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The Farm

When I was about five, we had a dog named Buffy. Buffy was a great dog – just your typical awesome, friendly yellow lab. But Buffy had a habit of eating just about anything. Tin cans, clothing, didn’t really matter, Buffy would eat it. This necessitated more than one vet visit.

One day, Buffy didn’t come back from the vet. My mom told me she had gone to live on a farm. Being a little sharper than your average five year old and already showing signs of the stubborn desire to get at the truth that I still suffer from today, I refused to let that drop. I wanted to know WHOSE farm, WHERE the farm was, WHEN we were going to visit the farm. And I was persistent. I didn’t actually let it drop for many years. I would bring up in arguments how no one would ever take me to the farm to see my dog. Finally, in the middle of a screaming match with my mom when I was around 13, I pointed out that there was no farm and that my dog had been killed and I had been lied to about it. And she confessed.

HA. I knew it! I had known at five that something was very wrong with the farm story.

Sure, I got suckered, and I’m sure my mom would argue I got suckered because she was trying to protect my feelings. In her defense, I was five. Now the question is, why are so many of you buying the exact same story even if you’re 20 or 30 or 40?

Here’s the scenario: You go out and you take lessons or you rent Buffy the horse for chukkers. You really like Buffy. Buffy gets carrots, you ask to use her all the time.  Then Buffy goes lame, you can’t use her for a while, but you still bring her treats every time you come.  Then you come out one day and…no Buffy. And, like my mom, your trainer or the club pro gives you the line about the farm.

“She was getting old, we sent her to live on a farm with some kids.”

“She went to pasture. She’s eating grass and enjoying the good life.”

“We donated her to a kids camp. She’s living on a farm.”

And if you try to get some details, like where Buffy the Horse is so that you can visit her, or if you say that gee, you wish you had known because you would have taken Buffy, then you might hear the runaround start. Suddenly Buffy is at a farm with people who don’t want visitors. We have to respect their privacy. And they’re not on Facebook. They don’t have the Internet. It’s really far away. Or the trainer says he will get you the name of the people, even though he gave Buffy away yesterday and it shouldn’t be that hard to remember – and then he hopes you’ll forget and not bring it up again and evades your questions when you do ask again.

You know, THE FARM. She went to go live on A FARM.

You know, THE FARM. She went to go live on A FARM.

C’mon folks – you’re not five anymore. If you’re getting the runaround, the odds are that Buffy is already in Mexico being sliced and diced. And that’s a fact. Every year, more school horses than you think – from polo clubs, from hunter jumper barns, from kids’ camp – go to slaughter. Every year, some of the proprietors of those establishments show up at the kill buyer’s place with a full load. It’s happening now. It’s happening here in Southern California, despite our alleged no-slaughter law (you know, the one that no one enforces, ever).

A few years ago, a bunch of trail string horses showed up at the local low-end auction, an auction at which virtually every old horse is on a one-way trip to Mexico. But thanks to the wonder of the Internet, their pictures got posted and some people recognized them and where they came from. They didn’t all get saved, but some did. It was pretty much a miracle. The horses were meant to disappear. The trail string was none too happy about the bashing they got on Facebook. Ironically, many of the riders would have bought the horses in the first place if they’d been reasonably priced, but the old, crippled horses had gone overnight from being for sale for $2000+ to selling at the auction for $100.   Why?  Why?  Why?  Because there are a lot of people in the horse business who don’t care about horses, and because customers don’t pay attention and keep them in business no matter what they do, that’s why.

Generally, if a horse is picked up by a dealer, there’s about a one-week window to save them. The trucks don’t leave until there is a full load collected. So when you see a horse that you ride and you like disappear, it’s really up to you. If the story sounds lame and you can’t go visit the horse and verify it is okay – take action. Any local rescue will tell you who the kill buyers are and if you can intercept a horse.  You can find out who to call who can check and see if a horse matching Buffy’s description is there. If you can prove you have been lied to, for heaven’s sake, stop patronizing the person who lied to you. The world is full of trainers of all disciplines. You don’t have to line the pockets of people who have no actual love for horses if you don’t want to.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to go look at an old lesson horse. I’m pretty sure a lot of people love him. And if all goes well, he’s going to be heading to a farm that really exists. A farm with a web site and a Facebook, a 501(c)3 charity sanctuary that posts regular pictures of their horses so that no one who ever loved them has to wonder how they are doing. I’m going to do my part to make sure that the only farm he goes to is a real one. Will you do as much for the horses who are teaching you (or your child) to ride or play polo? Think about it.

