starting a horse rescue

Heart-wrenching images of horses that have been starved, abused, neglected, or shipped to slaughter are hard to ignore, and sometimes the pictures are enough to get equestrians thinking about starting a horse rescue of their own.

But getting a rescue up and running—and keeping it that way—takes more than a desire to save skinny horses. Here are some practical points to ponder.

It’s a business.

Failing to approach rescues as business operations is one of the reasons many falter, said Nicole Maubert Walukewicz, founder the Palmetto Equine Awareness and Rescue League, in Anderson, South Carolina.

Having a business plan is key.

“You have to know exactly what you’re going to do—rescue horses, buy from kill pens, work with law enforcement, accept surrenders, educate the public—and whether or not you intend to do all of them or just one or two,” she said.

A business plan should also include registering the rescue as a corporation with the Secretary of State in the state or commonwealth where the organization will be based. Though state laws vary, they generally require choosing a corporate name and filing articles of incorporation that include an in-depth description of the business, the names of corporate officers (usually a president, vice president, and treasurer), and officers’ responsibilities. State filings might also include whether the corporation will operate as a for-profit or nonprofit entity.

IRS nonprofit status helps.

Rescues that also file for federal 501(c)(3) nonprofit status with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have distinct advantages.

“You can raise funds from donors nationwide,” Walukewicz says, noting that some donations might be tax deductible for the giver. “Also, some prospective contributors shy away from supporting rescues that do not have federal nonprofit status because they don’t view those organizations as legitimate.”

To obtain 501(c)(3) status, rescue operators must complete and submit IRS documents that require a detailed description of the corporation, what it intends to accomplish, and how it intends to do so. Paperwork must also include bylaws—rules governing the business—articles of incorporation, officers and their duties, and as a list of the organization’s board of directors. Directors need not include individuals with specific professional credentials, but they must include at least a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer.

It takes more money than you think.

Rehabbing horses—even just one—isn’t an inexpensive endeavor. It typically requires more than the recurring expenses for feed, veterinary and farrier services, and routine barn supplies.

“I estimate about $400 to $500 to catch up on basic vet care, another $200 to $400 for multiple farrier visits to get hooves back in shape, and between $100 and $200 a month in feed (per horse),” says Jenn Williams, PhD, executive director of the Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, in College Station, Texas, and author of How to Start and Run a Rescue. “Plus, most of the horses will need training, between $700 and $1,000 per month, to make the horse adoptable.”

You need space.

According to most basic equine minimum care standards, one pasture-supported horse requires at least an acre to roam and graze. But rescue operators need enough space to quarantine new arrivals until Coggins and other blood testing are complete, contagious conditions cured, and newcomers back on their feet.

“Also, these horses are devastated and don’t have a lot of fight in them, so you can’t put them in a herd with other horses” Walukewicz said.

It’s hard work.

Horse rescue operators are very invested in both time and money, said Erin Clemm Ochoa, chief executive officer of Days End Farm Horse Rescue, in Woodbine, Maryland.

“They don’t take family vacations,” she said. “They are involved in running the organization every day.”

You must be willing to do the tough things.

The unfortunate reality is not every horse you rescue can be saved. Prospective rescue operators must be willing to euthanize horses that are too ill, too old, or in too much pain to rehabilitate.

“You have to ask yourself if the investment in time and money to maintain this horse will prevent three other horses from coming into the rescue and getting help from the rescue,” Ochoa said.

You’re probably going to burn out.

Even the most level-headed rescue operator can eventually be overcome by the challenges of operating the organization and raising funds to keep it viable.

“So, you need an exit plan,” Walukewicz advised.

Decide how many horses you plan to help and, when you reach that goal, consider whether you need to step aside, she said. It might be time for someone else to take the reins.

If you’re still enjoying the work, set new goals. When you reach them, once again ask yourself if this is the job for you.

The Bottom Line

Setting up and running a rescue effectively is costly, time-consuming, and difficult. The good news is that, even if establishing one isn’t in the cards, you can assist an existing one and still help horses in need.

“I think you have a lot better standing if you can say, ‘Our organization represents 1,000 horse lovers in this area’ than if you say, ‘I’m with ABC rescue, and we’re a group of three horse lovers,’ ” Williams said.