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Useless old horses? Don't think so!

When I was small, one of my favorite books was Aesop’s Fables. And being born under the sign of Leo, my favorite story was the one about the lion and the mouse. My poor mother and grandmother undoubtedly knew it by heart as they had to read it to me so many times.

It goes like this: a lion catches a mouse and is about to eat it for a snack. But the mouse pleads with the lion to spare him and promises that someday he will do the lion a great service. The lion can’t believe that the mouse could ever to anything for the king of beasts, but because the mouse wouldn’t even make much of a snack, the lion lets him go. Later the lion gets trapped in a hunter’s net and can’t get free. The mouse appears and chews through the rope to free the lion, just as promised. The lesson of the story: no act of kindness no matter how small is ever wasted.

That story and that philosophy have stayed with me for my entire life. No act of kindness, generosity, mercy, compassion, or love is ever wasted. And these acts do as much for the giver as the receiver. Maybe more. People will disappoint us in life. They may not reciprocate as we think they should. But we should never regret our good deeds, our random acts of unselfishness and care, because good deeds are their own reward.


What brought that story to mind was a post I read on Facebook. This lady who is involved with rescue was saying that it isn’t right and it isn’t fair to “dump” old horses on rescues and sanctuaries after their usefulness as a saddle horse is over. She claimed that it was far more humane to euthanize them in a familiar place, with you beside them and with a mouthful of their favorite treats than to dump them into a “system” where they could end up in the kill pens headed for the slaughter. I understand what she is saying, but I’d have to say that should be an absolute last resort for a healthy horse… even an old one.

We just witnessed a rescue of a 35 year old Tennessee Walking Horse by Ride of Pride Equine Sanctuary in Ohio. The old boy had been a highly successful show horse, but he has outlived his owner/partner by 16 years. The man's children obviously promised to care for him for the rest of his life, but they weren't counting on 16+ years, and the resources had run out. But they had promised so they desperately sought out a sanctuary for "Push". And Stacie stepped up.

And her followers have donated what has been needed to bring this old boy back to good health. Stacie has incredible skills in rehabilitation of neglected, abused, blind, and so called "crippled" horses.

My point today is that it is not fair to try to use a sanctuary as a dumping ground for horses the owner deems to be useless and of no monetary value except to the kill buyers. If they can get a sanctuary to take their horses, they avoid the guilt of sending these faithful old friends to slaughter. They also avoid the expense of putting the horse down and disposing of it. Win-win, no guilt solution for them.

It is not fair because every time a rescue has to say “no” to a horse in need of sanctuary, it breaks the rescuers’ hearts. Intellectually we know we can’t save them all and we have to accept that resources are limited and make impossible choices. But emotionally, it is always devastating.


I have adopted many older horses… if you count anything 19-20 as “old”. Most of them still had 5-6 years in them as solid, dependable trail horses. Old horses have this wisdom young horses don’t have. They are sensible. They are safe (as safe as any horse ever is) and they are usually well trained. And they were so happy to be out on the trails, moving about, doing what horses are born to do. And they were loved and appreciated by grateful riders.

Of my 5 old horses, one was my original Arabian I raised from a foal, one I purchased from a riding stable that had unsuccessfully tried to turn her into a “lesson horse”, two were from reputable rescue organizations, and one was given by a friend who was moving out of state and couldn’t take him with her. All of those horses have passed on, living out their days with me, long after they could no longer be ridden. When the last one was near the end, we adopted a 21 year old Standardbred to maintain the tradition. I promised them all they were with me for life. And they all repaid me in so many ways.

First and foremost, they helped me endure the grief and trauma of losing both my parents in a span of 7 weeks. They helped me get sane and fit after a very stressful career. They helped me make several dear friends who also loved horses but weren’t able at the time to take on the responsibility and financial commitment of owning their own horses. These friends have since become knowledgeable, experienced horse owners. Our horses give my husband and me a reason to get up and get moving in the morning, and not laze around in so called “retirement”. They help make our lives worth living for two Type A personalities who would die of boredom without something meaningful to do with our time.

Of course there are also the typical “uses” of old horses, the first being as a pasture mate and companion for a high priced show horse or competition horse… or just a friend for a lonely horse someone loves. Horses are herd animals and do better and are happier in the company of other horses. Then there is the prototypical “light riding” by a child or beginner. But the truth is there are just too many horses out there for the forever homes that are available.


We’ve all heard about the “free to a good home” scam. There are unscrupulous people who collect these free horses listed on Craig’s List and take them straight to the kill pens. Looking at 100% profit here. No matter if it’s only a couple of hundred dollars, there was no investment involved.