“I always thought someone should do something about that, then I realized I was someone” ~ Lily Tomlin

Shortcake, on a real farm, that really exists, that you can visit if you're in Eastern WA! Just email us for info.

Shortcake rehabbing, on a real farm, that really exists, that you can visit if you’re in Eastern WA! Just email us for info.

UPDATED: The old lesson horse is heading East – a former trainer stepped up for him! 🙂 Now that’s the kind of person you should take your business to.

Every rescuer has heard that line.  Lots of people balk at rescue applications, contracts and requirements.  I recently had a conversation with a friend who was shocked at how many rescues (ours included) have a strict adoption contract that includes cash penalties for major breaches.  I can understand the initial reaction of someone who hasn’t worked in rescue. Until you have, you tend to think that most homes are good, and that people who love animals will therefore take good care of those animals.

…and then you get involved in rescue, or you work for animal services, and you see the things that you see.  Things like (and all of these are real life examples):

– A former professional athlete with a horse whose founder had gone untreated until his coffin bones protruded through his soles. The owner believed the horse lied down so much because he was “lazy.”  He was euthanized.

– A wealthy Southern California couple whose 17 hand ex-racehorse was 300 pounds underweight and nearly dead.  He lived at their home and they looked at him every day.  He was rescued and recovered.

– A family who were to have been the retirement home for a high level dressage mare.  She and a yearling warmblood were found in their yard, skin and bones.  Plenty of hay on site that wasn’t put out for the horses because “they had grass.”  It was wintertime and the grass was eaten completely down.   They were eager to tell us how much they LOVED their horses.  The mare was euthanized, the yearling survived.

– An elegant show barn that adopted a lesson horse, failed to feed the horse as instructed and denied noticing the horse had dropped 200 pounds.  The horse was returned to the rescue and recovered.

– A wealthy man who was known as a “big name” at the racetrack who had starving horses at his home farm. Six had to be euthanized. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

ALL of these homes “looked good on paper.”  In reality, they were terrible situations in which horses died or almost died – not because of any intent to harm the horse, but because of a lack of knowledge or just plain carelessness.  In the last case, the man blamed the situation on workers at his farm – but the court held him responsible despite his excuses.

In short, there are a thousand things that can go wrong and bottom line, after we drop off the horse with you, we are all a little bit scared.

We are scared you won’t watch your kids and we will see him on Youtube being jumped over a picnic table…after we adopted him fully disclosing that he was arthritic and limited to flat work.

We are scared you will be taken in by some charismatic trainer who is abusive to your horse behind your back.

We are scared you won’t maintain the same level of cleanliness and horse care that we see on drop-off day.

We are scared you won’t notice a big, fat tendon and will continue to ride the horse on it.

We are scared you won’t notice your western saddle is sitting on the horse’s withers.

We are scared that, while we saw you ride and love you, you will let someone else ride the horse who has no judgment and will override or abuse the horse.   A friend had a rescue horse come back 200 pounds underweight and, for good measure, he had been taught to rear.

We are scared that you will simply move the horse, ignore our attempts to contact you, and we will not know if the horse is alive or dead.

We are scared that you will totally change the feeding program and then dump the horse when it has a corresponding change of behavior.

We are scared that you don’t know what mold looks like.

We are scared that you will let the kids feed to “teach them responsibility” and never check to see how much has been fed or if it has even been done.

We are scared that you will move to a property with barbed wire and figure it’s okay to turn the horses out because, hey, it’s a big field and what are the chances they’ll get hung up?   (A rescue friend just took in 2 horses, badly injured from barbed wire…one was dragging a useless hoof behind her.  A young mare whose life ended today because of fencing.  The other may pull through.)

We are scared that one day, we will be one of the rescues that has learned one of its adopted horses went to slaughter.  We are scared we will be that rescuer who has to spend the rest of their life beating themselves up for making the wrong decision.  These two horses were sold to a kill buyer by their adopter in Texas.  They could still be alive.  Right now, no one knows.

Rescuers make adoption decisions all the time based upon an application and one or two meetings. You might be the best home in the universe, but we don’t know that – and please don’t hold it against us if we try to verify that by talking to your references and checking you out.   We understand it seems invasive to agree to a criminal check but please put yourself in our shoes. We simply can’t take your word because the bad people lie just as convincingly as you tell the truth.

