A guide to rescuing race horses

Rescuing Horses

As compassionate people, we are naturally distressed by the sight of sick, injured, emaciated and anxious horses at the saleyards, many of which we know are destined for the knackery. So, when given an opportunity to save one of these animals, it becomes all too easy for the heart to rule the head.

IMG_9559-1024x682We already know that young, and otherwise healthy ex-racehorses, do end up at the saleyards as “wastage,” the sad fact that there are simply not enough homes for the vast number of horses being churned out through the racing industry. But frequently, these horses are also being disposed of due to reasons such as behavioural problems, persistent injuries, or other health disorders, often as a result of the conditions that a racing life forces upon them. Such ailments may not be easily identified in the high-stress environs of the saleyards, or conversely, due to the horses’ poor condition and health.

Taking in a horse is not like rescuing a dog or cat, and is not simply a matter of having enough paddock space. Furthermore, rescuing a mistreated or malnourished horse is not the same as caring for a healthy horse.

While the fact that some racehorses will end up at the knackery is deplorable, before making a commitment to take on a rescue horse, it is important to make an objective assessment of the facilities and capabilities at your disposal, to best care for the horse. The following list outlines factors that you may not have previously considered. This list is intended as a guide only, and is by no means exhaustive:

Minimum requirements

Although it may seem obvious to point out the day-to-day requirements such as food, water, shelter and adequate space, there is so much more to each of these facets of horse care than you would expect.

For example, hay comes in a multitude of varieties and differs greatly in quality. Horses are extremely sensitive animals such that incorrect feeding, poor quality feed, or sudden changes to their feeding regime can cause potentially life-threatening conditions, such as colic.

The paddock space needs to be free of safety hazards, suitably sized and appropriately fenced, including well-strained wire, secure gates, electric fencing and devoid of barbed wire. Horses also require adequate shelter from all weather elements, especially heat, wind and rain.

Health basics, rehabilitation and ongoing care

Horses are very good at hiding ailments (a survival mechanism), so it is important to know the basic vital signs of a horse such as heart rate, respiratory rate and normal body temperature, and be able to detect subtle behaviour changes that could indicate a health issue.
In addition to these health basics, all horses in rehabilitation should receive, as a minimum, the following treatments: vet check, worming, vaccination, hoof check & trimming and dental check & rasping. It may also be necessary to have the horse assessed for body issues by a qualified equine therapist. Further necessary treatments could include bathing for various skin conditions, treatments for wounds, infections, ulcers and scouring (diarrhoea).
Horses in poor condition are more susceptible to health issues so they require regular checking and close attention.

Handling experience

Horses are extremely strong animals with a tendency to display a “flight” response if they are startled, or perceive a threat. These two aspects combined can make a dangerous combination. A horse may seem quiet and subdued if he arrived into your care in poor condition, but as he improves and regains the energy he was lacking, could display very different behaviours that you had not anticipated. This can be especially relevant in an ex-racehorse, as the racing industry can cause them to develop defensive, avoidance and other undesirable behaviours.
It is essential that you have sufficient skills and confidence to handle a horse in all situations.

Time commitment

Healthy horses are time consuming, and horses that require rehabilitation are even more so. In addition to all the time intensive activities associated with day-to-day and general health care, the time commitment required for mental rehabilitation can be huge, and will vary greatly depending on how “damaged” the horse is. Gaining trust takes time and patience.
Horses are relatively long-lived animals, so you also need to be prepared for possibly a 20+ year commitment.


Having read this far, you are probably now aware that even the minimum requirements of caring for a horse are going to become very expensive. Just the initial set-up, vet visits, rehabilitation and equipment costs will most likely climb into the thousands of dollars. Ongoing costs of feeding and maintaining a horse will be a massive drain on your bank account, and you should always be prepared for emergencies and unexpected vet bills.