That’s why it is always recommended that you put a price on all horses advertised, unless you know the people personally and can monitor what happens to the horse. And by agreement be willing to take the horse back if things don’t work out. They don’t always work out, as much as the intentions were sincere in the beginning. If new owners are not willing to pay a rehoming fee, they won’t be rehoming the horse. You can always waive the fee if their references check out. And I’d always ask for references, although I’ve always been the one providing the references.

Then there are the people who move away and abandon their animals to die. They may have tried very hard to find a place at a rescue or find someone to take the horse. But there were no takers, so they just left them as their last desperate solution. In this case, euthanasia is better than this fate before Animal Welfare finally finds them and has to put them down. I’m sorry, but these people do deserve to be prosecuted and will be if they are located. There’s no shame in surrendering a horse. Animal Welfare or a rescue may ask for a rehoming fee to cover the horse’s board until it can be placed in a foster home. But that cost will be less than paying a vet to put the horse down. And you won’t risk prosecution and major fines for animal cruelty and neglect.

Then there is the situation I read about recently. Some very kind woman read the desperate pleas of two young women attempting to save horses from a nearby kill pen. She went and bought all 42 horses. But now, what is to become of them? Can the two gals who started this find immediate foster homes for all those horses? They have to go somewhere. Does this kind woman plan on shelling out more money to feed these horses until places can be found for them? And then there is the cost to transport the horses to the homes that are found. Has this act of unplanned kindness created more problems than it has solved? I don’t know the answer to that. But I sincerely wish them good luck and success!


The bottom line is this. We must all take responsibility even for our generosity and good intentions. Maybe you did plan to keep this horse for the rest of its life… which could be 28-30 years. But circumstances have changed and you can’t keep the commitment. Your responsibility is to provide for the horse. No one ever said that would be easy or cheap. The MSPCA impresses on people that it will cost them $3000-5000 or more every year to own a horse. It goes up exponentially if the horse develops medical problems. You must be prepared for the cost of ownership both in time and money.

I repeat, there is no shame in not being able to keep to your original intentions. There is only shame if you fail to provide for the horse’s future if you can no longer keep the horse for whatever reason. The love you gave them and the enjoyment and companionship they gave you in return was not wasted. Personally, I believe that we owe them more than they owe us. But we live in the real world, where plans change and bad things happen to good people.

Rescues can only take as many horses as they can support financially and they have enough physical space to accommodate.

I have seen several rescues closing their doors recently because their contributions are drying up and they have not taken in healthy, well-behaved horses they can adopt out, but rather unadoptable ones requiring sanctuary. This is so sad. But you can only do what you can afford to do. And one emergency fundraiser however successful cannot keep a rescue going indefinitely. So, as one rescuer wrote recently, they have adopted a policy that all horses must be sponsored before they are taken in. This is eminently sensible.

The larger rescues make it really hard to adopt a horse. They know from experience that unless people really think through the commitment they are making, they’ll just get the horses right back again. So they often work out long-term, in reality “permanent” foster homes for some of their more “unadoptable” horses. I’ve had two of those – one with Cushings Disease and one who was thought to be permanently lame. However as the daughter of a race horse trainer who spent her youth working on banged up horses, I was able to help them “heal” enough to become great trail horses.


So where has all this rambling taken me? Personally, I only do forever homes. Will I ever have 5 horses again? Probably not. Maybe 3 at most. Right now I have 2. And it will take a very special horse that gets me back to 3. I have space and can afford all their care. And my husband makes me stick to a budget, so I know what it costs to keep them. And what we have to trade off to keep them.

Whether I ride them or not, whether I turn them into therapy horses as I intend to do, it doesn’t matter. My animals earn their keep. My animals teach me so much. They love me unconditionally. They are glad to see me and make me feel wanted and needed. I am never lonely around them. They provide emotional support when I’ve had an awful day. They lower stress. Riding helps improve fitness in muscles I don’t use for anything else. In short, my horses make me happy. Have you seen the sweatshirt that says, “Money can’t happiness. But it can buy horses. Same thing.” ? My attitude exactly.

If I’m so happy with my horses, why do I get involved with a rescue? Because I want other people to have the same opportunity to practice random acts of kindness and to act on their love of horses in a positive way. Whether it is donating money, or food, or time, those contributions are rewarded in so many ways. If you can’t adopt a horse of your own, you can find one to sponsor and make your “own” in that way. It takes many people to change the life of just one old horse, like Push. But the return on your investment is a great deal of joy and the pride of making a difference.

My favorite quote comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” As the sweatshirt says, “Same thing!”

If you'd like to visit the ROPES sanctuary I mentioned and see the work being done, go to Stacie's Facebook page ( Your financial support is always appreciated. We donate to this charity with our pool of 20% of sales. We also donate items to their auction fundraiser.

Shana and Lucius by Carla Farragher

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