Published: Saturday, February 18, 2012, 11:01 PM Updated: Monday, February 20, 2012, 9:19 AM"Help! I can't keep this horse anymore."
Sarah Ralston, a Rutgers University associate professor, is all too familiar with that cry of distress during a financially difficult era in which the phrase "unwanted horse" has become an unhappy part of the equestrian lexicon.
"A lot of horse owners have fallen on hard times and can't afford to do the right thing for their horses," she said, but there's more to the unwanted horse problem. Too many people who lack the basics of horsekeeping take on an equine without knowing what it will cost, both in terms of money and work, and have no idea how to deal with a large animal which may be untrained or simply too much for them to handle.
An Unwanted Horse Coalition study that drew more than 27,500 responses showed that indeed, the predominant reason for horses winding up in the unwanted category was because owners could no longer afford them.
But there are other problems, too. They include the horse being too old,injured or unmanageable; the owner's loss of interest, no time to spend with the horse, divorce and children who had ridden the horse moving away from home. Ralston, who is also a veterinarian, noted there is a lot of emotional pressure on the public to rescue horses that otherwise may be headed for slaughter. If the horse turns out to be inappropriate for the new owner, that horse winds up being the last the novice owns, rather than the first of several.
To help find solutions, Ralston is organizing a group promoting responsible horse ownership, which goes beyond the unwanted horse problem. It's called WHOHO (pronounced Whoa-Ho); We're Horse Owners Helping Horse Owners. She sees it as a way "to increase the awareness and utilization of the extensive resources already available through the Rutgers Equine Science Center, The N.J. Agricultural Extension Service and the veterinary community."
Although such resources do a lot aimed at educating the horse owner, Ralston believes there are those, including adopters who get horses from rescue organizations, that are "falling through the cracks." Some may not realize how little they know. Others can be intimidated by experts.
She cited a survey of horse owners that found their most common source of information was other horse owners, not the extension service or expert websites. Unfortunately, some of the information disseminated, whether from a person or a website, may be wrong, or not useful in solving a problem.
Her idea is to turn that around with "a cadre of well-informed volunteers who are aware of the resources available" rather than operating by the seat of their pants. Volunteers would have to be certified, and Ralston envisions an educational program to get them up to speed, though there may be other ways of making sure those involved are qualified.
A core group had its first meeting earlier this month and is getting together again this weekend to continue laying groundwork for the project, which Ralston envisions along the lines of the Master Gardeners program. Karyn Malinowski, the executive director of the Equine Science Center, also suggested that the Environmental Stewards Program or the Woodlands Steward Program that is forming may provide helpful models.
Eventually, Ralston sees the concept going regional, and equestrian experts in neighboring states agree with that concept.
In New York, Karin Bump, a professor of equine business management at Cazenovia College, said a small group has been working for months on the Equine Welfare Assistance Program, a public/private partnership.
"It has some cross-overs to the kinds of things Sarah is talking about," said Bump, the president of the National Association of Equine Affiliated Academics.
"The problems we face with horse welfare and care are national problems, but are going to be best solved by local and regional approaches," she believes.
We clearly need more coordination and communication. There's lots of people doing lots of things, but only in a few instances are there state vehicles by which things get coordinated and communicated so you can put everybody's talents together and see where you're crossing over and where your gaps are."
She noted WHOHO "very much complements the kinds of things we're working on here in New York State. Unwanted horses are a continuing concern, but there's always been an issue of horse welfare and what do horse owners do when they don't have the resources or a horse no longer fits their needs?"
In Pennsylvania, Donna Foulk, Penn State extension educator/equine natural resources, said, "I like this idea, it's pro-active." Foulk recalled that Pennsylvania offered a Crop Master program for farmers, who were supplied with current information that was designed to be passed along to other farmers, and said that was quite successful.
Having the informed farmers help out insured that people got good information, and also had the benefit of letting officials know what concerned the farmers who were being aided, when the volunteers reported back to extension employees.
Regionally, she felt it could work and suggested offering short courses on topics such as hay and nutrition on both sides of the state line.
"I really think we should have stronger ties," said Foulk, who formerly worked at Rutgers.
Malinowski pledged support from Ralston's colleagues in the animal science department and the ESC, while suggesting webinars for some of the programs to make it more convenient and reach out to speakers not based in New Jersey.
Those interested in becoming involved with WHOHO can contact Ralston at ralston@AESOP.Rutgers.edu.