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Lucky horses

[soliloquy id=”7648″]
If you were a horse needing a home, you’d want to be at the Kentucky Equine Humane Center.

It’s ironic—in fact, disgraceful—that the state known as the Horse Capital of the World has so many horses that are abused, abandoned, or neglected. Then factor in the people who sometimes, through no fault of their own, are no longer able to care for their horses; if they aren’t aware of a horse rescue, the horse could easily end up in a slaughterhouse.

That’s where the Kentucky Equine Humane Center, or KyEHC, comes in. Established in 2007 on 72 acres of rolling pasture in Nicholasville, the Center provides a refuge for horses of all breeds. Housing approximately 50 horses at any given time, they come from a myriad of situations, with one thing in common: they were lucky enough to be placed at KyEHC.

Karen Gustin, the Center’s executive director, is passionate in her mission to save as many horses as she can.

“What we’re adamant about,” she says, “is that we never turn away a horse in an active crisis. Sometimes we get a heads-up that a horse will need to be brought here in the near future, but if we get a report about a horse that’s starving or being abused, we don’t wait: we arrange to get that horse to the Center immediately.”

While this is an all-breed horse rescue, the Center maintains a population of at least 50 percent Thoroughbreds because there are so many of that breed in need. The rest are a mixture of paints, Saddlebreds, Standardbreds, a draft cross, and even a mule.

Thendara’s Pride is one of the Thoroughbreds that have been rehabbed by KyEHC; she has since been adopted. Photo: Virginia Madelung

Horses come from all over the state—some are abandoned and unwanted, some are from owners that can no longer care for them. Often these horses are left to fend for themselves; many don’t make it. Karen and her staff also work with county shelters that don’t have facilities for horses. Others come from individual owners reaching out for help.

Spitting Image, a 20-year-old horse, is a good example of the types of situations the Center deals with.

“Spitting Image was part of a hoarding/neglect case in Woodford County,” Karen says. “More than 30 horses were starved, neglected. There were at least 10 dead horses in the barn. We were able to take in six horses, and rehab them all. That was an emergency situation.” The remaining horses were rescued by another organization.

Another recent emergency happened in Mercer County, a case that received extensive media coverage involving neglected stallions.

“We’ve got three of them,” Karen says, pointing to a paddock. “They could use a few more pounds, but they’re in much better shape.”

Not every situation is as horrendous, but sad nonetheless. Noah is a 16.2-hand draft cross who came in when his owner passed away and needed a home.

“Noah’s our gentle giant,” Karen notes as she pats the long neck of this palomino-colored horse. “We’ll be trying him under saddle soon and see how he does. He has Cushing’s disease, which is chronic but we are hopeful is manageable in his case. He’s a great horse.”

Every horse that comes to KyEHC is assessed for individual mental and physical needs. They must come with a current negative Coggins (equine infectious anemia), but the Center will provide farrier care, dental work, and vaccinations. The horses are placed in separate paddocks according to their needs, as well as matching personalities.

“Karen Gustin, Executive Director at KEHC” type=”left”]“We keep a horse as long as it takes, whether it’s months or even years. We get them as ready as we can for adoption. We want them to have a solid foundation.” Karen Gustin, Executive Director at KEHC

Adoption of these horses is the goal, so if a horse has not been started under saddle, a staff trainer teaches each horse the basics in walk, trot, and canter. Desensitizing props such as ramps and coops are used to help horses not be so easily spooked.

Trainer Olivia Dixon takes particular pride in the education given to these horses: “There are few places where horses in dire need, of any breed, can go for rescue, medical or nutritional rehabilitation, as well as training, so that they can literally arrive near death and leave as a healthy, well-educated horse ready for their new forever home.”

“We don’t finish the horses,” Karen stresses. “You won’t get a Pony Club horse ready for the show circuit, but you will get a horse that’s ready to learn the discipline you’re interested in, and many go on to very successful competitive careers.”

Training is important, Karen notes, because 98 percent of adopters want a rideable horse. Those who are not rideable are called companion horses: they are suited for people who want a pet horse, or need a companion for a lone horse.

Reno, a Saddlebred, is a perfect example of a companion horse. Karen’s face lights up as she approaches him.

“Here is the clown of the farm,” she says, smiling. “He’s like a dog, always wanting attention. He was an owner-surrender. He came with an old neck injury that eventually made it impossible for him to graze, roll, or walk properly. He’s had a lot of laser light therapy and chiropractic work, plus proper nutrition, and can now be a regular horse. He’s not balanced enough to be rideable, but his personality and charm make him an excellent companion horse. Reno needs a person just like a person needs a horse.”

Potential adopters are carefully and extensively screened, and must agree to several conditions before taking a horse home. The horse cannot be bred or raced, and regular vet checks must be reported. If all goes well the first year, the horse is fully turned over to the new owner.

As for adoption fees, “That is based on the horse’s capability,” Karen says, “not what we’ve put into the horse. It costs about $500 a month per horse for care and staff salaries, but adoptions generally run from $300 to $600.”

With those kinds of costs, it’s a constant battle to keep the funding coming in. Karen gives much of the credit to grantors such as the Thoroughbred After Care Alliance, Brennan Equine Welfare Fund, Equus Foundation, Thoroughbred Charities of America, Churchill Charities, Turfway Park, the ASPCA, and private donations. You can easily donate to the Center at, or write them at P.O. Box 910124, Lexington, KY 40591.

Running the Center is incredibly labor-intensive, but the staff obviously love their jobs.

“You get to give that critical care when they need it, knowing without that care the outcome would be very different. We literally get to see horses transformed.” Karen Gustin, Executive Director at KEHC

Julie Cooper, the Center’s barn manager, agrees: “There’s great satisfaction in helping horses, physically and mentally. You have visible evidence of your success.”

As Olivia notes, “At the end of the day we get to say, ‘We made a difference, we fixed something that needed fixing.’”

Perhaps the Center’s philosophy says it all: “We give horses a second chance when often, no one else can.”

Paula Sparrow from December 2015 Issue

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