Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Useless Horses

So, to get started, what to you constitutes a useless horse? This subjected tugged at me a bit because I myself may be faced with owning a "useless" horse in the near future. My family is preparing to take back a horse they bred years ago, who might also prove to be of little or no use as a riding horse. At some point or another, we are all faced with the difficult decision of what to do with a horse who no longer meets our needs for whatever reason.

While I have some strong opinions on this matter myself, I recognise this is not a black-and-white issue and in fact has a lot of grey areas.

What defines a horse as useless? It might be a horse no longer able to compete at the level it was formerly at or it could be a horse who is no longer rideable at all, for a variety of reasons. Is it okay to dispose of these horses, whether via (either directly or indirectly) slaughter or to another owner? Under what circumstances is disposing of these horses ethical? Where do we draw the line between accomplishing our own goals and unselfishly ensuring the best for our horse?

Most of us can only afford one, maybe two horses. We have our own individual goals we would like to accomplish, which varies from being able to trail ride to jumping a 1.50m or larger course, or maybe working cattle. When a horse becomes unsuitable to our personal needs and goals, we have to decide whether to lower our goals, push aside our goals or give up on them completely, or to find a new horse more suitable. When a horse is unsuitable for training reasons, it is generally regarded as a-okay to sell said horse for one more suited to our riding style or needs, one who is more appropriate. However selling a horse because it no longer meets our goals is sometimes frowned upon. That said, in large part the reason is because if the horse no longer meets our own needs, it likely may not meet the needs of other individuals out there, especially if it is a horse who is say pasture-sound-only or such. As such, the horse is more likely to then be shunted off to eventually meet its fate on someone's dinner plate as opposed to someone's pasture or barn. What about the ones we sell because they do not meet our training or riding level (ie. too much horse), though? Can't they be inclined to meet the same fate, especially if they are extreme in their behaviours? So then how are the horses who no longer meet our needs disqualified? Do we owe it to a horse to keep them for life if they have been our partner for 1 month? 6 months? 1 year? 5 years? Where's the line?

I'm of the personal opinion that while we may not directly owe anything to a horse, it is certainly in the horse's best interests to ensure they have a solid future, to the best of our abilities and knowledge. It's an animal whose life and well-being depends on us. As such, while we may not specifically owe anything to that animal, I think that both ethically and morally, it is our obligation to do our best by that animal.

This is where I draw my line(s):
The horse we've used for competition for a number of years, the horse who has given us so much and who has been our partner throughout, is especially deserving of our efforts toward his best interests. This includes NOT bandaiding him together as we further compete on him to serve our own selfish interests, meanwhile causing deterioration to old injuries or arthritic joints (etc). If he needs meds or painkillers to compete, it is your duty to take a step back and re-evaluate. Is he capable of continuing to compete at the level he is at? If competing him at the same level, on meds/painkillers, is causing further deterioration, is that ethical? The answer is most definitely no for me, however we see horses competing, bandaided together only by drugs, every day. If the horse is thus unsuitable but your competition goals remain higher than the horse's current ability, I honestly see no wrong in selling or giving away such a horse - with full disclosure and ensuring he goes to the best and most suitable home possible, even if that means losing the money you were counting on obtaining for his replacement. This includes not further damaging the horse then selling it when it is possibly no longer capable of even being ridden under-saddle. Same follows for the horse who proves to be too much or too little horse - if your safety or confidence is jeopardized or you will be unable to accomplish your own goals, I see no wrong in re-homing the horse. Provided the horse's best interests are served at all times, which unfortunately might include losing money. After all, riding has to be fun for us too.

What about the horse who has become a pasture puff? While I do not like the idea of giving up a horse simply because it is of no use to us any longer, I also keep in mind that we are often restricted by finances. Is it fair to never accomplish our own goals because we can only afford the one horse? I don't think so... but again, I feel it is our moral obligation to find said horse a good home as a companion horse or pasture puff... or to euthanise said horse. I could never send any of my own horses to slaughter, however I do not have an issue with slaughter per se, provided it is humane (and that is another topic entirely, one previously covered). Supporting a pasture puff has its benefits of course (ie., having said horse around), but it can also place great restrictions on the owner, so all factors have to be considered.

Here's my current situation:
I currently own a 15yo Quarab gelding, a 10yo DWBx gelding, a 3yo CWB mare, a 6yo TB gelding, and an 8yo TB gelding (in addition to a sale horse at this time). The reason I can afford the latter three horses - and thus pursue my own competitive goals - however, is because I have the first two leased out. They are homebreds whom I do not wish to sell, however I have financial restrictions just as any other. If they were not homebreds, I have to admit I would probably have sold them. Both are fantastic horses who will likely find great homes - they are in high demand due to their experience and individual traits: the DWBx is a packer with great jumping ability and the Quarab is highly athletic and a good all-rounder who has done everything from work cattle to participate in large parades and even work as a pony horse on the track. However neither are going to meet my upper-level show jumping goals. Personally I see no wrong in ensuring they have great homes, and moving on; that said, these special horses may go out on lease indefinitely but will never be sold. I want to ensure nothing ever happens. So that leaves me with three horses to support, one of which might end up as a pasture puff (we'll know more come spring with further tests etc). What do I do with a pasture puff? Horses are not inexpensive to keep and maintain. Of course this entire point may be moot (hopefully we can get him sound!), but it is something I have already had to consider in preparation. In my case, I can afford to keep him on pasture and as long as he is comfortable, I will probably keep him. If I have to give him up eventually, it will not be because the costs to maintain him hinder my show career - that would be too difficult for me to swallow (though I do not judge in that regard). He would either be given to a good home or be euthanised. On the other hand, for me personally, if my 6yo Thoroughbred gelding does not meet my competitive goals, he will stay with me - I have invested a lot into that horse and have formed a strong partnership with him, so selling is not an option (same follows for any of my partners I have invested so much into). That said, he would likely be leased or such so I could concentrate on my jumper-bred mare; in my case I am blessed and lucky to have been able to afford the mare so I can pursue my own goals, while still being able to support my other horses. However it can be a bit of a juggle and owning 5 horses can place financial restrictions on say emergency care (say for example surgery for something) for one of the 5, as opposed to if I only had one or two (that said, my horses want for nothing and I will have insurance on at least a couple of them this coming year). So, there are many factors one must consider and weigh out carefully when deciding whether or not to keep a horse!

I highly respect the individuals who have either completely dropped or altered their riding goals to suit their current horse. I have done so myself many a time, however never to the extent of completely sidelining my goals forever (such as if I had a horse become a pasture puff and could never afford another horse to compete on whilst supporting the pasture puff), though many of my goals have been greatly delayed by various limitations, including those of my horses. I do not regret it for one moment though, however I am still young and able to pursue my goals. I think too it may be easier for some to sideline or alter their riding goals than others, so I always keep that in mind as well.

All considered though, what to do with a horse who no longer meets your expectations, ie. a useless horse, is a very grey area subject to a great deal of factors and privy to a lot of room for opinion. Speaking to my vet really broadened my perspective as well. I think the difference is whether or not you did your best to ensure the horse's best interests were served. We are only human, after all and we can only do so much. In the end, if the horse is happy and well taken care of, I am a happy camper and have no complaint! I just do not think the decision of what to do with a horse should ever be taken lightly.