the contrary, in certain cases it is the most reponsible. But as you state, to be the person making the decision and holding the lead rope takes it from the academic to hard reality. There is no easy answer. Once, when it was clearly time that my OTTB (my best friend, long time show horse & then retired pet) needed to be put down, and I was having a hard time letting go, my trainer told me that she was acting as his advocate, and it was time to do what was best for him. She was right. She was acting as his advocate - just as you are for this horse and so many others. You and your organization make the hard decisions and do the hard work so that the rest of us may benefit. Being the true advocate for these horses show in the care that is taken for each one. Keep it up.
kinbilly1
2 years 6 weeks ago

Sad realities

I, too have read your article with much interest, and have often wondered what happens to those horses that are just not suitable for life beyond the track - especially with an amateur owner. I am a 'lifer' with horses, but a first-time ottb owner. I am head-over-heels over this horse, although he has tested my skills beyond my wildest imagination. I am up for the challenge, especially since I am convinced that he is 'all there' upstairs. I have wondered about the recent movement to rescue and retrain ottb's and how the groundswell of popularity could backfire, and I think you hit it on the head. Those horses that are - for whatever reason - so emotionally damaged that they could do serious harm to someone - even the most talented, gifted, or just willing person whose heart and soul are poured into such a horse. I have wondered what I would do if my horse turned out to be a 'head case' and too far gone. But I know what I would do. Hard as it would be, I would let him go. It occurs to me that your responsibility as a professional and expert in the retraining of these fine horses, would be to give such a horse the dignity in his death to prevent him from winding up in unspeakable circumstances. I guess that is the serious downside to what you do. Surely the rewards far outweigh these tragic circumstances. Yet, how fortunate a horse would be to have someone like you to end his suffering, be it physical or mental. As a passionate supporter of these horses, I applaude your efforts and thank you for what you do - including those hard decisions. The world needs more of you.
Carol Ames
2 years 6 weeks ago

TRY tELLINGTON tOUCH, tteam

i HAVE EXPERIENCED AMAZING CHANGES WITHE USE OF tteam, BODYWORK, AS WELL as GROUND EXERCISES;yOU MENTIONED Crushed WITHERS? have YOU HAD HiM EVALUATED BY A VETERINARY CHIROPRACTOR? iT HAS BEEN MY EXPERIENCE THAT MOST OFF TRACK HORSES BENEFIT FROM A GOOD VETERINARY CIRO/ ACUPUNCTURE EVALUATIO/ TREATMENTN
socalcanter
1 year 49 weeks ago

ALLIE!! I can't believe im

ALLIE!! I can't believe im just finding this article from you. I am one of Ali Dachers "retrainers" here in california and i have the EXACT issue with my mare. Ive been working with her since march, and everything you said in this article i have thought to myself. i actually told Ali a few days ago that maybe we should adopt her out as a broodmare, and i am NOT a believer in adopting any ottb as a broodmare. if not that then i feel like i personally need to adopt her because i fear she will bounce around from home to home living a very unhappy life. but like you said, she is a liability and i dont trust anyone on her but myself. what to do what to do... thanks for addressing this issue. it is comforting to know im not alone. ~ Sarah
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