Stories of OTTBs

 " The Final Race To Find Home"

    A Story of 3 OTTBs

    Submitted by: Tina Snyder, Safe Haven Farm


The plight of the OTTB is no secret to horse people. Racing careers are short, aftercare expensive, and a horse fresh off the track isn't the best choice for the backyard hobbyist. Combined, this creates a perfect storm of an equine population in need of homes. Often, young horses needing companion homes or with riding limitations due to injuries are extremely hard to place. That coupled with fresh, amped up horses who need time to let down and skilled training to have the opportunity of a second career compounds the problem.  So many will get passed over and end up at auction or left starving in the fields. While there are many programs to help these horses, there certainly aren't enough.

Such was the case for Jet, Kismet, and Dancer who fortunately found their way to Safe Haven Equine Warriors (SHEW), a small 501(c)(3) rescue in Maryland. The names were changed, as we believe on the day of rescue a completely new life begins for every horse that comes through our doors. 


First came Kismet, our 11th-hour rescue. Part of SHEW's mission is to outbid killbuyers at auction, particularly in New Holland, Pennsylvania. 

In April of 2018 Kismet was saved from slaughter. Early that morning our crew was at auction jotting down numbers of the horses most needing rescue that would surely be picked up by the killbuyers. Among them stood an older gray OTTB gelding being knocked around by the neighboring horses tied on each side of him. He didn't care, didn't push back, or try to defend himself. He had resigned himself that this was the end. More than 300 lbs underweight, long whip marks on his rump, swollen hind legs, and a gambit of wounds throughout his body, I shuddered to think what this poor horse had gone through. He was at the top of my list. Only having funds to save two on this day, the choosing is agonizing. 

Generally the higher priced horses, the better horses, are auctioned first so I figured I had some time. The less desirable meat horses go at the end when the crowd has thinned out to just a few rescues and the killbuyers. 

Not on this day! The old gray horse was the very first one, quickly bought up by a killbuyer, ushered out, and directly loaded on a full truck. The last to complete a load. My stomach just sank.  So many horses in need but I had my heart set on this one. Our board president, a rather tall commanding sort of man, approached the buyer and convinced him to sell us the horse for cost. (It is our policy to never give a killbuyer a dime of profit from our donors’ money.) The horse was far too thin to bring much at slaughter and too fragile to perhaps even make the trip. The truck was closed and the driver was stepping into the cab as we rushed to catch him. Moments later he was offloaded and transferred to our trailer! Now I've done some 11th-hour rescues in my day but this was truly 11 hours and 59 seconds! 

Over the next 10 months Kismet healed both physically and mentally. The blank stares turned into playful whinnies of greeting each morning. Kismet’s rehab included treatment for injuries that are most often seen in plow horses as well as for Lymes. In this part of the country the Amish use every breed to plow, so that explained a lot of his post-racing history. Today Kismet can be lightly ridden and is a most enthusiastic beauty. He is pending adoption in a home where he will simply be a well-loved pet. A life he absolutely deserves!

Next came Jet.

Jet was born in 2012 on a well-known thoroughbred breeding farm. He has great bloodlines and was destined to be something special on the track. He began his racing career as a two-year-old. Being exceptionally large for a racehorse, I have to question if this was not the start of his downfall. 

By the time Jet was five he had regressed to low dollar claiming races. Exhausted and broken, he was sold to a dealer who then sold horses from his field for a couple hundred bucks each. Anyone could buy. And someone did. But unfortunately, as is often the case, a well-meaning person took in a horse they simply couldn’t afford. Things happen, life changes.  One of our board members kept seeing a desperate ad to place a free horse in her area. She felt compelled to help. As she brought her plea to our attention, our first thought was to help with feed cost until the horse could find a proper home. Beth went to see the horse, assess the situation, and offer our assistance. The situation ended up far more dire than originally thought. The horse was emaciated and couldn't walk; he needed immediate medical attention. We quickly took custody of Jet, got him to our quarantine barn, and attempted to save his life. This would be by far the most intense and expensive rescue our startup organization had done to date.  Multiple X-rays of hooves and knees were taken. Jet had severe abscesses in three feet. Custom booties and megarunner shoes were made for him. X-rays revealed multiple chips in his cantaloupe-sized knee, which we naively thought could be surgically removed.  His feet healed and funds were secured for surgery. Then came the devastating news from the surgeon: while the chips could be removed, it would do little good. The bigger problem was the destroyed cartilage from many injections and running on a failing knee. His exact words were “sickeningly destroyed cartilage from repeated injections.” This horse had been run on a failing knee and whoever injected it knew it!  So here we were with a now lively otherwise healthy 6-year-old whose second career had been robbed from him.  The plan then became one small step at a time to see how far we could go without hurting him.  Step one: Get his hooves completely healed and see if he can walk without pain. Check. Step two: Get his weight up to a healthy amount and see if the knee can carry him. Check. Step three: Attempt to put a small rider on him and see if he can handle being a lightly ridden pleasure horse, perhaps with the help of IRAP or NSAIDS. Working on it: Jet is currently with our trainer Erin O'Neill of Legacy Sport Horses doing just that. He is slowly being introduced to very light riding. So far so good! 