Rescuers understand that you don’t think it’s fair that you can’t have your old horse back after we pulled him out of a kill pen.  But we want a home for him where there is no risk of that happening.  We have an absolute duty to keep that horse safe to the best of our ability for the rest of his life.  This isn’t a shoe store where the goal is to move inventory along to make way for more.  The goal is to put horses into homes where they will never fail to receive proper care – ever – and will be euthanized by a vet or keel over from natural causes at a ripe old age.

Why do we ask for ID?  Because we personally know of people who have been banned from animal ownership by the courts who are on Facebook with fake names, trying to adopt animals from unsuspecting rescues.

So when you read our contract, or any rescue’s contract, bear in mind that if you are the good home you say you are, you will never be reminded you signed that contract.  You will tag us in your Facebook pics and show us how the horse is doing.  We might stop by once in a while, with notice. And if you’re awesome, we will sing your praises from the rooftops!  You will get plenty of credit for being awesome. If your circumstances change and you need to return the horse, we will take the horse back cheerfully and do our best to ensure that he finds a new home equally as awesome as you were.  But if you starve the horse, or you take him to an auction, we are going to sue you.  And we are going to tell the world about it.  You need to know that up front.  We have a life-long open door policy for returns and a zero tolerance policy for people who won’t use that open door policy to return a horse they cannot afford to keep or simply do not want anymore.

If it seems like adopting a child – well, it is.  We take the responsibility of making the right placement just as seriously.  If you don’t want to sign a contract, buy a horse.  If you like the idea of having lifetime “technical support” and knowing that the horse always has a safe haven to return to if your circumstances change, adopt from a reputable rescue.   The choice is yours!

This is Coda. He is 28.  Fat, sound and happy.  We are still hoping his perfect person will come along!

This is Coda. He is 28. Fat, sound and happy. We are still hoping his perfect person will come along!

In recent years, I have heard a lot of bad advice about how to handle a colic, and I haven’t heard it from 14 year olds in horse groups on Facebook, I’ve heard it from vets.  (Not my vets – they are awesome!)  Some of this bad advice includes:

›You don’t need to walk them. It’s okay to let them stand.

›It’s okay if they lie down as long as they aren’t rolling.

›You can feed them a mash after a colic.

And, okay, this one did come from some genius on a horse forum:

›A horse can die of exhaustion if you keep hand walking them.

That sound you hear is my head banging against the desk.  Now, I know the first question is, what gives you the right to contradict a vet?  Are you a vet?  My answer:  No, I am not, but I have never lost a colic.  In 30 years as a horse owner, I have never lost a single one, nor needed to do a surgery.  So if you are willing to consider that the best advice might be the advice that works, I am happy to tell you how to avoid colic the vast majority of the time, or resolve it without losing a horse when it does happen.  Clearly, if your horse has twisted a gut, this will not work.  However, you probably won’t ever see a twisted gut on one of your horses (I haven’t) if you follow the advice detailed here to the letter.

Focus on prevention and you will rarely need a cure

Colic prevention is made up of very simple, common sense things, that unfortunately simply do not happen in a LOT of barns – even high level, very expensive barns.

1.  Clean, fresh water should be in front of the horse all the time.  By “clean,” I mean that you dump it at least every other day and refill with fresh.  Daily if your horse is an alfalfa-soup-maker.  This includes the tubs in the turnout.  I know of high priced barns that don’t have water in the turnouts — this is dangerous.  Lug a bucket around and put water anywhere that you turn your horse out.  At events like polo games or horse shows, offer water frequently.  When hauling, stop every few hours and offer water.  It is so easy and prevents so many problems.  Every gulp of water lessens your chance of an impaction. If you ever find a dry bucket or a bucket with an inch or two left, the barn is not watering often enough.  And don’t even get me started about automatic waterers.

This kind of waterer is not your friend. Some horses won’t use them at all, and others simply don’t drink enough from them.  Float waterers are better but may not refill fast enough. Bottom line – buckets, reliably filled, are your best bet.


2.  Movement reduces the risk of colic.  A horse is biologically designed to graze, which involves eating while moving.  Your horse is not doing that when he’s eating in his stall; therefore, he is at a higher risk of an impaction.  So, one of the easiest things you can do to prevent colic is get the horse out of that stall and moving around after meals.  It’s true that you shouldn’t work a horse right after he eats grain, but hay doesn’t matter – he can leave his hay to go for a ride with no ill effects.  The incidence of colic is exponentially higher in stall kept than in pasture kept horses, so if pasture keeping is an option, choose it!  If it isn’t, make sure that exercise is a part of every day.  If the horses are getting a day off of work, they should at the very least be turned out on that day. Don’t board at places where you’re not allowed to come out and get your horse out one day of the week.  It’s just not worth the risk.