Horse psychology

One of the most overlooked and underrated factors of a horse’s wellbeing is the psychological aspect. This is especially so in the racing industry, where assessing needs from the horse’s perspective is rare to non-existent.
Naturally, being prey animals, horses seek safety in numbers and establish herds with hierarchies and social “rules.” They alert each other to perceived threats, and engage in play and mutual grooming. Therefore, most horses require companionship of their own kind, as opposed to living in solitude.
Keeping racehorses in stalls for much of the day is common practice, but given the choice, most horses prefer wide, open spaces. As explained earlier, this relates to their innate “flight” response. Additionally, horses have a biological need to be grazing fairly constantly.
As a consequence of these needs remaining unfulfilled, many horses develop behaviours symptomatic of anxiety and boredom such as pacing, weaving (rocking from side to side), crib biting and windsucking (both involve chewing/biting on solid objects around them, the latter having more serious health consequences).

Emotional preparedness

While the time, energy and financial costs associated with rescuing a horse are immense, it is also vital to consider your own emotional wellbeing. Unfortunately, as with any other companion animal, you need to be prepared to make the difficult decision regarding euthanasia. If you have taken in a sick, malnourished or injured horse, the risk of having to face this decision is far greater, as there may be unforseen health issues that can not be overcome. It is important to be prepared and knowledgeable with regard to the euthanasia process, burial location, assistance with grave digging & burial etc.

Having said all that, once you have objectively considered all of this information, made informed decisions, carefully prepared and planned, then rescuing a horse in need can be an incredibly rewarding experience, especially as you develop a relationship based on trust and respect, and feel the joy of seeing a once downtrodden or discarded horse blossom into a healthy and content being.

So, what next?

After digesting all of this information, you may recognise that you have the facilities, but not necessarily the skills to rehabilitate an ex-racehorse, or perhaps you don’t feel that you could confront direct dealings at the saleyards. So, where can you go to find a horse in need of a forever home?

A good option is to adopt a horse through one of the many rescue/welfare organisations that exist. A comprehensive list of these groups can be found here.

Please note: This list is provided as a reference guide only. The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses does not have the resources to evaluate each group on this list, and therefore we do not necessarily recommend or endorse any particular organisations.

We strongly urge people to make enquiries into the policies and procedures of an organisation before entering into any agreement or adopting a horse from them.

Some key components to research should include:

– Is the organisation a registered entity or charity with a relevant government department, do they hold charity status and/or are they a registered fundraiser?
– Is the organisation governed by a voluntary management committee?
– Is the adoption agreement based on a lifetime lease or the adopter obtaining full ownership?
– Is there a purchase, adoption or lease fee?
– Does the organisation provide ongoing advice and support to adopters?
– Does the organisation have a clause in their adoption agreement requiring that the horse be returned to them should circumstances arise in which the adopter can no longer care for the horse?
– Does the organisation require regular updates on the adopted horse or request that they be allowed access to check the ongoing welfare of the horse?
– Does the organisation geld all colts/stallions that come into their care prior to adoption and stipulate that adopted mares must not be used for breeding?
– Is the organisation well respected and does it have a solid reputation amongst its peers?

If you would like further information, or would like some advice regarding horse rescue, we have a number of knowledgeable people who can help. Please email your enquiry to enquiries@horseracingkills.com, and we will direct your email to the appropriate person.

A final word of caution

We have become aware of some of the more unscrupulous kill buyers at the saleyards, who purchase horses cheaply, advertise them on Facebook pages at a much higher price than the amount they paid, and essentially prey on the emotions of kind-hearted people with threats that the horses will be killed for dog meat if they don’t sell. Some even have the gall to call themselves horse rescuers, when in fact they are acting as extremely disreputable horse dealers.

We urge you to consider the consequences of purchasing a horse from a kill buyer to “save” it from being killed. We believe that by doing so, you are helping to line their pockets, so they can continue dealing in this way, and perpetuating the problem. We would much prefer to see horses purchased directly from the saleyards, along with your continued support of CPR’s campaigns to force the racing industry to become accountable for the thousands of horses they are churning out and discarding every year.

Sources & further reading:
Horse Rescue Australia – www.australianhorserescue.com/news/
Project Hope Horse Welfare Vic – www.phhwv.org.au
Save a Horse Australia – http://saveahorseaustralia.blogspot.com.au/
DEPI – www.depi.vic.gov.au/agriculture-and-food/livestock/horses