The Free Horse: Dream of Nightmare

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If you’re like me, you get several phone calls a week from people who want to “give” you horses for your lesson program. And if you’re like me, you’re interested. After all, a free horse is very appealing and good school horses don’t grow on trees. You always hope that gem—the well-broke, more-or-less sound, big-hearted, easy-keeping soon-to-be pillar of your riding school—will fall into your lap.

Unfortunately, most of the poor creatures turn out to be as old as Methusaleh or are three-legged, ill-trained, burdened with “special needs” or given to undisclosed vices like biting or bolting (usually with the smallest, most vulnerable of your students). And then there are the owners who say they want to let go but can’t, and end up driving you, your staff, and your students crazy.

That’s why I’ve developed a seven-point strategy that makes donation to our riding program a positive experience for everybody. It’s a strategy that works best with equal parts caution for the riding school, frankness with the owner and, yes, enthusiasm for the horse, believing that he possibly is going to turn out to be THE one.

KNOW THY HORSE

Make sure you’re personally acquainted with the horse, meaning you’ve watched your students compete against him, you’ve taught him and his owner in your lesson program or he comes highly recommended by a fellow professional you trust. Probe his history with particular attention to temperament and ground manners. Check out possibly unacceptable activity restrictions from the owner such as “no jumping” or “no children.” Look into special needs such as “he can only eat alfalfa pellets” or “he can’t go without shoes behind,” and before considering him, make sure these needs will be practical and financially feasible for you.

Ask about soundness (and that includes getting permission from the owner so the veterinarian will share any and all information, including x-rays if appropriate). You may consider having your own vet at least check out any red flags. It is inappropriate to have a head-bobbing horse in a riding program and once Bute stops working, diseases such as ringbone become unmanageable.

Above all, ask about vices.Think hard about taking on a cribber who’ll tear your gates and fences down or a horse that kicks and bites, especially if you keep your schoolies in a herd or if you have children grooming and tacking up. Finally, make sure someone knowledgeable in your barn tries the horse to make sure he doesn’t have an under-saddle habit like bolting, bucking or rearing. Remember, you can never know enough.

KNOW THY OWNER

Will she stand up for your reputation if the horse comes out covered with bite marks after the first week in pasture or will she start saying negative things about you and your program? Will she understand if the horse accidentally dies during the trial period, or will she turn around and slap a lawsuit on you? Will she be a hands-off owner who’s proud and happy to see her horse extend his useful life in a second career or will she insist on taking an active role, dictating everything from the bit to who can ride him? No one’s expectations will be met if the owner won’t let go. Either turn the horse down altogether or, if you can’t do without him, offer to buy him.

GET IT IN WRITING

Once you’re satisfied with horse and owner, arrange a trial period. Begin by literally sitting down at the computer with the donor to customize and formalize the agreement by discussing:

  1. The length of the trial period (15 to 30 days usually will suffice).
  2. The level and type of care you will provide (usually, the same you give your schoolies). It is not wise to accept a lot of caveats, by the way, especially when you’re not certain you can enforce details such as whether the horse will only wear his green halter.
  3. Medications and/or supplements you may give, such as Bute for soundness problems or Flex-Free for joints.
  4. Who—children, beginners, men, developmentally disabled students—will be riding the horse during the trial period.
  5. Accommodations and special circumstances (I always mention that the horse will be out with the other school horses and we’ll pull his hind shoes.
  6. Who will make decisions about, and be financially responsible for, major and minor veterinary procedures and treatments.
  7. The owner’s liability for board and expenses if she changes her mind, decides not to donate the horse and takes him home before the end of the trial period.
  8. Liability. Accidents happen and horses die. You need to protect yourself in writing. Include a statement indicating the owner will not hold you or your business liable in the event of the horse’s injury or death.
  9. You, by the same token, should indemnify and hold harmless the owner for any accident or injury that might occur as a result of the horse’s use as a school horse during the trial period.
  10. Your assurance that at the end of the trial period, if the horse is proven suitable, you will accept him into the program. (Incidentally, some owners would rather lease than donate. I suggest you think twice before getting in too deep—each owner will have different wishes and requirements that you will need to juggle.)

EASE THE NEW GUY IN

If you keep your schoolies in a herd, protect them and the new horse by pulling his hind shoes. Consider tranquilizing the alpha horse(s) or pulling them out of the herd for several days until the dust settles. Do not introduce the new horse to the herd during mealtime. And be prepared for the inevitable bumps and bite marks, and for the possibility that he may temporarily lose a bit of weight.

Then give him time to settle in. If he’s like most privately owned horses that come into a riding school, he’ll be somewhat leery about all the activity. As good-minded as you believe him to be, he may not be so cooperative at first and may have an “I don’t wanna do that” attitude. Be prepared for it, accept it, stick to your routine and soon enough, you’ll realize that he’s gotten into the swing of things and understands how well loved and cared for he is.

THE ROYAL TREATMENT

People who donate horses are, in effect, sponsors, and one of your best forms of advertising. Remember to show your appreciation. Keep them involved. Let them know what’s going on. If you publish a newsletter, put them on the mailing list. If you have special events, invite them. One of our donors told us she was thrilled to read that her former dressage horse had competed successfully with a developmentally disabled student at the California Handicapped Riding Championships last year.

Unfortunately, not all of the information you share is going to be positive. It’s also important to let the owner know, for example, that her horse is one of the few individuals who found herd life to be too intimidating, but he’s much happier in a pipe corral.

KEEP ‘EM HAPPY

Remember that special needs you may not have been willing to accept up front may become a matter of course after a horse has proven his worth. I would never have accepted a horse who had to be on thyroid medication, for example, but now I gladly pay for and give it to a polo pony that’s been with us for years. The same goes for the beloved pony whose two colic surgeries mean he can no longer eat roughage and so must live on alfalfa pellets.

Keeping your schoolies in light but consistent work for no more than one to three hours a day will make them last longer than they would in any other career. And never underestimate the value of being touched and handled on a daily basis. The affection factor and the energy transfer when little kids and doting adults groom and love them is quite valuable. It’s one of the main reasons that the average 18-year-old that comes into our program reasonably sound can happily, comfortably go another six to 10 years or even more.

HAVE AN EXIT STRATEGY

Sadly, when you’re dealing with equine senior citizens, there comes a day to retire or put down a horse.

When that time comes, it’s important to have a plan, preferably in writing. It is helpful to have a frank but gentle conversation with the donor at the time you accept the horse about how she’d like to handle life or death when the end is near. Offer her options, by all means, and let her wishes be your guide, but only within the limits of what you are morally, ethically and humanely comfortable with. My alternatives: she can take the horse back or she can have me arrange with the vet to euthanize the horse at his clinic. If she’s at all squeamish about addressing these details, remind her that the horse is going to devote years to being a great schoolmaster and will serve a generation of students well. Surely he deserves to spend his last days without pain and suffering. [sm]

Of the 25 to 30 schoolies in owner/operator Dana Sachey’s riding school program at Raintree Ranch Equestrian Center in Santa Barbara, Calif., probably 20 to 25 are donations.