The recent Paulick Report about yet another slaughter-auction debacle with racehorses involved got me thinking. It’s really hard to find good homes for race horses these days. You have to be careful, and you have to be trusting with a stranger. I thought about some of the good people I know who re-home horses off the track, and I think they share a few characteristics.
First, they don’t have a lot of horses. They are not collectors or hoarders. They have a healthy sense of economy and they know they cannot keep a pile of horses around that need attention, feed, veterinary care and medicine. They are pretty careful only to keep a few horses in their barn to re-home at a time.
They can tell you the registered name, the barn name, the pet name and the “bad horsie” name of each one, they can recite their pedigrees to the fifth generation, they know their ex-rays intimately and can give you pretty close to the dollar on what the vet bills were last month on each and every one. Each one is taken care of, groomed, ridden, trained, fussed over. They know them – every pimple, stem to stern, their personality quirks, and likes and dislikes and what size and style of blanket they wear.
Second, they usually have an older horse who is happily retired out in the field that they will be eager to talk to you about — in fact, you’d better strap in for a long tale of how great this old horse was in his day, how much he won, and how he deserves to enjoy his old age. They’ll have pictures on their phone of him wearing a birthday hat and eating a cake, or giving a tiny little human a pony ride, or dressed up, with pompoms in his mane, walking on a 4th of July parade route or something.
Trustworthy re-homers also don’t hide their horses in the backyard. They’re social on horseback. They compete, not because they are ribbon ho’s, but because regular competition tests their skills and gives them a way to check their own abilities and get to be better riders. If they don’t compete, they’ll ride regularly with a local group who may trail ride, take lessons with the area’s big professional, foxhunt with a bunch of old ladies, belong to a club, organization, or group.
They’ve likely been president, secretary, or a board member of one of those clubs and probably an active member over a decade with at least one. They usually volunteer for their club in some capacity at the big event or show each year. Their kids, if they have any, will be card-carrying members of 4-H, FFA, or Pony Club, and they will have at least six pictures on their phones of their kids riding something with pompoms in their mane, or a blue ribbon proudly displayed on the bridle of a shiny old swaybacked, greyed-muzzle pony, at what can only be the county fair. They, or the kids, have goals. They want to go somewhere and be somebody with horses, and are proud of their accomplishments.
They ride. Regularly. They know the trails and the parks and the places that are safe and the places that are not particularly enjoyable on horseback, like the ponds with the BIG mosquitos, the trails with the steep rocky slides, the jump trail, and the nice spot by the river where the footing is level and soft, and you can let the horses go a bit and let them stretch out their tails in the wind. And they’re not afraid, and they know that a horse likes a soft hand and steady seat and leg, and they might have a lot of bits hanging on the wall in the tack room but some kind of plain snaffle gets used most of the time.
They wear helmets, every time, every ride; they know their vets (yes, plural, because they’ve had enough emergencies with horses to know there has to be a back up for everything) personally and on a first name basis and they have their vets’ numbers in their phones. They have a regular hay supplier who knows them and knows they don’t write bad checks – ever. They have a regular feed store who knows them, and cooperates when they come in sixteen times a year asking for a donation for the pony club, the fund-raising auction, or an ad for the horsemen’s directory. If they get a day off of work it is always spoken for with an equestrian activity – a show, a trail ride, or unloading a large trailer of hay into the barn. It is more important to feed horses than themselves. They are vested in community, and vested in themselves as horse people. They are compassionate, responsible, and striving not to be something to you, but to be good for the horses.
It’s more than just owning a truck and trailer, looking like a horse person, and the ability to patter on about how good you are at what you do. It’s a lifestyle; and you can check it pretty easily. Ask for the vet, and farrier, feedstore and hay dealer. Talk to the neighbors, the fellow club members, the 4-H group leader and see what they say. They’ll tell you that re-homer is a good horsewoman. They’ll tell you about the time they saw her dig for coins in the bottom of her purse to pay for the special senior pellets for the old horse, or the time she generously spent all day long helping a neighbor build a fence to keep a naughty pony from terrorizing the neighborhood, or the time she stopped on the busy highway to help capture a loose dog, use a lead rope that is always in the car to leash it, and call the number on its rabies tag on its collar to find its frantic owner.
I’m not sure if I’ve helped those race horse trainers who are desperate to find a “good home” for a horse who has tried hard, shown its heart, but needs to end a racing career and transition someplace else. But I’ve described some characteristics of a few of my friends, all of whom ride off-track Thoroughbreds and have for many years. They are solid, honest, experienced, and caring horse people who don’t have a lot of money and won’t promise the moon to you. They won’t brag about themselves. They’d rather show you those pictures of the pompoms and let you decide. They don’t lie, they don’t promise. They know horses break your heart, and you love them anyhow, and they break your heart even more.
No one can truly promise a horse a good home; the horse wants feed, a warm place to stand out of the wind, a cool place to swish flies in summer heat and fresh water. They don’t want to do things that hurt their feet. Other than that, they will burst their hearts for you, Velvet Brown. The best an honest horsewoman can do, race horse trainer, is promise you that they will first care for him and second learn to love him. That is all anyone can do.
My advice: go with the pompoms. You’ll never be sorry.