Responsible Owners and Responsible Rescues: The complicated issue of owner surrenders

Meet my kid. Her name is Emma, and she’s a 12+ year old Lab/Rottweiler mix I plucked from a cardboard box outside a flea market just weeks after graduating from college.

When you find out your dog has cancer and you freak out and call your friend Hilary of Hilary Bishop Photography, she’ll come up the next day and take amazing pictures like this one for you!

We’ve lived in a trailer in rural Virginia, an overpriced studio in inner-city Philly (on an air mattress!) and three different homes around Pittsburgh. With me through my first teaching job, graduate school, several ugly breakups, and a marriage, Emma has been my best friend for my entire adult life.

In the last few years, Emma’s started to slow down. Her day-long hikes had to be reduced significantly in length and time, especially in the heat of the summer. It takes her a little longer to get up, especially from the damn hardwood floor. Recently diagnosed with blood cancer and on steroids, Emma now has to pee every few hours, so we pay a kind dog-walker to visit at lunchtime because she can no longer hold it all day.

But, she’s happy. She loves to snuggle, go for (shorter) walks and sniff for rabbit poop, hand out Halloween candy, eat dog ice cream, play in the river and the snow. Life is less fast-paced, and she requires more care, but I wouldn’t trade her for the world, and I’ll cherish whatever time I have with her.


Maybe you’re getting where I’m going with this.

When Emma couldn’t handle six-mile hikes anymore, I didn’t drop her at the Humane Society and go out and buy a younger dog. When she required medications, I bought them and hid them in slices of Kraft singles. When those meds make her need a 2:30am pee in below-zero wind chills, I feel around in the dark for my slippers and bathrobe and stumble outside. This is just what you do for an old dog that you love like family.

It should not surprise us when our pets get older. Unless your preferred companion is a sea-turtle, parrot, Redwood tree, or rock, most of us will be faced with an aging or ill pet.

And while horses might be more complicated companions than dogs, they deserve the same loyalty from their owners in their elder years.

img_0553Meet Elmo.This handsome chunkster was my 15th birthday present; we’ll celebrate 20 years together this June. (Weird, since I’ll only be 29 again…)

He’ll be 28 in April. He’s slowed down in the last few years, too. Some days, his joints are stiff and he prefers walking or cantering to trotting. Our jumping days are long behind us. Last summer he was diagnosed with Cushings and now requires meds. Changes in weather affect him far more these days too, and when we get a mid-winter warm spell, we’re watching him like a hawk, armed with Banamine and probiotics.

“I’m Secretariat!  You’re just a fool in a blanket!”

In the fall, showing off for a youngster in a neighboring pasture, Elmo tore a tendon in left hind and has been off-and-on lame for several months. His hard riding days are over, and for most of my visits we just hang out. Occasionally I’ll clip a lead rope to his halter and we’ll meander around the fields at the barn.


And I’ll love every one of these rides.

When he can’t carry me anymore, I’ll sit in his stall with pockets full of carrots and candy canes (no wonder he’s fat) and we’ll just hang out. And those days will be wonderful, too.

And when Elmo’s gone, then I’ll start searching for the 17+ hand bay gelding that I’ll name Ampleforth, who I’ve been dreaming about since I went foxhunting with friends in England.

“Who you calling fat and old?”

But since teachers don’t make a gazillion dollars, and I’m no longer willing to live in a snake-infested trailer to afford my horses, Ampleforth has to just hang out there in dreamland for a bit.

My responsibility right now, as much I’d love to be galloping through fields jumping fences, is to this fat, old dude.


A blog post popped into my Facebook feed about a week ago titled, “If you can’t afford a retired horse, then you can’t afford a horse.”

I wanted to share it with you, our rescue family, because it addresses one of the most complicated issues we face at the rescue: calls from owners wanting to surrender their older horse(s).

Most of us wouldn’t think about getting rid of our old dog – so why are so many people so willing to hand over their old horse?

