Saving Freeway: Horse Rescue 101


“As Sue Thompson drives down the freeway one day, she notices an emaciated chestnut in a paddock. She figures if she can see the horse’s ribs, hips and spine from the road at high speed, he has to be in pretty poor shape.”

Shortly after, Sue is on the same route again, this time with her friend Bev Minor. She decides to take another look at the horse from the road and decide what to do. Bev tells her that if she wants to go check the horse out, she’s game. Seeing that the horse now looks even worse, Sue agrees.

The owner of the farm lets them through the gate. As they walk to the field, Sue hears the horse’s story. Realizing that he’ll only continue to go downhill, she says to the owner, “This horse isn’t going to make it through the winter here. If I have him, he might. Let’s make a deal.”

The deal is quickly struck, and the horse stands rocking back and forth at the ramp of the trailer, tempted by the grain Bev is offering. Sue gives him a shove, and one foot goes up. He is willing and trying, but just doesn’t have the strength. So Sue pushes and Bev pulls, and he gets on.

The vet arrives soon after to see him, proclaiming him a 1 on the body condition scale, and agreeing that he didn’t have much longer if he’d stayed where he was. The horse is about 15 years old, has an elevated heart rate, a slight temperature, lice and internal parasites. He is at least 400 pounds underweight. He has an upper respiratory infection and needs his shoes pulled plus six months of hoof growth removed.

Sue decides to name him Freeway.

Stories of horses like Freeway are all too common in the equine world. Fortunately there are people like Sue with the knowledge and resources to help them. In fact we can all help horses like Freeway, whether we save one ourselves, adopt from a rescue organization, or find a way to lend our time and/or resources to such efforts.

Sue’s story may inspire some to run out and pick up the first unfortunate horse they find, but cool heads and common sense must prevail when it comes to rescue work.

Rescuing a horse yourself 
Rescuing a horse can be a large undertaking. You must realize this ahead of time, so you don’t get in over your head (which could lead to a potentially worse situation for the horse). Even if the horse you would like to help is not in as extreme condition as Freeway, keep the following in mind:

Money. Horses cost money – lots of it! Whether you are adopting from a rescue, saving a horse from the meat man at auction, taking on a PMU or Mustang, or picking up an unfortunate critter from someone’s backyard, be prepared for some type of initial purchase price. And just because the horse may be relatively cheap to buy does not mean it ends there. These horses often require plenty of aftercare.

• Transport. Rescues come in every state, from very weak, to wild, to well trained horses that just ended up in an unfortunate place. If the horse is in poor shape, mentally or physically, find a way to transport him to his new home that will not stress him out further (i.e. a nice big open stock trailer). If you do not have access to such a trailer, look into hiring someone to transport him.

• Stabling. You will of course need a place to keep your new pal! If your horse has special needs, be sure to find a facility that can accommodate them.

• Quarantine. All horses should be quarantined when they first arrive at a new facility. This is especially important with horses that have been through an auction, or were living in questionable conditions. Discuss the quarantine length with your vet and the facility owner.

• Stall rest. If the horse is weak, ill or lame, be prepared for him to do some time on stall rest. This means you will have to put in extra time on things like handwalking and mucking out.

• Veterinarian. Soon after your horse arrives, it’s a good idea to have a vet out to evaluate his condition and alert you to any potential issues. Be prepared for extra costs such as medications, worming and diagnostics.

• Farrier. All horses require regular attention by a farrier, but rescues can often require more, especially in the beginning. Your horse may need more frequent trims to get his feet back in shape, and may benefit from hoof boots.

• Feeding. Depending on your horse’s body condition and health, he may require special feed and/or supplements. It is a good idea to talk to a nutritionist or local rescue organization for tips on how to feed your new friend. Malnourished horses require a planned, slow, incremental feeding program.

• Products and equipment. We all enjoy shopping for new horses! Plan for the usual equipment costs, but if your rescue is a mess, you may have to spend more on things like lice powder, shampoo, detangler, clippers, health products and so on.

• Time. Depending on the condition of your rescue, be prepared to invest a lot of time in him. Extensive medicating, bathing, grooming, handwalking and more may all be necessary.

• Training. Your rescue may come with plenty of training or none. Be ready to spend lots of time gaining his trust and working on basic handling and manners. If you reach a point where you do not feel comfortable continuing the training, or you discover a behavioral issue from the horse’s past, consider investing in a trainer to assist you.

• Emotional investment. We all get attached to our horses pretty quickly. While most rescue stories have happy endings, some horses are just too far gone to save, despite their rescuers’ best efforts. If you take on a horse whose future is very uncertain, be prepared for the fact that he may not make it. But take comfort in knowing that you are giving him some last days of kindness and comfort.

Adopting from a rescue
For some, adopting or purchasing a horse from an equine rescue organization is the way to go. Usually the organization has already done most of the rehab work, and knows the horse. They can often assess what type of future the horse will have, and can help you find one that will work for you and whose costs and needs you can handle comfortably.

1. Finding a rescue organization
As with anything else in this world, there are good and poor rescue organizations. Do a lot of research and ask around before you pick one to adopt from. Don’t be afraid to ask for references from previous adopters about their experiences.

2. Can you provide the correct home?
Most rescues will want to interview you to determine whether or not you can provide the kind of home they want to adopt their horses out to. Be ready to provide references and allow the organization to check out the facility you will keep the horse at.

3. Getting the right horse
Adopting a rescue is no different than purchasing a horse. Look for a horse that can fit into your family, and that you are capable of handling and caring for. Do not take on a horse with chronic lameness issues if you are not prepared to pay for the extra care that will entail. Do not take on that cute yearling if you do not understand how to handle and train a young horse.

4. Negotiating a rescue contract
Most organizations will ask you to sign a contract when you adopt one of their horses. Make sure you understand all parts of the contract before you sign it!

Lending a helping hand
If you want to help out horses in need, but are unable to take one on yourself, please consider volunteering at a reputable rescue organization. They can always use the help! Whether you are able to assist with barn chores, spend time with the horses, help with training/ exercising or donate resources for the costs involved in running such an operation, your assistance will be welcome.

And Freeway?
Freeway is happy to report to his friends and supporters that he is well on his way to recovery (to keep up to date with his progress, see his blog at www.savingfreeway.blogspot.com). Through observing his behaviors and interactions, Sue has determined that at one point he did have a good life with someone who cared about him, bringing us to the scary realization that each horse is just one owner away from a bad situation. Happily, Sue and her team of veterinarians, friends and farriers have invested a great deal into helping Freeway, and he is now making everyone smile with his energetic antics!

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