The TRF?s Plight Is Bad News For Our Unwanted Horses

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Last week?s articles in the New York Times about the deep financial and pubic-relations hole the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund has dug itself is further evidence of the enormity of our country?s challenge in dealing with unwanted or neglected horses. The New York Times reported that the TRF, for decades considered the model of horse-rescue and retirement programs, lost about $1.6 million in 2008 and 2009, and perhaps more in 2010, even though at least half of the approximately 1,000 horses under its care, who live at farms around the country, are at best in very poor condition. An as-yet-undetermined number have died of starvation and neglect. Why' Because the TRF was paying the people caring for them an insufficient amount, an amount that was always late, if the payment came at all. Some of the caretakers, unfortunately, were unable to care for these horses because of that [http ://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/18/sports/18horses.html]. The Times report said, ?Last September, the TRF owed Out2Pasture Farms in Jamestown, Mo., more than $43,000, The farm, run by two University of Missouri professors, Zachary and Robin Hurst-March, is one of the nation?s most highly regarded sanctuaries for Thoroughbreds. When the couple pressed for payment, the TRF asked them to reduce their per diem to $3 a day and eventually removed 13 of their horses. ??I was being emotionally blackmailed to lower my per diem, and was the subject of retribution because I questioned the care of the horses,? said Mrs. Hurst-Marsh, who is owed $10,000. ?When Gayle England, whose farm in Stroud, Okla., is also highly regarded as a special-care facility, complained not only of the chronic slow pay but the general lack of regard for the farms and the horses, 26 TRF horses were taken from her.? We don't know yet why TRF fell so deep into their hole, whether it was incompetence or fraud. But such a deficit shouldn't have happened, given that legendary philanthropist and Thoroughbred owner and breeder Paul Mellon left them a $5 million foundation when he died more than a decade ago and the TRF Board of Directors includes numerous other wealthy and passionate owners and breeders. In other words, if any horse-rescue grouped is hard-wired to money, the TRF is it. But something happened to keep 1 +1 from equaling 2 in their books. Maybe it was serious mismanagement; maybe it was even fraud. Their funding went somewhere, and unless the folks running the show were incredibly incompetent or crooked, they should have noticed and done something. Given the TRF?s deep-pockets connections, I'd suspect they could have raised considerably more funds. At the least, just as the leaders of every other charitable group have been forced to do in the last few years, they should have trimmed their budget, without starving the horses. And maybe that was the problem?they tried to cut expenses by paying less for the horses under their care. But maybe they just couldn?t cut enough, because there was no way to reduce the huge herd of horses they?d taken on. let's do some math to estimate what those 1,000 horses were costing them. If we use $10 per day as the true cost of maintaining each horse, that's $10,000 per day. (The TRF was trying to get its caretakers to accept $3 per day per horse, and?no surprise?the caretakers were telling them it wasn?t enough.) The $10,000 per day means $300,000 per month, and when you multiply that by 12, the calculator says? $3.6 million. And that's just to give them basic care! My calculation doesn't include extra veterinary care. So let's suppose the TRF would need roughly $4 million a year to care for all these horses. Add another $200,000 or so to their budget for your standard overhead of staff salaries, insurance, rent, utilities, and you?ve got a huge budgetary challenge for all but the biggest charitable organizations, especially for organizations that don't require membership to compete or participate (like the American Quarter Horse Association or the U.S. Equestrian Federation). Yes, the TRF has a $5 million foundation, but even that's likely only been yielding a bit more than $200,000 a year for the last few years. it's along way from $200,000 to $4 million. My purpose in this blog isn?t to skewer the TRF, which I hope can recover from this nightmare to do more good work. No, I'm looking at a larger picture. I've written for years, here and elsewhere, about the philosophic and real-life shortcomings of the anti-slaughter movement. While I truly hope I would never have to send one of my horses to slaughter because I couldn?t afford to do anything else, besides let him starve, the reality is that that's not possible for many Americans. Yes, we can argue into next year whether people in such precarious financial shape should own a horse and whether that horse should have been bred in the first place, but it such philosophic arguments do not help the Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse or grade horse who's attempting to stand up in that filthy stall or that sad little dirt paddock right now. Readers have often responded that this is why we have to help and support the hundreds of equine-rescue groups around the country, and I agree that we should. Still, I've responded to these readers, ?These are great people doing a great service, but they simply do not have the capacity to accommodate more than 50,000 horses each year.? Unfortunately, TRF has provided a sad example of my point. The 1,000 horses they had under their care are about 10 times more than any other rescue group I know about. And, pretty clearly, it's an obligation that even the TRF, which has been a part of the horse world?s richest industry since 1984, couldn?t fund. But those 1,000 horses are only somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of the number of unwanted horses that need care each year. it's not even 10 percent of the number of Thoroughbreds who race each year and need somewhere to go. Think of the TRF as a middle-aged American couple who own a few acres, somewhere in the Midwest, and have been collecting horses to occasionally trail ride for years. Their two old horses just keep on living but are too old to ride, so they get two new horses. Then the husband loses his job and the wife gets cancer or diabetes, and now they can't afford to feed their horses, trim their feet or anything else. So the horses get thinner and thinner, and what can they do' They can't even afford to have a veterinarian put them down, and the auction house down the road, which used to sell horses bound for slaughter, is now gone. The TRF?s plight is, I think, as sad warning of how hard the problem of unwanted and neglected horses is going to be to solve. it's kind of like solving our country?s future energy needs: There is no one, sweeping solution, no single answer that will fix everything. We?ll need a wide range of solutions, and, unfortunately, equine slaughter is just about as unpopular as one solution to the unwanted horse problem as nuclear energy has again become as one solution to the energy problem.