MidAtlantic Horse Rescue: 1,000 Adoptions in 14 Years

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MidAtlantic Horse Rescue | MAHR

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(Editor's note: Yesterday, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance accredited or re-accredited 27 aftercare organizations for a two-year period {see below}. One of the organizations re-accredited in 2015 was the MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, who recently found a home for its 1,000th horse.)

MidAtlantic Horse Rescue (MAHR) in Warwick, Maryland, occupies a niche segment among aftercare organizations–that is, if you can categorize any equine welfare program that has found new homes for more than 1,000 Thoroughbreds over the past 14 years as “niche.”

Beverly Strauss, the co-founder and president of MAHR, isn't content to rely on solely on making connections with horse owners and racetracks to ensure that horses move directly from racing stables to aftercare programs once their on-track days are done. Her experience as a Thoroughbred trainer has taught her that the path to “doing the right thing” is not always linear, so the volunteer team at MAHR still scours auction listings and deals directly with “kill buyers” to identify at-risk racehorses that the non-profit organization might acquire and rehabilitate at its 158-acre farm along the banks of the Sassafras River.

It might seem paradoxical, but Strauss has elevated soundness and athleticism standards for the horses that MAHR purchases at such last-chance equine outposts, where extensive physical problems are considered the norm rather than the exception.

Her thinking, as Strauss described in a recent phone interview, is that by adhering to a strict business plan of only acquiring Thoroughbreds that have the physical potential to be retrained as sound pleasure and sport horses, MAHR will be able to cycle more horses through its adoption network.

“We knew early on that we had to be selective about the horses that we brought into the program, because as much as we wanted to help the broken-down ones, that meant that sound ones were going to be killed,” said Strauss, whose bachelor's degree in biology, master's degree in business management, and 40-plus years of hands-on experience working with horses in various disciplines helps to anchor the MAHR mindset.

“It's hard, because you walk away from a horse that's broken down,” Strauss continued. “But that's a horse that you would probably be feeding for the next 20 years, and so your resources and your time are dedicated to that. Whereas if we get a young, sound horse, we can turn that horse around, get it into a good home, and then go get another one.”

That's a cycle Strauss and co-founder Virginia Suarez (who separately operates a dog rescue organization) have repeated continually since coming up with the idea for MAHR in 2002, when both were training small stables at Delaware Park. In round numbers, adopting out 1,000 horses over that time frame averages out to one re-homed Thoroughbred every five days for 14 years straight.

“Everyone has the passion. But if you don't have a business plan to back it up, you can't run a rescue. It helps to have passion when things go south, but you can't feed horses with passion,” said Strauss.

Strauss said MAHR got started when she and Suarez were simultaneously dismayed and fed up with the outflux of horses they saw heading directly from mid-Atlantic racetracks to New Holland Sales Stables in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where racehorses purchased at auction were often doomed to slaughter.

As Suarez put it, “I had worked on the backside for many years. I saw the good, the bad and the ugly. If you're going to bring a horse into the world of racing, you have to be responsible for also taking it out once its racing days are done. Horses run their hearts out whether they're fast or not, and we knew people weren't considering their responsibility as owners to make sure their horses weren't ending up in the wrong place.”

One September morning in 2002 they visited New Holland and identified 27 lip-tattooed Thoroughbreds on that day's auction slate. They selected three horses that appeared to be the soundest, paid between $300 and $500 for each, and housed them in a three-acre field. Three months later, they placed their first horse in an adoptive new home.

“It just snowballed from there,” Strauss recalled.

Although initially Strauss and Suarez paid for the horses out of their own pockets, they got some help when a relative donated “a small check,” and then Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA) gave MAHR its first grant.

“So that gave us a little bit of breathing room initially,” Strauss said. “We had the concept. We had the whole business plan. We just didn't pull the trigger until that day at New Holland. Then all of a sudden it was just scrambling to catch up. So it was great that we had support early on, but then we had to prove ourselves.”

Strauss said part of that proving period meant being fiscally disciplined. The creatively austere attitude toward finances and a reliance on mostly volunteer help hasn't changed much in 14 years at MAHR, even as the operation has grown and moved to a larger farm.

“The horses all live outdoors, with sheds, and that was part of our business plan,” Strauss explained. “The cost for keeping a horse in a stall, between labor and bedding and feed is so much more significant. They're fed twice a day. They've got hay in the fall, winter and spring, and in the summer our grass is good enough that we don't need hay. We do have a barn if we need to keep a horse on limited turnout or if it needs rehab, but basically everybody lives out 24/7. We're pretty efficient and bare bones. There's no way we could manage that many horses with our staff if they were all in stalls.

“We've really watched the bottom line,” Strauss continued. “You've got to be able to pay your bills at the end of the day. And you have to be able to call a vet if you need a vet. You have to stick to your mission, stick to your focus, stick to your business plan. We grew up over the years just pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps until we got to where we are today.”