3.  Live in a sandy climate?  Psyllium is a must.  Even with mats, feeders and all kinds of devices to prevent it, horses will lip food off the floor. It’s just what horses to.  You can get two jugs of psyllium at Costco for $19. Feed a quarter cup in your horse’s food, well soaked, once a day for one week out of each month to help keep him sand free.  Sand in the intestinal tract causes impaction colic.  Here’s an article that explains how to test your horses for sand.

4.  Horses have to be slowly introduced to grass pasture if they’ve been stall kept. Don’t turn your horses out at a facility that throws them right out there or you’re likely to have a colic sooner or later (or laminitis which is arguably even worse, as it frequently causes permanent damage).  A pasture boarding facility should have some dirt pens where the horses can be kept and let out for short periods to graze to gradually accustom themselves to the grass.

5.  Worms can cause colic.  Right now there is plenty of debate over whether traditional rotational deworming should be replaced with fecal testing.  You can choose whichever method you prefer, but whatever you do, it needs to be something you do reliably and keep records of.  For some reason, in polo, I hear an awful lot of “um, I think so-and-so wormed her last July” when it’s February.   That’s not sufficient.  By the same token, if you suspect a horse hasn’t been dewormed for a long while, start small, with only a 500 pound dose of the dewormer and more to follow in two weeks. Avoid heavy duty dewormers like Quest until the horse has first had something milder.  If you think it’s been years since the horse has been dewormed, feed-through dewormer like Strongid C may be the safest choice for the first month.  Dead worms can themselves create an impaction, whereas live worms can damage the horse’s intestinal tract and internal organs.  So you want to kill them, but not all at once.

6.  Diet changes can cause colic.  If you’ve been at a barn that’s feeding alfalfa, don’t move your horse to a different barn that’s feeding timothy and switch him over instantly.  Bring some of his old hay and mix the two together, slowly increasing the amount of the new hay to effect a gradual change.  The same goes for grain. Don’t just throw a whole scoop of grain at a horse who hasn’t been getting any.  Start small, with no more than a quart once per day, and move up, but remember that the vast majority of any horse’s diet should be either grass, hay or hay pellets, not grain.  And no horse needs more than 2-3 treats a day.  I’ve seen people buy those 25 lb. bags of juice carrots and throw the whole thing out to a single horse or two. Shooting is quicker, if you are really trying to kill your horse.

When it does happen, catch it quick!

Horses are great about letting you know they are not feeling well if you are paying attention.  Some signs that a colic may be brewing include:

Lying down at odd times – i.e. you’re walking around feeding and the horse hasn’t gotten up

Not finishing meals or eating in a lackluster fashion when they usually dive right in

Decreased water consumption

Curling the lip upwards repeatedly

Looking around at the stomach

Kicking at flies – except, it’s December and there are no flies

Kicking at his belly, head hanging low, miserable appearance – this horse is sending out the message loud and clear that he is colicking. Image from


Pawing repeatedly for no apparent reason

Standing with legs stretched out, “parked out” like a Saddlebred, except they’re not one.

Tail raising repeatedly, horse looks like they are trying to pass gas but can’t

Normally willing or even hot horse acting lazy/stubborn under saddle or acting sore: wringing tail, pinning ears, angry about leg pressure.  I had a horse who would not take one lead on Saturday evening, even though she was normally fine about leads and appeared totally sound.  Sunday morning, she had an impaction on that side.

Sweating or increased respiration when the horse is at rest and there’s no reason for it

Rolling repeatedly – not just once to scratch the back, like any horse will do

And of course – Lack of poop!  Less poop in the stall than you usually see in the morning.  Or poop that is small, hard and dry as opposed to how it usually looks. Yes, you should know how your horse’s poop looks!

Especially where you see several of these symptoms at once, it’s almost certain a colic is coming your way.  Now, there are two main types of colics: impaction and gas.  A gas colic can often be resolved by giving the horse a bit of Banamine and some light exercise (i.e. longeing or ponying at a trot for 5 minutes).  The horse passes gas as a result of the exercise and immediately becomes more comfortable.  That said, any do-it-yourself colic treatment should be left to experienced horse people and should be done with the knowledge that the safest thing to do is always to call the vet as quickly as possible when the horse exhibits any signs that make you concerned.

