Tess was a racehorse, but she was never a very good one. And in her late teens, retired but healthy, she was no longer wanted by her then owners.
So they called Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals, a horse rescue organization based in Windham, and offered her up — with an ultimatum. They either take Tess, or she would be killed.
MSSPA usually only takes in Maine horses that are seized by law enforcement because of abuse and neglect. It wasn’t their typical case, but they took her anyway.
“We do have discretion to admit horses for other reasons and we do from time to time, particularly if experience tells us the horse has potential for a positive outcome,” MSSPA CEO Meris Bickford said.
A gorgeous standardbred with a silky dark brown coat, Tess had competed in harness racing, a type of racing in which a horse pulls its driver in a two-wheeled cart and can only race at a specific gait. At MSSPA, the trainers discovered that she refused to canter, having been taught not to canter during her racing career. Cantering would have disqualified her from harness races. Tess also had a bit to learn when it came to carrying a rider on her back. However, she was sturdy, not easily spooked and had no evident health issues.
Compared to many other horses at MSSPA, Tess had been lucky. Most of the 55 horses currently housed at the facility have histories of being starved and left without proper shelter or medical care. In many cases, Bickford said, the organization is bringing back horses from the brink of death.
“We have a horse right now who came to us a year ago, and she was really just a skeleton with fur,” Bickford said. “The vet told us that another week in the field, and the horse would have been dead.”
Rescuing horses in Maine
Established in 1872 to provide retirement care for horses that pulled fire engines and street cars in the city of Portland, MSSPA’s mission has changed with the times. Nowadays, the organization’s work entails rehabilitating horses, training them and finding them new homes.
“We’re quite successful,” Bickford said. “But sometimes these animals are too damaged one way or another to be suitable for adoption. Some horses might have been abused or neglected are damaged in a way that makes them not safe. Here, if we’re going to adopt a horse out to you, we want it to be a good citizen. It’s not going to kick or bite or buck you into next week.”
The horses that they deem to be unsuitable or unsafe for adoption are offered permanent refuge at the 124-acre MSSPA farm, which recently opened a new 15,540-square-foot horse arena for training.
In addition, though the MSSPA doesn’t usually accept horses being relinquished by their owners, they do help these people rehome their horses with their Maine Horse Matchmaker website.
“It’s a monitored process,” Bickford said. “You can’t sell your horse there. It’s just about getting a good home for the right horse.”
MSSPA is by far the largest facility for rescued horses in Maine, but there are other, smaller safe havens for horses throughout the state, including Double B Equine Rescue in western Maine and Horses with Hope Equine Rescue in the midcoast town of Hope.
Often, equine rescue organizations will work together. For example, Whistle Pig Animal Welfare Service, a small operation established less than a year ago on a farm on Mount Desert Island, works closely with Hidden Pond Farm Equine Rescue operating out of Brentwood, New Hampshire. Instead of rescuing horses seized by law enforcement, the New Hampshire farm rescues horses by purchasing them from livestock auctions where they’re often sold for slaughter.
“For a variety of reasons, there are thousands of horses that go to slaughter auction every year in the U.S. to be exported to Mexico and Canada and Europe for either animal feed or human consumption,” Jamie Riordan, executive director of Whistle Pig Animal Welfare Service, said. “We saw this as an opportunity to step in and do our small part to break that cycle, to provide for these animals that have an extraordinary history of working alongside humans and give them a better chance and a new home.”
In the United States, where it’s taboo to consume horse meat, there are no horse meat plants in operation. However, it’s estimated that tens of thousands of horses are shipped from the U.S. to foreign slaughterhouses each year. This practice is currently legal. Horse meat is commonly eaten in many places in Europe and Asia.
Many of the horses that go to auction are old racehorses, like Tess.
“There are really few retirement resources for these animals, which live a very long time,” Riordan said. “I think any financial support is always welcome within the rescue community, and volunteers are always welcome. It’s a tremendous amount of work caring for these animals.”
Fixing a horse
When MSSPA gets a horse in, they set to work restoring its health. Many horses need to be dewormed. Some have viruses. Many have matted manes, patchy coats, dental issues and overgrown hooves. And it’s not uncommon for a horse to be so skinny that its ribs protrude from its sides.
“We know nothing about these horses medically when the come in,” Bickford said. “We quarantine them for a minimum of 28 days unless we have records indicating they have been vaccinated.”
Each horse undergoes an extensive exam by a veterinarian and is given a unique veterinary plan and diet. Throughout this process, the organization keeps detailed records, just in case evidence is needed for an animal cruelty case.
At MSSPA, after the horse is healthy, the next step is training. Most prospective horse owners want a horse that can be ridden, Bickford said. However, health issues or age make that impossible for some animals. In those cases, the horses are advertised as companion animals.
“They may take a little longer to build trust with you if they’ve had rough handling,” Bickford said. “But the truth of the matter is, you’ll never be able to buy a horse with the same level of loyalty. I know these horses have an understanding that they’ve been saved from a terrible fate.”
That “skeleton with fur” that MSSPA received last year is now healthy horse, a small Arabian named De Minimis. He was recently adopted.
Adopting a rescue
The goal is to find each horse the right home. To do this, MSSPA and most other horse rescue organizations require an extensive application process that includes an inspection of the prospective owner’s stable and paddock.
Prospective owners are asked many questions. How will you supply water to the horse in winter? Do you have the correct shelter for the horse? Do you know a large animal veterinarian and farrier? Are you financially able to feed and medicate a horse? Are you willing to do the work? Every day? And the reason for the questions is simple: They don’t want to place the horse in another bad situation.
A 2012 University of Maine survey of 82 Maine horse owners found that the average cost of owning a horse was $3,876 per year. And nowadays, if properly cared for, some horses live into their 30s and even 40s.
“We don’t care about whether you’re rich or not rich, ride or don’t ride,” Bickford said. “What we look at is your capacity to meet the statutory minimums of the horse. You’ve got to be able to show us that, ‘Yes, I know how to keep the horse safe.’”
Then they find a match.
For Orono resident Alice Bruce, that match was the retired racehorse Tess.
A chemistry professor at the University of Maine, Bruce is an experienced horse owner who enjoys trail riding on the weekends near her home in Orono. She has a beautiful little stable and two other horses, Karie and Montana, ages 30 and 17.
“I was worried that Karie wouldn’t last much longer, and I didn’t want my other horse to be alone,” Bruce said. “But I didn’t want to go through having to raise and train a horse. I’m getting up there, too. I didn’t want a horse that would necessarily outlive me.”
Tess, who was 18 when Bruce adopted her two years ago, was just the right age. After some training and practice, the old racehorse has found her second calling as a trail riding horse. Bruce, who prefers to ride at a slower pace, doesn’t mind that Tess won’t canter.
“I’m super in favor of giving animals a second chance, no matter what kind of animal we’re talking about,” Bruce said. “Tess is a good horse.”