Right now MAHR has room for 30-35 horses at any given time. Strauss said the same caliber of horse that she used to acquire from New Holland for a few hundred dollars now auctions for about $700, but she still tries to price the adoption fee around $2,000, “just to break even, or maybe put a little money in the bank”

At first, Strauss explained, “we were in a little bit of uncharted territory for a rescue organization to ask $2,000 for a horse [that had been sourced from a slaughter auction]. But at the same time, these horses are well started [toward second-career training], and well below market value, so it works. And we do transfer ownership. We want people to be invested in their horses.”

Plus, Strauss said, all of the horses adopted out by MAHR come with the guarantee that the organization will offer a full refund, or give the buyer a choice of a different horse if things don't work out.

“But we don't really have too many returns,” Strauss said. “We try to make sure that it's the right match when that horse leaves the farm. Because our fees are in the range of $2,000 for a sound horse, the new adopters have some skin in the game. And I do think it protects the horse. Again, you're probably getting a horse that's worth two or three times that amount if you went to a [sport horse] sales barn. Yet with us you've got a guarantee that horse always has a place to go.”

Strauss said the aftercare component of the Thoroughbred industry has “changed so much” since she first started MAHR, largely for the better. But she identified pockets where problems still exist. As an example, Strauss cited tracks that have instituted so-called zero-tolerance policies about sending horses to auctions like New Holland.

“Those policies are great, but if they don't have any teeth or any way to enforce it, what's the point?” Strauss said. “So what happens is these horses now no longer go through the auction. They're now being delivered right to feed lots and kill pens. We don't even have access to a lot of horses any more that are at risk.”

As a way of intervening, Strauss said MAHR has recently entered into agreements with Delaware Park and the Maryland Jockey Club tracks to provide direct-placement services.

“When we first started, nobody wanted to hear about horses going to kill,” Strauss said. “And gradually, it came around. When we first started, we were sort of naive, and we figured owners and breeders were going to want to know that their horses were at risk. We thought everyone would be horrified. But basically, people didn't really want to hear about it. And I think it started to turn when the fans started to realize what was happening, and now racing is behind it.”

MAHR is accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), which means the facilities have been determined to have met or exceeded TAA requirements in the areas of operations, education, horse care management, and adoption policies and protocols.

“The TCA has been there a long time. But now the TAA is there accrediting and funding rescue organizations, which is huge,” Strauss said. “The TAA is just phenomenal. The TAA has enabled us to more than double our capacity. And people can look to us with confidence because we are TAA accredited.

“We've got 158 acres; we use about 80 of them. So our goal is to eventually expand and use the whole farm,” Strauss continued. “We're not there yet financially and we're not there from a manpower standpoint. But that's my goal in the next five to 10 years. But again, we have to do it very carefully. I don't want to end up having too many horses, not enough people, and not enough money to pay the bills. We're just going to gradually build, as we've done all along.”

Suarez said Thoroughbred aftercare is unique in that it relies upon cooperation within an industry that is based predominantly on competition.

“The more good people who are willing to do it, and are TAA accredited, I think it's great,” Suarez said. “Will there be a time in the future when there are no horses left to be rescued? I don't think I'll see it in my lifetime, but wouldn't that be nice?”

Strauss said she makes it a point to find enjoyment with the Thoroughbreds that MAHR takes in. To that end, she's been training We Found Love (Not For Love) to compete in the Retired Racehorse Project's $100,000 Thoroughbred Makeover Oct. 27-30 at Kentucky Horse Park.

Strauss acquired the six-year-old gelding from a trainer at Charles Town Races earlier this year. He had an ankle chip, and the trainer insisted that whoever bought him had to take another 10-year-old Thoroughbred who could no longer compete on the track as part of a package deal.

“So I sent her a check, because I thought these horses don't need to end up in a bad place,” Strauss said.

Strauss said the 10-year-old was re-homed right away by MAHR. As for We Found Love, she recalled saying to him, “You know what, bud? We'll do makeover together.”

“I thought basically he'd need the summer to come around,” Strauss explained. “He's done a lot of running, he had terrible ulcers, and his feet were a mess. But he's really come along well. We're going there to have fun and we going because it's a great time to meet with other people who all love Thoroughbreds. I grew up eventing and fox hunting, and this horse, I think, really wants to be a show hunter. So I've been trying to become a show rider this summer, and I guess the makeover is also for me in a certain sense.”

 

Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) Announces 2016 Accredited Organizations:

27 Thoroughbred aftercare organizations have been newly awarded accreditation by the TAA in 2016, it was announced Monday. The accredited groups include 19 that were re-accredited and eight that have received accreditation for the first time. The TAA, the only accrediting organization in Thoroughbred aftercare, now boasts a network of 64 accredited organizations, operating at more than 180 facilities across the United States and Canada. Accreditation, which makes organizations eligible to receive financial grants to support the care of their Thoroughbreds, is awarded for a two-year period.

“The organizations accredited by the TAA represent the top echelon of aftercare services, ensuring that the horses retiring from racing are receiving the best possible care and opportunities to find new careers or retirements,” said Jimmy Bell, TAA and Godolphin America president.

To view the complete list of 64 TAA-accredited organizations–including the 27 newly incorporated aftercare entities–please visit the TAA website.

 

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