Bloodhorse Magazine

Equine Retirement Programs
by Lenny Shulman
Date Posted: 2/24/04 10:36:48 AM
Last Updated: 2/24/04 11:37:46 AM

The rescue, retirement, rehab, and retraining of ex-racehorses has grown into a major movement.
Skip Dickstein Photo
It is horse racing's dirty little secret--the big black truck that regularly rolls along the backstretch of tracks large and small, and behind sales rings, picking up the cripples, the too-slow, and horses just plain not wanted by their owners anymore. The long trip of tears ends at two foreign-owned slaughtering facilities in Texas and perhaps one scheduled to come back online in Illinois, with horse meat subsequently shipped to Europe for human consumption.

Twenty-five years ago, a small group of concerned horse people decided to combat the fate of spent equines, becoming the pillars of an increasingly effective mini-industry that is saving and retraining more and more Thoroughbreds no longer fit for racing or breeding.

Increasingly over the last five years, the effort to rescue ex-racehorses and train those eligible for second careers has grown from a handful of "horse-huggers" into a burgeoning movement with widespread support from nearly all corners of the industry. Passionate people concerned for the health of the horse, and willing to put their money and time on the line, have shone a light into the blackest corner of a sport that relies on magnificent animals only to abandon too many of them far too soon. Happily, these dedicated people have brought forth an opportunity for the sport and its individuals to feel good about doing the right thing by its equine athletes.

"I knew what was going on, and I tried to shove it to the back of my head," said longtime breeder John Hettinger, who got involved in the retirement movement nearly four years ago. "Fighting slaughter is now the number-one priority in my life." Hettinger's Blue Horse Charities has participated in the adoption of some 4,000 horses over the past three years.

Horse slaughter has been reduced, but not ended. Importantly, it is no longer a secret. The same people who have taken it upon themselves to find second careers or retirement paddocks for ex-racehorses have joined Hettinger in embracing a concurrent goal--to end the slaughter of horses in the U.S. for human consumption . In the past few years, sale companies have instituted minimum prices below which they will not sell horses, making it economically unfeasible for the "killers" to buy at auctions.

The black trucks still patrol the racetracks, but now trainers and owners are aware that other options exist. They can just as easily call a rescue operation in their area, receive just as much money for their unwanted stock, and know they are doing the right thing by their animals. Although the system is not infallible--nearly 50,000 horses were slaughtered in the United States last year; 5,000 of those Thoroughbreds--and rescue operations cannot always get to barns in time, more and more horses are being saved every day. Awareness is increasing.

And with awareness comes money. When a tragedy like Exceller being killed in Europe, or Ferdinand in Japan, hits the headlines, calls come pouring in along with checks. Converts are made. And a horse who would have once been on the long road to nowhere is now grazing in a field, or performing in other disciplines, or bringing unbridled joy to a disadvantaged boy or a young girl somewhere in North America.

There are now dozens of nonprofit organizations nationwide that adopt and/or retrain horses, and untold numbers of mom-and-pop operations caring for equines in backyard paddocks coast to coast. Donations from several equine-exclusive charities, while not covering all costs, certainly assist in the business of rehabbing, retraining, and placing horses. Groups get medical discounts from local universities and clinics. A massive Internet-based databank to link horses with those wanting them is right around the corner. The people most involved in rescue feel an inevitability; that the pendulum is swinging decisively in their, and the horses', favor.

The rescue movement has come a long way from its quirky beginnings.

Equine Retirement Programs (pt. II)
by Lenny Shulman

Date Posted: 2/24/04 10:31:32 AM
Last Updated: 2/24/04 11:38:07 AM

"I just assumed, as many did, that when horses didn't race anymore they went to live on a farm somewhere," said Monique Koehler, who against all odds became the "mother" of the equine rescue movement. Koehler was a pharmaceutical representative from New Jersey whose business often took her to Long Island in the late 1970s. On one such trip, she read an article in Newsday about a British trainer named Daphne Collings who had started a "horse haven foundation." It detailed many horror stories of horses left to die, and Koehler, who had no connection to horses, was moved to send a donation and a note of support.

