Altruism motivates many horse people to volunteer. We take satisfaction from the thought that sharing our time, energy and expertise can improve the lot of a horse or the life of a person involved with the animals we appreciate so much.
Many equine-oriented nonprofit organizations rely on hands-on help from volunteers to make it through each day. Whether you can spare as little as an hour a month or as much as a few days a week, there are dozens of ways you can make a contribution to the equestrian community as a volunteer. Here are some of the places and programs that can always use assistance.
Attending to Horses in Need
Animal rescue and humane organizations take in seized or unwanted horses to rehabilitate them and, when possible, place them in good homes. Rescue and humane organizations often deal with abused and neglected horses in poor condition. Some animals, however, are healthy; they've simply been turned over by owners who no longer can care for them.
Most rescue and humane organizations rely on volunteers to accomplish a variety of tasks, from office work to stable chores. Many rescues welcome folks who drop in from time to time, but volunteers who want to work with the horses usually are expected to maintain a regular schedule of at least a few hours a month because the animals require consistent, diligent and dedicated care.
"Volunteers should not go into giving their time half-heartedly," says Scott Bayerl, director of the Midwest Horse Welfare Foundation in Marshfield, Wisc. "They should be reliable and they should be able to leave their personal problems at home and have their mind on their work while they are working with the horses. Anything short of that, and it probably won't be a good experience for them or the animals they are trying to help."
It's equally important to be prepared to follow directions because some or all of a rescue's horses may require special handling or care.
"Always remember that the staff knows the animals best," says Kathleen Schwartz, executive director of Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Lisbon, Md. "This means that volunteers should always ask a staff person before approaching a horse because most horses that are recovering may not have been handled much and could hurt you. Also, before offering any food, always ask the person in charge, because a horse may be on a restricted diet due to health issues."
Independently operated equine rescues are located across the country. To find those near you, check your yellow pages or the Web. Your veterinarian or local small-animal humane society may also be able to direct you to a nearby horse rescue.
Racehorse retirement programs place racehorses in homes after they leave the track. Some animals have injuries that require care and may never be rideable. Others are sound and ready for new careers after retraining.
Retirement organizations typically have connections with racehorse owners and trainers, and the groups either purchase horses or accept donated animals. Many are held at farms and foster homes near major racing venues. Volunteers may be called on to transport horses from the track, provide housing, daily care and rehabilitation and participate in retraining. Some may recruit new donors and adopters. Volunteers for the American Standardbred Adoption Program (ASAP) promote their efforts at harness racing tracks and yearling sales.
"We are present at major racing events as part of the 'team,'" says ASAP Director Susan Wellman. "We have a common bond and link with the racing industry."
Other organizations devoted to former racehorses include the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation,?the Standardbred Retirement Foundation,Tranquility Farm and CANTER, the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses.
PMU foal adoption groups find homes for foals sold by the producers of pregnant mare urine (PMU), which is used to make the hormone-replacement drug Premarin. For example, each September and October FoalQuest takes as many as 400 weanlings to President Jan Turnbull's farm in Alberta, Canada. Volunteers prepare the foals en masse for shipment to new homes: Blood is taken for Coggins tests and the youngsters are dewormed and haltered. Volunteers work virtually around the clock, feeding, watering, shoveling, raking and driving to farms to acquire more weanlings. FoalQuest also relies on members throughout the spring and summer for tasks such as visiting production farms to photograph new foals in the fields.
Other rescue farms throughout the United States also purchase PMU foals with the intention of finding them new homes. At Rocky Mountain Foal Rescue in Colorado Springs, Colo., volunteers work with the weanlings on a daily basis, teaching them to lead and tie and accept brushing, bathing and other human handling.
Helping Horses to Help People
Therapeutic riding programs give children and adults time on horseback as a means of treating physical and emotional disorders. According to the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, more than 25,000 volunteers annually donate time to more than 650 program centers throughout the United States and Canada, and about 80 percent of the program's therapists, instructors and administrators are volunteers. In addition to basic horse-care duties, such as grooming, tacking up and cooling out horses, those who donate time to therapeutic riding programs lead horses during sessions and "side walk" to help support a rider in the saddle. As a result, volunteers with equine knowledge as well as an ease in working with people are particularly valued by therapeutic riding programs.
Outreach programs help at-risk youth and others learn responsibility, communication, leadership and other life skills by working with and riding horses. Through the Work to Ride program at the Chamounix Equestrian Center in Philadelphia, Pa., inner-city school children participate in a variety of horseback programs. To be eligible, students between the ages of seven and 18 must maintain a C average. They earn time in the saddle by doing stable chores such as mucking, sweeping, feeding, watering and grooming.
Chamounix also operates a non-riding equine-assisted learning program for children who have a history of disruptive behavior.
"We work with them in an arena, and it helps the kids relate their own emotions and attitudes to the horses' reactions," says Executive Director Lezlie Hiner. The exercise teaches them how their behavior affects those around them. The equestrian center relies on volunteers to help with these lessons, as well as for tutoring, facility maintenance and other chores.
Another program, Swan Center Outreach in Marble Hill, Ga., offers a variety of riding, training and other programs for low-income youth and families to teach responsibility, leadership and other skills through caring for animals large and small.
"We bring kids out from at-risk situations and teach them team-building with horses, showing them how you need to be to have a relationship with horses," says Swan Center Director John Longhill. "These are life skills that they can use to get along better with their family and friends."
