Several years ago Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue started noticing a pattern and this pattern was causing a problem for us. We kept intaking starving horses with little to no training. Very often these were smaller, starving, un-trained or even un-handled horses. We are a rescue that is largely sustained on the $5-20 per month donor. None of us, let me repeat that, NONE of us have a paid position within this rescue. As of yet our budget will not allow us to employ a full time trainer to help get these guys going.
So these un-trained horses posed a serious problem within our rescue. Sure they were fairly easy for us to rehabilitate, but then once they were restored to good health they hung around for a very long time, waiting until someone happened by who had the skills, the time and the willingness to work with them. This tied up spots within our rescue that we could have been using to save another horse from dying. Adopters began to be very interested in our organization, but we very often didn’t have much that fulfilled what they were looking for.
Which led us to recognize problem number two. The majority of the people who are interested in adopting a horse from a rescue are not capable of either putting it under saddle or bringing a green horse along.
So we started brainstorming. Operating in one of the nation’s most economically challenged regions, Heart of Phoenix has always found through necessity the need to create innovative ways to get a large number of horses trained and adopted each year on a small budget. Our answer to this was the Appalachian Trainer Face Off, a training competition that began in 2017.
From May to August, for 100 days the ATFO pairs horses previously without much hope of adoption with trainers for them to get a strong foundation. A horse with solid training is a horse that is much less likely to end up in a neglect or abuse situation and a horse much easier to place in a home.
Many of the horses are gathered up entirely un-handled. Trainers apply and go through a screening process, and horses are vetted and cleared beforehand. These horse men and women work with our horses to offer accomplished, willing equine partners up for adoption and they document their process strategically on social media. The photos, stories and videos required create a vested interest by the public in the success of each horse, trainer and the “ATFO.”
Trainers then compete for 3 days in August to show off all that they have accomplished with their horses. In the end, the trainers demonstrate their skills, the horses gain training, and most go into approved adoptive homes in an auction format event the end where fees went as high as $13,000, as of 2020. (Adopters are pre-approved and horses adopt on our adoption agreements)
The ATFO currently is the largest equine event in West Virginia, hosting over 1,000 people in attendance over the course of the 3 day August event each year. This event has helped make a rescue organization an equine leader in our state.
The Appalachian Trainer Face Off has seen remarkable numbers of equines into homes with solid foundations under them, proven the value of the adoptable horses and highlighted excellent trainers.
The trainers leave the event with a new partnership with the us, as well, that continues to give back through the months and years after each event ends. They also happily market their adoption horses and the organization standing behind them, which helps further cement Heart of Phoenix as a worthwhile part of the horse industry in Appalachia. It helps the public realize considering adoption first makes a lot of sense.
Like many of the things we do here in Appalachia, we wanted to make sure this event offered a return in a multitude of ways, so while the primary goals are training and adoption of horses, additional benefits are increasing our name recognition across the area, gaining training partners that last once the event ends each year and making adoption extremely mainstream within the horse community.
Heart of Phoenix believes when faced with uncommon adversity, you should try to not only make sure all efforts create a great deal of impact, but that we also need to make certain we are tackling multiple issues at once. We have found the Appalachian Trainer Face Off has accomplished so many things that leads to better view of what horse rescue means, what adoption should look like and how the horse industry can help us help horses in a meaningful way.
(all pictures are of HOP horse Chip who went through the 2020 Appalachian Trainer Face Off after his rehabilitation and was happily adopted at the conclusion of the event)
About Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue
Heart of Phoenix is a partner of the Right Horse Initiative. Starting in 2009 and formally founded in 2012, “HOP” was the only rescue in West Virginia for many years and is now the leading equine organization of any kind in that state. They believe in “working together to improve the lives of horses in transition through a dialogue of kindness and respect.” They collaborate with dozens and dozens of trainers across this country to make more horses adoptable. There efforts help shatter any stigma and reframe the conversation around equine adoption in order to massively increase horse adoption in the United States.