The Rescue’s Beginnings
When I first started Hanaeleh in 2004, I envisioned being able to help take in horses, rehab them as necessary, and find them homes. I did not really understand at the time that there was also a need to take in horses that essentially would not be able to be adopted out; for the most part, I felt (and honestly, still do) that horses who are not able to be ridden should be retired, or should be cared for by the owner until the horse needed to be humanely put down when he could no longer be comfortable.
The reality, however, is that life often interferes with people’s best-laid plans, and divorce, medical issues, the economy in addition to a myriad of other issues prevent people from caring for their horses. I realized that in order for a small rescue like mine to continually have room to take in horses, other horses needed to be adopted out, but I also realized that those horses who were in the most need were the ones who had no other options.
Our goal is to help people the best we can. I never say, “No, we can’t help.” Instead, I offer suggestions. Maybe a lease? Putting the horse up on our network? An affordable retirement home? A therapeutic riding program? A lesson program? Sometimes I can even call in a favor with another rescue if I think the horse might be a good fit and I think they have room. What I don’t ever do, EVER, is euthanize a horse who is viable and living quite comfortably at our ranch in order to bring in another horse.
The ASPCA’s About-Face
I think most people would be outraged at the thought that a rescue- an organization that was created and is dedicated to helping these animals- would purposely euthanize a horse because they either were unadoptable or were taking a long time to rehabilitate (either physically, mentally or emotionally). That concept- that a horse should be able to be brought in by a rescue and adopted out within 90 days, however- is the brainchild of the Equine Welfare Division of the ASPCA, headed by Tom Persechino. Yes, the same Tom Persechino who worked at the American Quarter Horse Association (which supports horse slaughter), and helped establish the Unwanted Horse Coalition (an organization that has come out against legislation like the SAFE Act which would stop horses from being slaughtered in the U.S. or sent over the border to be slaughtered). The Unwanted Horse Coalition has now been rebranded as the United Horse Coalition, but its message is the same.
The ASPCA used to offer grants to both rescues that adopted out horses, and rescues that sanctuaried horses. When Persechino took over, however, that ended. Sanctuaries were no longer eligible for these grants, and rescues that adopted out MORE horses were favored. Small rescues such as mine, who have both adopted and sanctuaried horses, were penalized under this system because we just don’t have that type of turnover. Rescues that offer a first right-of-refusal, which means that the horses always come back to the rescue if the adoption doesn’t work out, may find themselves inundated with horses who were returned who required sanctuary. Rescues that take in horses that are at a 1 or a 2 at a Henneke scale, which require MONTHS of rehabilitation, would be penalized. Rescues that take in young or untrained horses and that do not adopt out those horses until they are trained (as that gives them the best chance at a quality life), would be penalized. Essentially, under the ASPCA guidelines, rescues that are RESCUING would be penalized, whereas horse traders acting as rescues would succeed. The ASPCA even put out the goal that a horse should be adopted out within 90 days of intake. I don’t know exactly where this random 90 days comes from- I think it comes from the idea that a dog or a cat is often adopted out from a shelter within three months, but otherwise, I could not find any real information to suggest why they chose 90 days as their target window.
I should note here that we participated in ASPCA’s Help a Horse Day in 2016 and 2017. Persechino headed up the equine division in 2018, and we were frankly horrified at the direction that the ASPCA quickly took; since that time we have had no association with the ASPCA.
One of the “rescues” that ASPCA touts as being incredibly successful with a 90-day adoption program is the Horse Plus Humane Society. This rescue states that they take in any horse, even those who are in need of euthanasia. This rescue seemed to do a lot of good- they took in close to 600 horses. That being said, in 2019 they had a 40% euthanasia rate. FORTY PERCENT! You cannot with a straight face tell me that close to 250 of those horses immediately needed to be euthanized. Given that horses can live comfortably into their 30s, it boggles my mind that any rescue would euthanize almost half of their herd IN ONE YEAR.
Hanaeleh was not the only rescue that took issue with the ASPCA’s “Right Horse Initiative” that pushed for increased adoptions and a numbers game over sanctuary, training and quality forever adoptions. Rescue groups banded together against this new ideology, noting that “The Right Horse is Wrong,” and refusing to participate in surveys about how many horses they adopted out, as the fear was that the ASPCA, the Unwanted/United Horse Coalition (which started the Equine Welfare Data Collective) would use these numbers as a way to justify the need for the return of horse slaughter to the United States.
Rescue Means Forever
The other issue with the “90-day” window, besides it being completely random, is that there is no promise that, once a horse is adopted out, that the horse will not be in jeopardy again. Many of these rescues that are associated with the ASPCA are merely flipping horses- they buy them at the auction, put a few months of training on them, then “adopt” them out, and wish everyone the best of luck. While I appreciate the fact that there are organizations doing this, this is honestly only PART of rescue.
