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The Equine Commentary Page contains important information and perspectives on the proper care and concern for your horse.

Celebrating Horses Through Responsible Ownership

By Nina Margetson
Executive Director, Horse Haven of Tennessee

During the month of October, 2010, we have two wonderful opportunities to celebrate the majesty of horses. The World Equestrian Games taking place in Lexington, Kentucky from September 25th through October 10th bring together a wide variety of breeds, from all across the globe, competing in an amazing array of equestrian disciplines. Perhaps there is no better way to appreciate the diverse talents and skills of our equine partners than to traverse the grounds of Kentucky Horse Park taking in the subtle ballet of Dressage, then marveling at the incredible quickness and instinct of Reining horses, absorbing the beautiful communication between team and Driver and then gasping as equine athletes gallop through a Cross-Country course jumping obstacles to make your jaw drop. It is a once-in-a-lifetime feast for the horse lover.

And then on October 8th, we have the premier of Walt Disney Pictures “Secretariat,” which tells the story of the greatest Thoroughbred race horse of the modern era—and possibly of all time. “Big Red,” as the horse was popularly known, was named Thoroughbred racing’s “Horse of the Year” in 1972 and again in 1973 when he won the Triple Crown with victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. He was the first horse to win the Crown in over 25 years, and in all three of those races, he set new track records. In the Belmont he established a new world record and prevailed by an incredible 31 lengths. During his run through the competition in 1973, Secretariat made the cover of “Time,” “Newsweek,” and “Sports Illustrated” magazines—the only time that feat has been accomplished.

While these two separate horse events, converging in October, remind us of the remarkable achievements of our equine friends, they should also give us pause to consider OUR responsibilities as owners and lovers of horses. Never were these clearer to me than in July of 2007, when Horse Haven of Tennessee was called upon to assist with the rescue of 20 abused and neglected horses in Sullivan County, TN. Their conditions were so extreme that some had begun to eat the wood of their stalls because no food had been provided. Many were standing in feces and urine several inches deep. It wasn’t until we got the horses back to our facility in Knoxville that we discovered two of the most scarred and emaciated were descendants of “Secretariat.” Another was offspring of “Affirmed,” the last horse to win Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown—in 1978. Too often, this is the fate of our equine athletes and farm animals who can no longer do those jobs.

Horse Haven helped to prepare the case of animal cruelty brought against the starved horses’ owner, and she was convicted and sentenced to jail for her actions. And, fortunately, we were able to find great homes for “Secretariat’s” descendants—grandson “Riddle Star” was adopted by a woman in the Knoxville area, while great-grandson “Rainaway” was adopted and retired at the Virginia State Fair Grounds to help commemorate “Secretariat’s” birthplace. But not all horses who suffer abuse or neglect have such happy endings.

Perhaps we would like to believe that equine abuse and neglect are carried out by a very tiny percentage of horse owners. And that may be true as far as active abuse is concerned. But neglect is much more widespread than many people would like to admit—and it starts with a lack of knowledge and understanding about responsible horse ownership. Horse Haven averages more than 25 calls per month from concerned citizens worried about the condition of a horse or horses they’ve seen. It’s wonderful that there are so many people who care enough to ask whether an animal is being abused or neglected. And, fortunately, most of the calls can be resolved through education—either in letting the caller know more about normal horse appearance and behavior or, more often, in counseling with the persons whose horses have raised the alarm.

Educating people about horses and horse care is one of Horse Haven’s principal objectives and we’re happy to do it, but wouldn’t it be nice if people would educate themselves BEFORE they buy a horse? Do most people stop to consider, before buying a horse, that this animal might live for 30 years or more? Do they have a plan for how they will care for it, how they will pay for it? Will they just assume they can sell little Suzie’s pony after she outgrows it or tires of the work involved in maintaining it? What if it bows a tendon or develops navicular disease and can no longer be ridden—what happens to the plan to just sell the animal to the next person? Do they have any idea how much a horse eats? How the price of hay skyrockets in a drought? That horses need shots and worming and vet care if they get sick or injured—all of which take time and money?