Obviously, I have very strong feelings about our responsibility as pet owners to provide, whenever humanly possible, forever homes for our animals.  FCER feels strongly about this as well, and our adoption contracts are life-long.

The rescue regularly receives phone calls from horse owners wanting to surrender their horses to Flying Changes. One woman was moving and needed to rehome four horses, including two seniors with health issues, and an unhandled yearling. Another call was from a man whose aging mother was taking care of his sister’s horses that she had stopped caring for when they were no longer rideable, and he could no longer watch his mother struggle through the daily chores. The third was a woman trying to find “good homes” for three horses in their twenties who were “very sweet,” but hadn’t seen a vet or farrier “in years.”

These phone calls raise some serious questions about the nature of rescue, and what kind of rescue we want, and are able, to be.

We do not know the full stories of any of the people on the other end of the phone lines. Some people may just want to be rid of the expense of an old horse, others may want to clear a stall for something younger and sounder, and other still may be in genuine need of help.

It’s not our place to judge.  It is our place to decide how to handle these situations.

On one hand, these individuals are reaching out to a rescue rather than simply dumping their horses at an auction, and I will forever applaud that choice. On the other hand, we are not set up as a sanctuary. We do not have our own facility, and our horses are either in foster homes or boarded at Legacy Pines Equestrian Center, our home barn.

“Lawn ornaments” of various shapes, sizes, ages, etc. are just as costly, if not more so, than healthy horses, and tend to sit at the rescue far longer than a horse that can be ridden, taking stall space and financial resources from horses that can be rehabilitated, retrained, and re-homed.

Here’s the reality: No one wants your old, broken down, blind, lame, toothless, or whatever-else horse. No one. Occasionally, we are able to find generous, compassionate, caring, huge-hearted people willing to take in a horse with special needs, but no one seeks us out looking for un-rideable companion horses.

I will crap my pants the day I receive a phone call where the person on the other end says, “I’m really looking for a horse that no one can ride!” or “I’d really like a horse over the age of 27!” or “I’m really hoping to find a horse that needs $100 of medications every month!”

We know that extenuating circumstances do arise when it is no longer possible to provide a home for a beloved, elderly equine. A major financial hardship or a severe medical issue can make it impossible to provide the necessary care for our four-legged companion. In these cases, however, isn’t it our responsibility as pet owners to find a new loving home for our horse? Or perhaps the kindest option is to consider humane euthanasia if a suitable home cannot be found, or if moving a horse at this age or in this medical condition isn’t conducive to the horse’s quality of life?

We are a small rescue. We run on limited funding, time, and resources. And we have to decide how those resources are best used. I don’t know the right answer, and don’t entirely know how I feel on the issue. I don’t want horses ending up at auction, but our rescue, as it currently operates, can not be a dumping ground for people’s old horses when they want something younger, faster, flashier, or fancier.

If we take in every owner surrender that comes our way, we’ll be constantly caring for a handful of horses that won’t ever find homes, and won’t be able to take in the other horses – seizures, OTTBs, kill-pen saves, etc. – who have a chance at rehabilitation, retraining, and becoming productive members of forever families.

We have our first board meeting of 2017 coming up (with two new board members that we’ll introduce in a future post!), and our big question for discussion is how we are going to define rescue this year – what are our goals, what horses are most deserving of our limited resources, and what can we offer the numerous owners who call us looking for a home for their unwanted equines?

But we also wanted to reach out to you, our supporters, because it is your donations and your support of our fundraisers and programs that allow us to keep “rescuing” in all the varied definitions of the word.

­What does equine rescue look like to you? On what kind of horses should we focus our limited funding? What do you want Flying Changes to look like in 2017?

We would love to hear from you – we want this rescue to continue to become YOUR rescue and OUR rescue, and we want to work together this year to positively impact the greatest number of horses that we can in the most responsible way possible.  Your thoughts and feedback are greatly appreciated.

Thank you, as always, for your continued support.

Love, Sarah and the FCER team
















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