When I started Hanaeleh I was inundated with reports of horses who had once been rescued, but later ended up at an auction, hours away from being killed. Some of these horses had happy endings; some did not. I vowed that, when I started my rescue, I would do my utmost to ensure that every horse, once it entered my rescue, would never be placed in danger again. We have a contract with a first right-of-refusal, and we check in with our horses at least once, and sometimes several times per year. We also microchip our horses to ensure that if they are ever somehow lost or end up at an auction, that they come home.
Some of these rescues that associate themselves with the ASPCA have stated on their websites that they take horses back, but my experience is that this isn’t always true. I have personally helped to place horses who were adopted out by these rescues; when the horses were determined to be not rideable, the rescue was conveniently full, and the owners turned to us to try to help find them new homes. Better than taking them in and immediately euthanizing them, I guess.
I was curious as to how long a horse stayed at Hanaeleh before being adopted out- certainly most of our horses were there longer than 90 days, but how much longer? I wondered.
I looked over the horses that we took in over the past 19 years. I did not count horses whose adoptions we facilitated without coming to the rescue, or those rescues that we helped place in other rescues, retirement homes or programs. I also did not count the numerous horses we’ve been able to network every year. I only looked at the horses who came into our facility and either stayed with us, or were adopted out.
One of the first things I noticed when going through the numbers is that the average age of our horses was 16 years at intake. One of the issues we often have when taking in horses is that we don’t really know how old they are; after about their mid-twenties, we are just taking an educated guess by looking at their teeth. Sometimes we get papers, but usually we don’t. I also usually tend to take in the older horses because I can network the younger, rideable horses, so I think that helps skew the number a little higher.
Time at the Rescue
This is the number that I was the most curious about; how long was a horse at Hanaeleh, on average? Overall, horses stayed at Hanaeleh for approximately 22.4 months, or almost two years. That includes all of the horses, including those sanctuaried. For the horses who were adopted out, the horses stayed at our facility for approximately 17 months before finding new, loving homes. Only four horses were adopted out within 90 days. For those keeping count, if we euthanized horses at 90 days, none of the horses at our facility right now would currently be alive. None.
Hanaeleh currently has a 52% adoption rate, but that is because we have really have started to focus on taking in those horses who are in the most danger, and networking horses who are trained and rideable. The other 48% of the horses have been able to live out their lives in peace at Hanaeleh.
As could easily be guessed, horses who are rideable are the ones adopted out. 65% of all of the horses who came into Hanaeleh were considered to be rideable, and only 1% of the non-rideable horses were able to find homes. Again, I have to note that we HAVE been able to find homes for non-rideable horses that we were not able to take in due to a lack of space, but it is not surprising that people who want to adopt a horse are looking for a rideable horse; even those who are looking for a companion horse often are looking for a potential riding partner.
Rideability aside, horses of all different levels of training were adopted out, although the majority were acceptable for a beginner or intermediate rider.
My personal conclusion is that the ASPCA’s 90-day window is completely without foundation, and rescues should focus not on numbers, but quality. Training horses and finding quality homes help to give the horse the best shot at a successful life. Personally, I have a huge problem with any rescue that kills a horse in order to make room for another horse who might be a better candidate for adoption. In my opinion, that’s not rescue.
I have found networking to be extremely beneficial and successful, but that does require having a strong social media presence, which we are thankful to have. It is worth it to invest in a professional who can grow a rescue’s presence in order to reach the greatest number of people. It’s my experience that people DO want to help- they just have to know you exist.
I think as a community we also have to tout the benefits of horse companionship on the ground as well as in the saddle. There are so many benefits to horse therapy that have nothing to do with riding; I think that we need to do a much better job of educating the public about these benefits.
Another issue that is the proverbial elephant in the room (draft horse in the room?) is that we do not have enough quality sanctuaries or retirement homes for horses. When large organizations like the ASPCA no longer help to fund these sanctuaries, it is not surprising that they start to struggle and close. Instead of penalizing organizations for running a sanctuary, we should be funding them; they are providing a necessary service that can allow those rescues who have the ability to train and adopt out horses by taking in those horses who are not rideable.
Finally, we cannot pretend that rescues are the end-all solution to the issues affecting horses right now. Rescues are a band-aid to a larger issue: breeders continue to indiscriminately breed; there are fewer stables, stall rates continue to increase; and the cost of hay is rising. Refusing to address these issues, however, and continuing to feed into a system that allows horses to be used and abused on track, and allows and even celebrates overbreeding, only exacerbates this issue. We are not going to solve these issues by just killing horses, either by euthanizing them before their time or sending them to slaughter. When large organizations like the ASPCA or the Unwanted/United Horse Coalition push these narratives, however, they turn our attention away from the systemic issues that need to be addressed and instead promise a solution that is rooted in pain and suffering.