Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Retirement Options...

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
~ Cecil Frances Alexander

Standing along the fence at the Asbury Equine Center I watched as Diamond, the senior horse I adopted through the Asbury University's Adopt a Horse program, ambled away, pausing here and there to grab a bite of grass. He used to be a child's show horse and then a lesson pony, but a few years back, he decided to retire. When you can't keep a rider on an old horse, you get the idea he has had enough. For him, retirement means living his last days out in the pasture, coming up to the barn only to be fed, groomed, and occasionally stalled in bad weather. No more girths tightening around his middle. No more cold metal bits eased behind his teeth. No more bratty children on his back. For him, retirement means living like a horse and being cared for like a pet. Now leaning against the rough black fence, I began to think about horses in Kentucky.

Kentucky is known for its horses and its equine industry—the world round. The first Saturday in May kicks off the start of the Triple Crown races right in Louisville with the Kentucky Derby. Across the country television viewers tune in to watch, the fast, the sleek, the beautiful Thoroughbred horses run. It inspires those who are not even partial to the animal. The World Equestrian Games were held in Lexington last year. Not only was Lexington honored as the host city, HRH Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, the FEI President, highly praised Kentucky and its equine industry. Considering its self the horse capital of the world, Kentucky is proud of its horses. However, these events and circumstances focus on useful, healthy horses.

What options are available in Kentucky and around Jessamine County for horses when they are no longer useful to their owners?

For sure, two simple and relatively cheap options exist. One option is euthanasia. Sometimes referred to as mercy killing, it is the act of killing of an animal. When an animal has an untreatable injury or is suffering, or if the owner cannot afford treatment, some feel euthanasia is the best option. Another option is the slaughterhouse. While since 2007 no longer do slaughterhouses exist for horses here in the United States, they exist just outside the borders in Mexico and Canada. In other parts of the world, horsemeat is eaten like beef or pork. To other cultures it is simply meat.

Here in Kentucky, people feel differently. In fact, some people feel very strongly that those first two options should not be options at all. When horses are no longer useful or wanted, or when treatment is unaffordable, they should not simply be put down. Some of these people have made great efforts to make other options available for Kentucky's beloved animal.

"It is a difficult economic time and horse owners are feeling it," said Robin Murray from the Public Relations office at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington. "Unwanted horses are a problem no matter the breed. They have always been a working companion—ranch work, racing—we’ve always had them because they have a job to do." As Murray points out, if people cannot keep them or sell them – it is a very complex thing. There are shelters, but not as many as dog and cat shelters, and that is very difficult for horses.

At Rood & Riddle, employees have taken initiative to raise support for at least one center, the Kentucky Equine Humane Center in Nicholasville. Last year, employees bought discounted gift certificates from the hospital pharmacy and then donated them to the Center. In effort to support several charities, over the last seven years Rood & Riddle has sponsored Hats Off to Kentucky’s Horse Industry Day at the Kentucky Horse Park each summer. As Murray said, "It is a big horse day to celebrate the horse and raise money for horse charities."

Beyond employee initiatives, and the annual Hats Off Kentucky event, Rood & Riddle has recently begun awarding the Rood & Riddle Thoroughbred Sport Horse of the Year Award. On the Rood & Riddle website Tom Riddle, DVM, says, "Through this award, we hope to decrease the number of unwanted horses in the U.S. by demonstrating [Thoroughbreds] value in these non-racing disciplines.” They hope this award will help make people aware that racehorse Thoroughbreds can have second careers.

Sheila Woerth, Kentucky Dressage Association Show Chairman, said, "We feel horses shouldn't go to the slaughter house.” She explained that the KDA, like Rood & Riddle, chose to support the KyEHC because they are a rescue organization that gives the horse, like the Thoroughbred track horse, a chance at a second career. "They are given a second life," she said. Because of this opportunity at a second life, the KDA gives charitable donations to the KyEHC.

