Best Friends Blog

The growing movement to help homeless horses

As a domestic species in America, the horse tends to have an ownership history that closely resembles that of a used car. An estimate I’ve heard is that the average horse will pass through 7 to 10 homes in their lifetime. The implications of this sad fact are compounded many fold when you come to understand the nature and needs of a horse – a highly intelligent herd animal who thrives on companionship, leadership, routine and a predictably safe environment.

Jake, a handsome 20-year-old bay thoroughbred who is here at Horse Haven, is a typical illustration of this journey. He was bred to be a racehorse and started racing at 2 years old. Like humans, not all horses are superior athletes, and very few horses make it to the equine equivalent of the Super Bowl. The difference is that horses who don’t make it to the big leagues are not free to pursue a career of their choosing.

By the age of 3, it became clear that Jake wasn’t going to be a high-dollar winner at the track, so his racing career ended and he moved on to a life as a ranch horse, where he worked herding cows and riding fences. After a couple years on the ranch, he was sold again to a third home, where his new owner had hopes of him being a pleasure horse who could ride the trails and perhaps do a little dressage. Sadly for Jake, he sustained an injury that was going to require a lot of rehabilitation, and it wasn’t certain whether he would be able to be ridden at all in the future. Since his future soundness was a concern, he was moved on to yet another place, this time to Best Friends. His injuries were tended to, and, in time, he found an adoptive home with a lovely woman who intended to keep him for the rest of his days. Unfortunately, after several years of love and care, Jake’s adoptive mom began suffering health problems of her own and became unable to provide him with the care he needed, so he returned to Best Friends and has been here for about a year looking for lucky home number six.

This one horse’s story covers many of the reasons why horses lose their homes:

  • He was bred to compete, so when he couldn’t “pay his way,” he soon became expendable.
  • He was a working horse, so when he was no longer needed to work, he was sold to another home.
  • He found a new job as a companion horse, but when he injured himself and his riding future came into question, his person decided that she “couldn’t afford to keep a horse she couldn’t ride.”
  • He found another home as a companion horse, but his person’s health problems forced her to give him up when she could no longer provide him with the care he needed.

In addition to the reasons horses are given up that Jake’s life illustrates, we also see a lot of horses who lose their homes because it was just a bad match between the horse and the person to begin with. Dolly was a thoroughbred mare who came through Best Friends a couple of years ago. Like Jake, she started life as a racehorse but soon was looking for a new home. The home that Dolly found was as a first horse for a 9-year-old girl who had little to no horse experience and neither did her parents. Now, in Dolly’s job at the track, the only skill she had learned was to run and run fast. Skills like turning, stopping, walking and the like were never taught to her. So when the little girl attempted to ride her, Dolly did what she was taught and ran … fast! It didn’t take long before the little girl was terrified and Dolly was homeless. All too often in cases like this, the horse gets blamed as being “stupid,” “dangerous,” “stubborn,” or any other number of derogatory labels when the simple truth is that it was just a bad match. The girl needed a horse who was a quiet and patient teacher, and Dolly needed a person who was an experienced and savvy horseman.

The romantic vision of the beautiful horse and the person riding off as BFFs into the sunset isn’t something that just happens overnight like it does in the movies. It takes a lot of time, work, education, money and dedication to get to that storybook ending. Pat Parelli, the respected pioneer of natural horse training, says something to the effect that when the fun wears off, the funds run out. It’s at that point that the horse makes its way down the road to another home or, sadly, sometimes to the auction, and from there in some cases ultimately to slaughter.

Stories like Dolly’s help explain why approximately 80% of new horse owners no longer have their horse after the first year, and of the remaining 20%, only about 5% still have their horse after five years. That’s an amazing statistic, and ultimately it’s the horses who suffer as they are passed on down the line to less-skilled, less-knowledgeable owners who are looking for a good deal in a used horse.

On the brighter side of all this is, there is a growing movement of horse people who understand the needs of horses and are flocking to new training and care protocols that begin with a deeper understanding of the needs of the horse. For example, Parelli Natural Horsemanship (the training method we practice here at Horse Haven) focuses on building a trusting relationship between horse and human. The ultimate goal is a partnership, where the needs, abilities and unique “horsenality” of the horse are considered equally with the wants and dreams of the human. Anyone can force a horse to do something; what we aspire to is for the horse to want to do what we ask with a happy and willing attitude. The promotion of the horse from a slave to a partner increases their value and ultimately increases their odds of staying in their home.

Before considering horse adoption, it’s important to do your research, ensure you have the proper set-up and take the time to acquire the skills necessary to care for a partner who could live 30 to 40 years. Check out Horse Week for more information on proper equine care and  some wonderful stories from the world of horses.

Jen Reid

Manager of Horse Haven, Best Friends Animal Society

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  •  very good description, nice article.