These questions are not intended to argue AGAINST horse ownership. Owning a horse can be a wonderful experience—for both the horse and the human—though there are also many ways to love and enjoy horses without owning them. Instead, these questions are intended to plead for RESPONSIBLE horse ownership—that is based on knowledge and understanding that horses are not the same as dogs and cats. And neither are they a hobby like golf, where the clubs can be stashed in the back of the closet if you tire of the sport. Horses are a commitment—and a big one.

AT A MINIMUM, horses need adequate food, water, shelter and hoof/veterinary care. These requirements do not mean that horse ownership is reserved for the wealthy—not at all. To be a good horse owner, you don’t need a fancy barn or the latest in high-tech watering devices. What you need is a plan for providing the essentials, and the ability to implement that plan.

And the plan must be tailored to the individual needs—and possible future needs—of your horse. How much feed, and what kind of feed does this horse need to be healthy? What will that feed cost and where will it come from? How much water does this horse require (in all seasons), and how will I ensure it has access to enough water throughout a 24-hour period? How much space does this horse need for grazing and exercise and to ensure it is not contaminating its grazing space with manure and urine? What kind of maintenance must be done on its grazing space (cutting, fertilizing, weed control, replanting)? Does this horse need to be part of a herd or have a buddy? What kind of shelter is available for my horse to get out of wind or rain, cold or hot sun? Is the shelter safe, of adequate size and properly ventilated? Have I consulted with a vet as to the proper vaccination schedule against potential diseases in my locale? What’s a thorough and effective worming schedule for this horse? Given what I plan to do with my horse, does it need shoes? How often will I have to get its feet trimmed? Do I have the time and money to provide all these necessities? Do I have the commitment to do so? And what will I do when my horse gets old, or goes permanently lame? Can I continue to provide this care? Will I continue? Do I have a plan to humanely end my friend’s life? Will I be able to carry out that plan?

These are all questions that should be asked and ANSWERED before taking on a new horse. Often, people assume that because they are boarding their horse at someone else’s farm or facility these questions are unnecessary. Not true. It is your responsibility—as the horse owner—to ensure the boarding facility can adequately answer the questions and provide for your horse’s basic needs.

And another aspect of responsible horse ownership needs mentioning—responsible breeding. The woman who owned the descendants of “Secretariat” and “Affirmed” that we rescued in 2007 apparently assumed she could reap a financial windfall from these bloodlines. But she had no idea what it takes to successfully breed a horse, and to care for its offspring. Responsible horse ownership includes taking steps to prevent unwanted pregnancies and resisting the urge for indiscriminate “backyard breeding.” And for professional breeders, it also includes a reasonable, realistic plan for the babies born that do not meet the breed standards you are trying to achieve. In my view, merely assuming you can sell the “castoffs” to horse slaughter plants is neither reasonable nor realistic any longer.

Let’s celebrate the magnificence of the horse by celebrating responsible horse ownership. Let’s remember that often in our history it was the horse who was the strong thin line between life and death for humans. Horses allowed us to plant our crops; to hunt for food; to protect ourselves from attack. They helped us expand to new frontiers; carried our mail; developed our commerce. Though technology may have replaced them as “beasts of burden,” horses have never been replaced in our hearts and in our imaginations. Nor should they be.

That is why we get goose bumps when we see “Secretariat” gallop gloriously down the backstretch of Belmont Park. It is why we sit in hushed awe during Show Jumping as horses fly over obstacles of unbelievable height. It is why we long to pat the necks of Endurance horses and Vaulting horses, and kiss the forelocks of the kind, patient creatures of Para Dressage. But responsible horse OWNERSHIP requires more than just loving or admiring these amazing creatures. It requires a commitment to know what it takes to properly care for a horse, and then to do it.

At Horse Haven of Tennessee we do our best everyday to celebrate horses by rescuing them from abuse and neglect. In 2009, we cared for 101 animals and we have already surpassed that total in 2010. You can help, too. Because you don’t have to OWN a horse to love one and help one—or more than one.

For more information, please visit our website at  http://www.horsehaven.net