Recently I made an observation on Facebook that finished with “…back when horses cost money.”
Horses still cost a bundle – more than ever, what with transportation and alternative fuel eating away at the corn that forms the basis of most prepared feeds, and drought, flooding and urbanization eating away at the fields that give us our hay. A few years ago, the cost of grain per bag went up every single week that I went to the feed store, for a good six months. It was a horrifying realization: even kept at home, horses were moving out of my reach.
But the actually getting a horse, that part seems to be easy. Possibly far too easy. My first OTTB, in today’s market, would be free. In fact, the seller probably would have to pay me several hundred dollars for taking him away. Five years old, virtually no training off the track, terrible feet, rain rot taking most of the hair off his body, and several hundred pounds underweight – somehow in 1993 you could still get money for a rescue like this.
These days, if you pay cash for a horse like that, certainly more than a couple of hundred token dollars to keep it out of the auction ring, you’re a fool soon parted from your money. Horses are free, didn’t you know that? Young horses, old horses, skinny horses, fat horses, draft horses, racehorses, short horses, tall horses…There are plenty of speculations, and plenty of evidence, of what happens to free horses. Every now and then, an experienced horseman gets hold of one and turns it into something wonderful, a Final Call or a Bon Appeal story. My history is full of happy endings for free horses. Spunky teenagers with good trainers, re-riders who suddenly find themselves with a little horse-money and a pasture to keep one in, all the poor-but-talented working students and day-job riders who need a good horse and don’t have the spare twenty thousand lying around to buy one with – it’s a good, good thing.
Then there are the bad endings. There is the eight-year-old girl whose parents unwittingly adopt a three-year-old Standardbred for her, without realizing the ultimately good-natured but confused horse has never worn a saddle or been allowed to break into a canter. (Or, as I recall, even knew that it was three until after the long-delayed vet exam confirmed its extreme youth.) There was the five-acre waste lot on my street in Florida, which went from an old trailer in the middle of an apparent junkyard, to an old trailer in the middle of an apparent junkyard AND six horses from weanling to extreme old age, in a matter of weeks. People who can barely afford to feed themselves find free horses and take them home. The results are not pretty.
Should horses be free? Oh, I don’t know. That’s a cop-out, I do know. Horses should be free to professionals. Good horses with lots of potential should be going to trainers who can make great horses out of them. They should be going to those spunky teenagers with competent instruction. They should be considered valuable in terms of their future potential, and their value should be going to the trainers that put the work into them. They should be considered risky in terms of the unknown histories that could have rendered them free in the first place, and their risk, too has to go to the trainers.
And the trainers, who make free horses into dancing horses, worth actual money, worth saving, worth feeding, worth big fancy stalls with polished brass nameplates and two feet of wood shavings? They deserve special recognition. They took the risk. They could have held out for the expensive European imports. They took on a cheap broken-down claimer, or an auction find, instead. And instead of just making another expensive toy, they turned a life around.
As for the average rider, or the newish rider, there are other options. My favorite is CANTER and ReRun – any of the organizations that go pick up the retirees at the racetrack and get them started for you. The hard work is done. Go to the links on the right-hand side of the article and find your next horse that way. Craigslist is for the professional only, in my opinion.
Going back to the concept of pre-purchase exams (which you probably can’t/won’t/shouldn’t do on a free horse – either take it or don’t), here at A Year With Horses is the blog post on doing a toxicology screen on a potential purchase. This seems like a great idea. Although I imagine the stories of drugged rogues being sold as children’s mounts are probably disproportionate to the truth, it’s scary enough of a concept that I think I would seriously consider screening a horse, especially if he was too quiet and wonderful to be true!