What 13 Years in Horse Rescue Taught Me

In the early years while building of Heart of Phoenix from grassroots, how I learned to work with people and grow in an area where an equine non-profit had never successfully existed, was rarely based in pre-conceived notions. How we worked had little to do with how other shelters, rescues and animal advocates worked.

It could not be because what I was working on had never existed here before, so a lot of our practices, like fostering horses, were rather unheard of back then.

In a lot of ways, I had to invent our own wheel. Then I became WE. There wasn’t an example for us to learn from first hand, so we just kept on.

I’m glad for that most of the time, though there are certainly things that were learned the hard way that I regret since our origins from 2009. Mistakes were made, but we learned quick and made changes. We still do. If it does not work with solid success for HOP, we go back to the drawing board.

Some of the things starting from scratch led me to realize:

1. There ARE many good reasons out of an owner’s control that can arise where they need to turn a horse (or animal) over. Pressuring or demonizing people to keep animals of any kind they cannot care for properly only hurts animals and humans. This does not excuse casual giving away of horses or pets, but there are plenty of reasons any of us might encounter in our lives where the animal is no longer best served to stay with us. So we never make people feel bad if that is the decision they have arrived at, as the decision is hard enough without us making it worse.

2. Hoarding animals not living a high quality of life is wrong. Euthanasia is often the kindest option for some horses that arrive, especially given the work we do and the situations they come from. We should never make choices based on what is easier for us or from emotion. That hurts animals (and people). We must always decide based on the animal having a naturally good quality of life free from pain or chronic fear. If we do otherwise, we serve our egos, donation levels and emotions only.

3. Some of the worst instances of neglect are situations where the people are unspeakably ignorant. Sometimes this is generations of lack of understanding and education. Often we find all the people on site are living little or no better than the animals. This means education is KEY to fixing the root of neglect. Demonizing people is not the way. Yes, there are exceptions with intentional cruelty, and yes, even neglect through ignorance is a crime, but the way we end NEGLECT of is through continued, clear efforts to educate far and wide on what horses need.

4. Many long time horse owners lack basic understanding of nutrition, tack fit, horse behavior, proper training approach, what good farrier care looks like, dental needs and medical needs in horses, but by targeting people and ignoring them as potential good owners, you miss a chance to help them learn and become Knowledgeable owners and possible adopters. Horses need MORE solid owners to thrive. The horse people are out there, and we do not have too many horses. We simply have too few owners realizing horse ownership is a lifelong commitment to learning.

5. Don’t be afraid to question long standing practices if your experiences are showing that are not helping horses. Just because it has always been “THIS WAY” has no bearing on if it is right or still the right course.

6. People will recognize when those they do not like or know harm horses, but they will often defend the same behaviors or practices from their friends or their circle. So understand that we need to always look at things in horse care (and life, right?) without emotion and connection to habits or people. Be honest when considering if a certain treatment, approach, type of care or behavior seems ethical. Don’t be married to a circle of people so tightly, you defend what actually harms horses. Your friends may be neglected horses or harming them. I’m sorry. It is simply true. Don’t hide or protect harming innocent horses (or humans) because a family member or friend is who is responsible.

7. The horse world is small, and your reputation will catch up with you. If you lay a good foundation, are honest and work with integrity, there isn’t an industry that will treat you better, but if you do not, your poor reputation will eventually out who you are.

8. Birds of a feather flock together. Remember that. It applies in the circles you ride, train and work in. It relates to how you grow as a horse people and a human, in general.

9. People who rescue animals have a desire to fix problems, and it will always spill over into trying to help humans. Often, humans will not be as easy or appreciative, and they will have ulterior motives. That’s okay. Don’t decide people aren’t worth helping. Don’t become the group that says, “I hate people.” Sure, people are crazy, but it was a bit crazy, after all, to think one day one of the largest equine rescues in the world would be here in Appalachia, wasn’t it?

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