Two months later she was sharing a dinner table at a favorite restaurant with Collings, who begged her to become president of the foundation. "I said 'no,' " Koehler remembered. "I didn't know anything about it, and all she had was a slip of paper with some names and numbers that looked like it had been in her pocketbook for 30 years.

"Then our waiter, whom I knew, put 50 bucks down on the table and told me what a great idea this was. And I told him not to be ridiculous. Then he said, 'You're absolutely right; here's another 50.' So I said, 'all right,' and took the piece of paper."

Koehler found herself hosting dinner meetings near Belmont Park with any horse people to whom she could get an introduction. She didn't know any of them. "I asked Penny Chenery if she had gotten involved by reading the same article I did," Koehler laughed. "I'll never forget her answer. 'No, Monique, I just really love horses,' " replied the owner of Riva Ridge and Secretariat.

Many individuals from the racing industry signed on with Koehler, who feels she benefited by being outside the horse business. "I wasn't pointing fingers or laying blame--I don't believe in that kind of approach," said Koehler. "If I was going to be a good partner with racing, I'd rather speak well of it and work hard to create prosperity. I found the overwhelming majority of racing people care and want to do the right thing. I made a lot of mistakes, but people were forgiving and understanding and willing to fix the problems."

The organization landed on the name Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) in 1982, and it became the first organization that took horses in on a large scale and in a public way, inviting partnerships with tracks and the breeding industry. Shortly after came the idea of adoption; that horses would be happier and better utilized in second careers. The next issue was land.

New York State Senator Howard Nolan, an early supporter and director of TRF, suggested the prison system had a lot of land upstate at its Wallkill facility. Despite some grousing about prisoners touching horses, Koehler saw it as the perfect partnership, and the TRF developed a vocational training program in 1984 that has blossomed into a nationwide system to the benefit of all. "The prisoners found in themselves something they never had before--the capacity for love," Koehler noted. "Respect for another living being. And the animals didn't care about what these people did before.

"People scoff that we're putting money into prisons. We don't. We save so much money having horses at these facilities, and those horses continue to work saving lives. Our guys get paid a fraction of what other prisoners make. And when it's freezing, they volunteer to go out on weekends to help the horses. I don't know what we'd do without them."

The concept worked so well that in quick order the TRF expanded to other correctional facilities; in Lexington at the Blackburn prison; Maryland at the Charles Hickey School for Delinquent Youth; Florida at the Marion Correctional Facility; and will soon be opening facilities in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Jersey, and possibly Texas.

Today, TRF executive director Diana Pikulski sets up shop at sales and industry meetings to educate people. The TRF offers to go to any racetrack that will have them. By year's end, 500-800 Thoroughbreds will be involved in TRF programs. Recently a race fan in New Jersey who had been a small donator left TRF nearly $900,000. "We've had miracles all the time," said Koehler, who today is the group's chairman. "When we've needed them, we've always been sent angels in the nick of time."

One of those angels was John Stuart, a Lexington bloodstock agent who agreed to hold auctions and help the TRF get started at the Blackburn facility. After handling the sale of the last crop of yearlings from the late Paul Mellon, Stuart approached two of the estate's trustees, who ended up giving the TRF a gift of $7 million in 2000. That pushed the TRF from a one prison/one juvenile delinquent center operation to one that today includes satellite farms where people rehab and retrain horses. Because the Mellon Foundation was involved in refurbishing James Madison's home, Montpelier, in Virginia, it suggested adding a retirement farm there, which opened last fall. Stuart recently ended a four-year stint as the group's president.

"You have a horse that sold three times at Keeneland," said Stuart. "You trained him, hit his shins with firing, injected him a thousand times, and he always did what we asked. So when we ask him to step onto that double-decker bus to go to the slaughterhouse, he's gonna do it. And he shouldn't have to.

"The ones that are completely broken down, give the poor horse a shot and bury it. The ones that can be saved, we have a responsibility in this industry to do it. There are plenty of homes out there. We have to do a better job of having workers or volunteers on the bac kstretch of tracks so we can get those horses out of there before they get on the truck. We're not organized enough to fight the killers at enough tracks. There is always room for a horse that has a chance."