With any colic, start handwalking immediately and get the vet on the phone.  If you have the skills to take a respiration rate and heart rate, your vet will appreciate the information.  Do not let the horse lie down.  If the horse tries really hard to lie down and roll, you need to try just as hard to keep it on its feet.  Believe me, a whack on the butt with a whip is preferable to death, and I had to go that far once to get a horse up that was determined to roll.  She died – but not for eleven more years, at the age of 31.

When you think about it, keeping a colicking horse moving is just common sense.  If you were trying to get a lump of mud out of the inside of a hose, would you stand there looking at it, or would you jiggle it and try to shake it loose?   A moving horse is more likely to shake loose that clogged gut.  Handwalking, even for hours, is only going to “exhaust” the human being involved, so feel free to jump on a pony horse and make the process easier on yourself.

Your vet will come out and most likely will give your horse Banamine if you haven’t already (some vets get very annoyed if you do it yourself, because they want to see how painful the horse was prior to it – that’s something you have to work out with your own vet) and tube him with mineral oil.  The oil “greases up” the inside of the intestines and helps to clear the blockage.  After the oiling, and after any tranquilizer given to effectuate the oiling wears off, you can go back to handwalking.  Horses are good at showing us when they feel bad and equally quick to show us when they feel better.  When you see all the symptoms go away and the horse gets perkier again – ears moving around, maybe whinnying at friends, not trying to roll or look at his side when you stop walking – that’s when it’s usually safe to return the horse to his stall, after removing all feed and making sure either you or someone else is going to continue to check on him.

Obviously, if you or someone else didn’t catch the colic right away and the colic progressed further, particularly if the horse was down in his stall or rolling for an extended period of time, it will be harder to resolve.  Some vets will give IV fluids at your barn, which will help the horse to feel better, particularly if he is dehydrated. Some, at that point, will want you to haul the horse in to their clinic.  This is when you have to seriously consider how far you will go with treatment.  It is important to realize that there are no guarantees with colic surgery. Some vets will be fine with the alternative of giving IV fluids, pain meds and continuing to walk in the hopes that the horse will recover. I have done that several times with severe colics and it has worked.  Some vets will make you feel like a bad owner if you don’t authorize surgery, but remember that surgery is no guarantee either of survival, but it is a guarantee of having a large credit card bill to pay off if you don’t have major medical insurance on your horse.  I am talking about a regular impaction colic here, when I am talking about a colic that may clear without surgery.  If your veterinarian has determined that your horse has a twisted gut or enteroliths, that is pretty much a choice between surgery or euthanasia, although occasionally a twisted gut will un-twist on its own.  Bottom line, make the choice that works for you and your budget and make it fast enough that your horse does not suffer unnecessarily.

Nothing ever starved to death in 24 hours

My vet advocates that no food be given for 24 hours following a colic. She is correct. I know, I know, they are nickering and screaming and acting like they will die. They will not die.  Really.  The safest thing to do is let the entire system clear itself out after even a mild colic.   That means no food.  No hay, no mashes, no soaked food.  Nothing.  Just plenty of fresh, clean water.  Then start back with small feedings, ideally of soaked food, just like you’d do with an emaciated rescue horse.

Heads up for weird weather!

Weather that changes dramatically can often spark a rash of colics in an area.  Hot days, cold nights are a combination likely to affect equine digestive tracts.  So when you have that kind of weather, please take special care to keep an eye on your horses!  Bear in mind that many boarding barns have workers who know how to clean a stall but are otherwise not horse professionals. You may need to stop by yourself to check.  Sure it’s a pain in the butt, but it beats the alternative!

The Internet cannot solve your horse’s colic

Nothing is more frustrating to experienced horse people than the person who posts on Facebook detailing a bunch of the symptoms I listed above and asking what she should do – often after the symptoms have been going on for a day or two!  The answer is always the same:  CALL THE VET!  Articles like mine are written for informational purposes and to help you prevent a colic. When it has actually happened, there is no way to avoid incurring a vet bill.  The longer you wait to call, the larger that bill will be – or you will proceed straight to having to call the rendering service.  Don’t risk it.  Make the call, keep the horse up and walking, and you’ll also be on your way to having a great record of success with colic!

P.S.  By request of one of the wonderful vets that I use, I am adding the following advice:  “For the love of all things holy do NOT rectal your own horse.”   Because, again, common sense is not so common!