While Jet's ride-ability is still in question, what is certain is that this beautiful, kind horse will have a safety net around him for the rest of his life, as do all the SHEW horses. He will never be hungry or without medical attention again. Our hope is that instead of running for his life, he will take leisurely walks on the trails. I wish I could tell him how sorry I am for what he has been put through and convey to him that he will never want for anything again. 

Lastly is the story of SHEW's latest rescue, Dancin’ in the Dark, or Dancer. It's a little-known fact that just about every state horse council is pro-slaughter. What, you say! Yes, it's true! In 1971, equine slaughter was defunded in the United States. Not actually outlawed, but rather just defunded. That meant that no USDA inspectors were at the domestic equine slaughterhouses, which meant they can't operate. Every year it’s a renewed battle to keep it that way. Because this was such a controversial topic most state horse councils just shoved it under the rug, never changing their bylaws.   However, in recent years my state of Maryland had the first horse council to take a hard look at this and bring it to a member vote. Of course the vote was a resounding NO to the slaughter of American horses. Slaughter is by no means humane euthanasia!  The alternative would be to support a legislative bill known as Safeguard American Food Exports or SAFE act. Because in America we don't raise horses as a food product, they are treated with many carcinogenic and toxic drugs rendering the meat unsafe for humans to eat.  Even fly spray, bute, banamine, and dewormer are among the many things food livestock cannot have. While we don't eat it commercially here for that reason, we do export approximately 150,000 horses a year to be processed in Canada and Mexico for consumption. The slaughter of American horses is not only bad for the horses but for the people who eventually eat them as well.  But where would all the displaced horses go and what does this have to do with Dancer? Hold on, I’m almost to the good stuff!  The state of Maryland where I proudly reside, has a new innovative program known as the Maryland Equine Transition Service, or METS. This is a program where Maryland horse owners who can no longer care for their horses, regardless of their situation, can get help. Most regular rescues stay full and animal control has limited housing so often help can't be found. Even to humanely euthanize and remove a horse is very costly. Often people in crisis have no options but dealers, auctions, and killpens. METS is a network of trusted rescues, farms, and private owners who have been pre-approved to properly rehab, retrain, or whatever might be needed; if they choose to rehome, sell, or adopt the horse out, it will be done responsibly.  There is no pubic shaming, just a network of caring horse people who work to keep Maryland horses safe!  As with any program some will no doubt fall through the cracks but thus far it has been wildly successful and well received by all. So when the call went out about a Maryland thoroughbred farm in trouble, having to close their doors and sell off everything as well as find homes for 20 OTTBs, METS was there to assist in placing those horses.  Having been on the ground floor of this program in its infancy and SHEW being one of the first members, we felt this was our time to step up for a METS horse! Dancer and the other OTTBs on this farm could have very easily run out of options and ended up in a horrible situation. On first meeting, Dancer’s enormous presence at 17 hands and solid black was quite intimidating, but in a matter of minutes his gentle soul and kind heart came shining through. He is indeed a horse that deserves the very best of life. After a short racing career, it was obvious that the track wasn't the right place for him. He was returned to his home farm where he lived until now. Now as a 12-year-old, he was in desperate need of a new home and new career. Dancer has only been with us for a few weeks but has already established a fan club of devoted admirers. He sailed through his quarantine stay and has been updated on vaccines, dental, and farrier care. Those things along with much-needed weight will return him to the magnificent horse he once was.  His floating gaits are something dreams are made of.  I can't wait to see what the future hold for him.  His story is yet to unfold. Currently Dancer is spending a month with our trainer Erin as he is preparing for the next and final leg of his journey home to Safe Haven Farm, where he is already pending adoption! Because METS exists and rescues like SHEW and many others along with a wonderful community of caring horse people in Maryland, we can say we oppose horse slaughter and we have a viable humane alternative for thoroughbreds and all breeds of horses in need of homes! And it's working! Dancer and so many others are living proof! 

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way it's animals are treated" –Mohandas Gandhi