The center keeps 38 horses, as well as dogs, cats, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, ferrets and chickens. Volunteers care for the animals and teach basic skills such as grooming and riding.
Animal-assisted activity programs bring the joys of holding and petting animals to people in hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care facilities. Volunteers train their own animals for these visits and arrange their own schedules. Most are social calls, where an animal meets and greets patients.
Dogs are best known for this role, but the Delta Society, a national organization that trains volunteers for its Pet Partners program, registers other companion animals, including horses, ponies and miniature horses.
"We have 11,000 teams registered," says Michelle Cobey, research coordinator with the Delta Society, "and 55 are registered with horses."
For admission to Pet Partners, an animal must pass an examination by a licensed evaluator and his owner must complete a home-study course. Then the Delta Society shares the names of health facilities that participate in the program.
"Part of the training gives volunteers the skills they need to approach facilities that don't have programs and offer their services," says Cobey.
To Generate Community Support
Land-use advocacy efforts are increasingly important to sustaining the equestrian way of life that is endangered in many parts of the country.
"Even in rural areas, more people are moving out from the cities, and local governments are enacting zoning laws to allow for growth," says Kandee Haertel, executive director of Equine Land Conservation Resource, a national organization that educates horse people and gives them the tools to work with other groups in their communities. "We need to ensure that horse people will still fit into the new plans."
Potential problems include zoning restrictions, the loss of open land for riding and new laws that prohibit livestock in rapidly suburbanizing areas. Advocates usually attend planning meetings and educate government officials about the needs of horse owners and their benefits to the community and the local economy.
Skills valued in an advocate include the ability to research facts and present them in a persuasive manner, an ease with public speaking and an aptitude for keeping a cool head when confronted by people who don't share your views.
"Advocacy is going to become more and more important to keeping our show grounds, our trails and even our ability to keep our horses, because as a nation we are getting less knowledgeable about our agricultural heritage," Haertel says.
To ensure riders' access to public lands, trail advocacy groups work with the managers of parks and recreational areas to build and maintain suitable equestrian trails. In fact, in some parks there would be no riding trails without the efforts of an advocacy group. In Dane County, Wisc., for example, the local parks commission had the money to purchase the land that would become Donald Park. However, the funds were insufficient to develop the property and open it to the public. Volunteers formed a group called the Friends of Donald Park to work closely with the park staff to develop a master plan. Then equestrian volunteers worked on Saturday mornings for nearly three years to construct the approximately 3.5 miles of trails designated for horse use, and they raised over $20,000 to help pay for the trailhead construction.
Even after the initial work is done, trail groups often remain intact to take care of ongoing issues, and volunteers may perform annual trail maintenance while continuing to work with park managers and other trail users.
Adopt-a-trail programs, run by many state and local park services, are another way for equestrian groups to improve trails. Clubs, schools or other organizations "adopt" all or part of a trail, thereby accepting responsibility for many aspects of maintenance, such as clearing overgrowth, picking up litter and reporting hazards to park management. Typically, adopters are identified by a sign placed at the trailhead. Contact your state and local park management for more information.
Often the parks where trails are located recruit volunteers. As facilities age and budgets tighten, many parks--local, state and national--rely on volunteer labor to maintain basic services, and opportunities abound for a broad range of jobs, including performing trail and facility maintenance, handling office work, greeting visitors and patrolling the backcountry.
The National Park Service's Volunteers-In-Parks program offers hundreds of opportunities to help with trail and campground maintenance, hosting and guiding, wildlife monitoring, habitat restoration, range management and other jobs on federal lands throughout the country.
So the Show Can Go On
Across America, venues dedicated to showcasing horses and equestrian sports count volunteers among their most valuable assets. For instance, the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington relies on hundreds of volunteers to accomplish more than 10,000 hours of work each year. Local volunteers care for the horses and prepare them for various demonstrations and appearances, such as the daily Parade of Breeds. Others who donate their time to the park do research for upcoming museum exhibitions, host and guide visitors, maintain the grounds and provide office support. Also vital to the park's volunteer program are the people who travel from all over the country to work at special events.
Horse shows and sporting events, from small gatherings at the local show grounds to international competitions at large equestrian venues, rely on volunteers to keep things running smoothly. Event volunteers usually don't handle horses, but their skills are put to use monitoring visitors to the stable areas, assembling jumps and grooming the showring between classes. Many events use corps of volunteers to perform a vast array of support tasks--from processing registration forms to manning information booths and hospitality suites.
Larger events tend to have formal volunteer programs with hundreds or even thousands of participants each year; you may be required to sign up in advance and attend some training workshops. Volunteers are still being recruited for the?Alltec FEI World Equestrian Games in September 2010 at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Volunteering for an equestrian nonprofit group needn't be limited to what you can accomplish in the barn or pasture or out on the trail. Many organizations welcome people willing and able to donate a broad range of services, from answering phones and stuffing envelopes to accounting, meeting planning, fundraising and managing Web sites.
"The bottom line is that any job that is necessary at a stable or any other business is available as a volunteer position," says Kathleen Schwartz of Days End. Some tasks, such as creating newsletters and brochures, may even be able to be done from home.
Nor do you need to worry about a lack of experience.
"Skills can be taught," Schwartz says. "The qualities I find valuable in a volunteer are kindness, compassion, common sense, energy and a love of animals. Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization."
This article originally appeared in EQUUS magazine.