"I approached another horse rescue organization and it's bazaar, they didn't want to do something like this," said Polly Singer with disbelief in her soft voice. Singer is a hat designer who decided around Derby time last year to promote horse rescue with three charity hats. For each handmade hat sold, she would donate $30 to the rescue organization. She didn't give up. "I was talking to my client, Governor Beshear's wife, and she suggested the KyEHC," explained Singer. "I like that they do horse rescue, but not just Thoroughbreds, but all breeds." By selling at least 10 hats, Singer raised over $300 last year. She says she’d like to own a horse, but it takes a lot of work, also admitting it is very expensive. "So, I thought I'd do what I could," says Singer, who also encourages other people to help in any way they can.

Rood & Riddle, the KDA, and Singer all support the KyEHC, and while it is not the only one in Kentucky, it is a prominent one in Jessamine County. Opening their doors four years ago, Lori Neagle the Executive Director said, "We provide an option for people who have nowhere to go, who can't keep their horses. [The horses] might not be marketable, and sometimes they are injured. Sometimes [owners] simply don't have time to sell them." Some of the reasons for not keeping the horses include bankruptcy, high costs of living, and other stresses in the lives of the owners. Whatever the reason, the Center is committed to giving second chances to horses. Part of their mission statement found on their website says they seek, "To provide humane treatment and shelter while working as a clearinghouse to seek adoptive homes for all of Kentucky's unwanted equines, regardless of breed."

Neagle explains how the horses come from all different areas – from the racetrack, animal control, as well as farms. "They all deserve a second chance," said Neagle. A few horses, like Courageous Comet, who received this year's Rood & Riddle Thoroughbred Sport Horse of the Year Award, will go from racing on to sport careers like eventing. However, most horse coming through the Center will go on to be pleasure or trail horses because injuries will prevent them from jumping. According to Neagle, the horses that have the greatest challenge gaining a second chance are the horses that are limited by injury or those that are not trained. Horses that are in good health and well trained are easier to adopt. They are the ones that will almost certainly go on to a good second career, whether it is as a sport horse or simply someone's trail horse.

Because it costs about between $250 and $665 a month to keep a horse at the Center while it is waiting to be adopted, money must be raised. The KyEHC is a beneficiary of Hats Off Kentucky at the Kentucky Horse Park. Money is raised through charity events as well. For the third year, the Center is hosting the All Breed Charity Horse Show, a schooling show for all breeds and disciplines. Neagle said, "It's a good way to raise money and get out into the community. It is low key, more laid back, a lot of fun." They receive private donations from people like Singer and groups like the KDA. KyEHC has also received grants from Thoroughbred Charities of America.

Thoroughbred Charities of America is a national organization attempting to make options available for Thoroughbreds. According to their website, the mission is: "To provide a better life for Thoroughbreds, both during and after their racing careers by supporting retirement, rescue and research and by helping the people who work with them." TCA does this by raising money and then providing grants to non-profit organizations that fulfill this mission.

Erin Crady, Executive Director of Thoroughbred Charities of America, said, "Racehorses getting a second career is a big problem—a hot button issue right now. Many of them are young and in good condition. They could go on to hunter jumper careers." Places like the KyEHC, that rehabilitate and adopt racehorses are eligible to apply for a grant.

TCA holds it biggest fundraiser, Stallion Season, each year in December. As Crady explained, "For Stallion Season—we get donations of breedings from farms across America. We then have a telephone auction of the donated seasons. The best one are auctioned in person in January at Keenland." Some of the best this last year included: Winstar Farm's Super Saver—the 2010 Kentucky Derby winner, Darley's Street Sense, Lane's End's Smart Strike. Because the majority of the horses at KyEHC are Thoroughbreds, with an estimated 70%, the Center was eligible for to apply for a grant from TCA. They have received grants from TCA since 2006, and this year was one of the 81 non-profits that shared $860,672 in grant money.

Sadly, here in Jessamine County like in counties across America, there are unwanted horses. Many horses are not as lucky as my Diamond, who has been given the chance to retire to pasture. Horses don't ask much. As Neagle said, if they had an audible voice, all they'd ask is: "Give me an opportunity."

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