Nonprofits – Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation saves thoroughbreds from neglect, abuse, slaughter after they can no longer compete

Zippy Chippy, who is known for not winning any of his 100 race starts, during an open house and adoption event by Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation at Old Friends at Cabin Creek in Greenfield Center in 2020
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Zippy Chippy, who is known for not winning any of his 100 race starts, during an open house and adoption event by Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation at Old Friends at Cabin Creek in Greenfield Center in 2020

What happens to a thoroughbred once its racing days are over?

It is not all green pastures for thousands of horses once they can no longer be on the track. Sadly, more than 10,000 retired thoroughbreds are shipped to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico annually.

However, the lucky ones might end up in the care of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) based in Saratoga Springs. Founded in 1983 by Monique S. Koehler, the TRF currently cares for roughly 500 thoroughbreds on 15 farms in eight states: New York, Florida, Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky, California, Virginia and South Carolina.

The organization’s mission is to save thoroughbreds from neglect, abuse and slaughter when they can no longer compete, said TRF Executive Director Pat Stickney. She began volunteering for the group in 2006, which she did one day a week for three years before eventually taking a job in the accounting department.

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“I retired twice and was asked to come back in 2019 as executive director,” said Stickney, who has a background in nonprofit accounting.

Racehorse rescue
Early in its history, TRF was rescuing racehorses right off the track, providing them with time to rest and relax before they were retrained and adopted. Over time, TRF has found its niche in the growing racehorse aftercare industry. While other organizations will help retired racehorses into second careers as hunters, jumpers or as horses for dressage, mounted police, or animal-assisted therapy, TRF is caring for horses that are not suited or well enough for retraining, thus putting them at risk of abuse, neglect or slaughter.

“TRF is more of a sanctuary than retraining or adoption,” Stickney said. “We take the horses that other organizations won’t take because they’re not sound enough to be retrained.”

Stickney sees the aftercare industry as a “quilt,” with the goal of saving retired racehorses. “There are a lot of aftercare organizations out there, and they all do a great job and everybody has their niche,” Stickney said.

A large part of the TRF role in the industry comes in the form of its partnership program, Second Chances. Eight of TRF’s farms are located at correctional facilities where staff train inmates to work with horses. Many go on to take jobs as grooms, stable employees, vet assistants, farriers and farm managers.

“We know that the program works and they do come out with the skills to get gainful employment when they’re released,” Stickney said.

Koehler negotiated the opening of TRF’s first Second Chances farm at Walkill Correctional Facility. In exchange for land use and labor, TRF agreed to design, staff and maintain a vocational training program in equine care and management for inmates there. The program was so wildly successful that it has expanded to seven other farms in eight states.

The newest addition to the program launched in February, when TRF partnered with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice to bring the Second Chances program to its facility in Ocala, where 12- to 18-year-old boys and men receive hands-on training with horses as well as animal-assisted therapy.

Tim Moore is TRF’s program manager and equine instructor at Blackburn Correctional Facility in Lexington, Kentucky, where he oversees the Second Chances program. TRF opened this farm in 1999, converting an old dairy barn to house the horses at the state’s largest minimum security prison.

In pre-COVID times, 10 inmates at a time worked in the program. That has been reduced to five due to the pandemic, but Moore hopes he will be able to increase that number soon. Inmates must have a GED to participate in the six-month course. They have classroom lessons in which they learn about a horse’s anatomy, nutrition and anything else a groom would need to know about how to care for a horse. They also have hands-on training in caring for the 52 horses at the 115-acre farm. In addition, they perform farm chores such as weeding and baling hay.

“It’s pretty much a full-time job,” Moore said.

The program goes beyond just teaching horse care. “Nobody’s in prison for doing good deeds,” Moore said. “They all come in and feel like they have to have a pretty tough demeanor to survive. They want to put on like they can whip the world.”

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But as inmates work with the horses, that persona drops to reveal a softer, gentler side.

“You have to have patience,” Moore said. “The horse has got to learn to trust you. It tells a lot about themselves the way they handle horses. For some of these guys, this is the first time that they had anything other than themselves to take care of. It does a lot for them.”

Inmates take written and skills tests to become certified as grooms, and those who graduate from the program have 90 days taken off their prison sentences.

Securing careers
The program benefits the inmates personally but also professionally.

“One of the big things is, when they walk out of the gate there, they’re going to work the next day,” said Moore, noting that four graduates in the past two years who had no experience working with horses prior to their training in the Second Chances program were employed the day after they were released.

The horse industry in Kentucky is looking for Second Chances graduates. Moore fields calls from farms that want to get on the list to hire a graduate of the program.

“More people are showing interest in hiring felons,” Moore said.

Currently, TRF is planning two additional farms for the Second Chances program. “We’re always looking to expand Second Chances because there is a lot of demand,” Stickney said. “We are always exploring other opportunities. Most of the time our farms operate near or at capacity, and there is often a waiting list.”

The biggest barrier to opening additional farms is the initial cost of infrastructure, she said. This involves building fences, stables and sheds. While some correctional facilities have cow or horse barns, most of those need to be renovated. “I think we could expand more quickly if that wasn’t a hurdle for us,” Stickney said.

TRF is privately funded by donors the staff solicits through direct-mail appeals and social media, an annual fundraising effort called the Hay Drive and smaller events throughout the year. The foundation also applies for grants.

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In addition to its sanctuary farms in various locations, TRF operates a summer farm in Saratoga Springs from May or June through September with a few horses. It provides a local place where volunteers and donors can come to see the horses TRF is helping. The organization tries to find good homes for the horses it brings to the summer farm. This year, one was adopted and another returned to the farm at Walkill.

Keeping track
TRF’s herd manager receives a letter annually from the veterinarian of every horse that is adopted, and adopted horses always have the option to return to TRF at any point. Recently, the organization took back a horse that had been adopted two decades prior.

“We make every effort to track these horses for the rest of their lives,” Stickney said. “I think it differentiates us a bit from some of the other organizations.”

The summer farm took on a rescue role two years ago. In March 2019, when a group of neglected horses was found in the Hudson Valley, TRF got the summer farm up and running in one day so it could take in four of the worst cases and rehabilitate them.

“They were so, so thin,” said Stickney, who stayed with a couple of TRF’s employees overnight to groom the horses. “That was my first experience with a rescue, and that also reinforced in my mind the whole mission of aftercare and how important it is.”

TRF is certified by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, and thus far, nine of TRF’s farms have been accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, passing rigorous evaluation of equine care and meeting the organization’s standards for sustainability, ethical principles, finances and staffing.

“It demonstrates to the public that we employ best practices and ensure our donors that we are doing the best for our horses,” Stickney said.

She said there is more awareness now of the need for aftercare for retired racehorses, as people are putting pressure on the horseracing industry to do the right thing. But there are still horses that go to slaughter. Stickney said TRF is not a lobbying or advocacy group, but the foundation does seek to build awareness of the need for aftercare. “We try the best we can to get the word out,” she said.

For information, visit www.trfinc.org.

Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
Year founded: 1983
Areas served: New York, Florida, Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky, California, Virginia and South Carolina.
Mission: To save thoroughbred horses no longer able to compete on the racetrack from possible neglect, abuse and slaughter.

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Categories: Life and Arts, Nonprofits 2021

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