  • Christinek

    I think your article was well written and a nice way to communicate the truth that horses face. You seem to be a good voice for the horses and their needs. I hope I can come visit someday and learn more. Thank you for being their voice.

  • Anonymous

    Like other people have posted I’d just love to have a horse, as they are SO beautiful but I do not have the knowledge or the funds to have a horse. I know animals should be a lifetime commitment. The other sad part with horses besides being moved around from home to home throughout their lives is there is probably the same problem with horses as with dogs and cats, etc. some degree of over breeding because a lot of people want to try and breed the next great racehorse (Triple Crown winner, etc.).

  • Dr Sandy

    I adopted my beloved Jigsaw the day before he was going to be sent to slaughter. I had him for nearly 17 years. It turns out that when I adopted him, he was 30 years old. We rode nearly everyday for the next 15 years, slower and quieter rides in those last years. There was never a moment when I would have ever considered getting rid of him because he got too old to ride. He was the best friend I ever had. He passed away at age 47. It has been 31 years this month since he died, and not a day goes by when I don’t think of him and count my blessings for this wonderful soul who filled my life with so much. For those who have never experienced a lifelong horse companion, you have missed something rich, beautiful and deeply sweet. My husband and I just adopted 2 new ‘Jigsaws’ and we look forward to a similar enriching relationship with our new girls for the many years ahead.

    • Christinek

       What a wonderful lucky horse Jigsaw was to have such loving companions.

  • Karenlee

    Perfectly explained! Thank you !

  • MuffiG2

    My daughter’s horse is 14 and she has had him for 13 years. She can’t imagine life without him, he is her baby ( he would sleep with her if he was able, in fact he has tried to enter the house twice). I had now idea that horses had to go through so many homes. Our horses, our dogs, our cats, they are all part of our family. And just as I would not sell my son because he cost too much to feed, I could not give up our 4 legged family members except under dire circumstances. Thank you to Best Friends for being there!

  • Wendy

    I’ve had 3 horses in my life, the first I got at 13, she was 6, I lost her 6 days before she turned 32 yrs old. The 2nd horse I got when she was 5 months old, I just lost her this yr she was 2 months short of 37 yr’s old, her son I lost at 29 due to an illness. If someone is not willing to keep an animal for it’s entire life,& have it as part of their family, then they should’nt have gotten it in the first place. I could not image getting a horse & not keeping it for it’s entire life, or mine. You would miss out on so much the animal has to offer.

  • Missieburden

    I so wish I could adopt a horse but, sadly, I understand the commitment- both emotional and financial- that a horse would need. They are just stunningly beautiful creatures!

  • Boughene

    I’ve had my wonderful 31 year old mare for 17 years. I have not ever sold her for this very reason. She gave me her everything and took me through 4h and shows. I owe her retirement to her. For this reason, I can’t afford another one that I can actually ride, but my mare is worth it!

  • Excellent post!

  • Pambennett

    It is wonderful that Best Friends is using PNH with the horses living at Horse Haven. It is so important to connect with a horse and to be able to establish a bond between horse and human. Especially as I would imagine several of these horses have not had the best of lives up until arriving at Horse Haven. While I am not an overly confident rider, I have learned so much and had so much fun playing with my horse on the ground. The first time your horse comes to you or accepts your direction for no reason other than that he/she wants to please you is magical.

  • What a great post. Thanks for reminding the public about the commitment of horse ownership. Horses do often live to be into their 30s and beyond. This means if you buy a riding horse when you go off to college, he may still be around when you’re almost 50! If you buy a cute little pony to grow up with your kids, the kids will have grown up and moved away and the pony still may have 10+ good years of life in him.

    I liked your stats about how short horse ownership really is. I volunteer for a local horse rescue. The org always takes back horses that doesn’t work out, at any time for any reason. The shelters that won’t take back their own are dooming the horse to being returned to shuffling around between auctions and dealers. And the fact is that any horse, if he ends up at auction, can end up suffering a terrible end: the long cruel process of horse slaughter.

    I’d like to encourage those shopping for their next horse to consider local shelters & rescues. These horses should be evaluated, quarantined, vaccinated, and current on care. There is no worse fate than a horse “rescued” from an auction by a well meaning person — then, when the horse is too sick or too untrained — he’s sent right back into the system.

    Thank you!


    The Equihab Foundation

    North East, Maryland

  • Lovefelines2003

    What a terrific post and so informative – thank you so much! Their stories are very sad aren’t they? Thank God some of them are fortunate enough to end up at Best Friends? Now what do we do for the unlucky ones who end up in petting zoos, farmer’s markets, go to the factories in Mexico and Canada etc…by the way – the add comment sections here are not working very welll – could not post at all about Lucas and this section is barely working at all. Just thought you’d want to know. Thank you.

  • I like horse very much. I like horse riding very much but I didn’t went to horse riding. Nice article about horse.