Jo Anne Normile raced horses at Great Lakes Downs near her home in Michigan while also serving as a board member of the Michigan Eventing Association. In 1997 a trainer approached her to take a look at a big gray gelding. "Isn't this the kind of horse those jumping people would like?" he asked. The next day another trainer led her to another horse, and within two months she had sold 50 head to "those jumping people." This was the start of the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER), which today owns more than 20 rescue farms in seven states. Last year, CANTER found new homes for 232 horses.

"Not only do we give horsemen more money than they got from the meat guy, but they also know they're doing the right thing by the horse," Normile said. "And the buyers now get their pick of hundreds of horses--all with Jockey Club papers--for under $2,000. After I established a Web site, people were coming from Georgia and New York to buy horses. We've never sold less than 200 horses a year since, all off this little track.

"I have seen such a turnaround in the racing industry and I'm so proud of how we're challenging slaughter and taking responsibility for the horses," Normile added. "Up to a few years ago I would never use the word 'rescue' for fear nobody would want to deal with me. Now racing is throwing that word around. Our trainers are proud they've put the meat man out of business."

Out on the West Coast the California Equine Retirement Foundation started up under Grace Belcuore in 1986. Pegasus followed in 1991 under Helen Meredith. Gary Biszantz decided to do things on a bigger scale, and with the help of John Amerman bought 45 acres in Tehachapi that became Tranquility Farm, which today holds up to 100 horses.

Shon Wylie was working at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky in 1996 when she met Lori Neagle, who was a board member of that state's Humane Society. They talked about creating a program for adoptable ex-racehorses, and trainers began seeking them out. The organization they began, ReRun, now adopts out 70-80 horses a year and is active in eight states.

"ReRun is set up so that we utilize outside people and pay them a small amount to keep the horses," said Wylie. "That way if funding gets tight, we can cut back on the number of horses we take in. We concentrate on adoptable horses who can have a second career under tack, and we accept horses as long as they can be rehabbed to be ridable."

As one might imagine, it takes money to pay people and upkeep facilities. Normile said CANTER's bare-bone costs are $200,000 annually, including surgery costs. Enter more angels.

Herb Moelis was a vice president of TRF from the beginning. To help the o rganization, he originally suggested a tag-on charge when owners registered a foal that would entitle that foal to lifetime retirement. That concept went nowhere.

"The next best idea was doing stallion seasons, so we started with that," Moelis said. "The first year we raised $15,000. A few years later, when we got to the $500,000 mark, I went to the TRF board and said we should set up a separate arm to help other organizations. That was vetoed. So I split off in 1996 and started Thoroughbred Charities of America with Allaire du Pont and my wife, Ellen, to help all the mom-and-pop organizations around the country that don't have the wherewithal to raise money."

Every December the Moelises host a stallion season and memorabilia auction at their Candyland Farm in Delaware, and 2003 marked the third consecutive year the auction raised better than $1 million. Du Pont's needlepoint work is highly sought out by bidders. Moelis said his group helps support about 100 nonprofit organizations annually.

John Hettinger approached the directors of the Fasig-Tipton sale company about a matching-gift charity that would match any consignor or buyer who devoted one-quarter of 1% of the hammer price of any horse sold. Today, Blue Horse Charities subsidizes the adoption of ex-racehorses and creates awareness on the issues of rescue and slaughter.

The group paid some 30 nonprofit organizations $150 per head for each of the nearly 800 horses those groups rescued in 2002. Hettinger has publicly criticized groups such as the American Association of Equine Practitioners, which opposes national legislation that would end slaughter because the bill has no provision for what to do with unwanted animals.

"More than 1,000 consignors and buyers participate in this program because they don't buy the self-serving, hypocritical rationalizations of some veterinary groups concerning slaughter," Hettinger said.

"There was a story years back about a horseplayer at Suffolk Downs who used his winnings to buy two old horses who were headed for the killers. He said, 'I don't feel I'm doing anything noble. I wonder why I haven't been doing this for a long time.' And that's exactly the way I feel."