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Blog Tales from the LOPE Ranch

Adoption Policy: The Big Enchilada of Dilemmas

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There is a dilemma that all horse adoption charities and rescues face about the adoption process. Is it is best to streamline the adoption approval process, keep the adoption contract simple, and adopt the horses out quickly? Or is it better to scrutinize the adopters more closely, strictly limit the terms of the sale, and try to match the horses to ideal homes?

This post helps give readers a sense of the many elements that go into setting adoption requirements at horse charities.

Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. It’s wonderful to see the horses leave for new homes as soon as possible. But that feeling fades if there is a high return rate or if the seemingly nice adopters turn out to be flipping the horses for quick resale to dubious homes. Keeping horses in limbo at an adoption facility can also be ineffective. Horses don’t do well sitting on the shelf (so to speak) — and require consistent work, training, and ongoing quality management to keep them improving (instead of regressing).

At LOPE, we’ve seen quite a variety of prospective adopters and adoption situations. We’ve learned it’s best to take a tough-minded optimist approach to the adoption process — and to structure the process to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.

LOPE Adoption Process

Our adoption approval process requires that the prospective adopter fill out a questionnaire about their horse experience, the facility where they plan to keep the horse, and the type of activities they’d like to do with the horse (jump, trail ride, dressage, etc). The form requires vet and farrier references — as well as a trainer reference, if the person is planning to use one for the horse.

After we check references, the application is approved about 90% of the time. The most common reasons that an application isn’t approved are usually a lack of current references or horse experience in general. We’ve rarely had a situation where a listed reference gave a poor assessment of the applicant’s horse care or riding ability but it does occasionally happen.

We’ve learned it’s best to take a tough-minded optimist approach to the adoption process — and to structure the process to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.

Sometimes the applicant is interested in a horse that just isn’t the right match. For example, we had several applications from jumping competitors for a flashy gelding with an old fetlock injury that limited him to pleasure or trail riding (per our vet’s assessment). We had to turn down those applicants for that particular horse — even though they had passed our approval process to adopt a horse suitable for their needs.

If the adopter is approved, she meets the horse to see if it’s the right match. It’s fun to see the “click” happen between horse and rider — we love that part our work!

If they decide to adopt, they pay an adoption fee and sign our adoption contract/bill of sale. The adopter then owns the horse — though there are limitations on the contract. The horse can’t be raced again or sold at auction (where it could be purchased to race again). Rehoming is permitted, though we ask to keep notified via a right of first refusal (at seller’s price). As a small charity, LOPE can’t offer lifetime guarantees, unlimited rehoming, or retirement home options to our adopted horses — but we try to be a networking resource to our adopters and their LOPE horses whenever possible.

Regular Review of Policies: How We Do It

LOPE regularly reevaluates the adoption contract and policies — to see if there are ways to improve the process for both the horses and the adopters. We are doing that now — and welcome input from our supporters in the horse community. LOPE also consults with other horse adoption groups — to find best practices and to adapt to new developments in the overall horse market.

Another helpful exercise we do is to collect examples of difficult adoption or adoption approval dilemmas — and then see how those situations might have been avoided by a change in our policy or process. Below are several scenarios we have heard of from other adoption groups or have experienced here. In each case that involves an adoption, the horse had been at the charity for four months or less prior to adoption — plus the adopters had passed the charity’s approval process prior to adopting the horse.

Each case highlights difficult questions about responsibility — for both the charities and the adopters. Is it possible for a charity to provide a lifetime umbrella guarantee to the horses it adopts out? Does the adopter bear full ownership of the horse’s health and other needs upon adoption? How strictly should a charity screen adopters — for just horse related questions or also for credit scores, marital stability, and so on?

Is it wrong to say no to applicants who mean well, would love the horse, but have no track record of horse ownership? Is the potential downside of adopting horses to those people higher than keeping horses indefinitely at an adoption facility?

Finally, when an approved adopter (with good references) does the wrong thing and puts the horse at risk, is it the charity’s fault for selecting that person? Do they need to take that as a sign to make their policies more restrictive — or do they see it as an isolated example that shouldn’t close off the adoption process to more people?

I tend to believe that making things more bureaucratic only creates more problems. It is impossible to guarantee outcomes — but it is very possible to encourage and reward responsible behavior on the part of all parties involved. If we are diligent and thoughtful, the LOPE adoption process will evolve steadily — and will hopefully continue to make the right thing easier and the wrong thing harder.

Difficult Adoption Scenarios (from assorted charities)

(Note: Some details have been changed to protect the innocent.)

Scenario A

  • A five-year-old mare is donated to a charity. She is adopted by a good home with excellent references. That home (we’ll call her Jane) owns the horse for over a year — but then is laid off from her job. Jane calls the charity and asks them to take the horse back. The charity is full — but does some networking and finds an approved adopter looking for a horse like Jane’s mare. Jane meets that adopter, likes him, and rehomes the mare to him with the charity’s blessing. Two years later, the second home (we will call him Bob) calls — the mare kicked him badly and he wants the charity to pick the horse up immediately. Bob has had the mare in professional competition training for the two years he has owned her.
  • Outcome: The charity is unable to take the horse back due to the large number of at-risk horses under its care at that time. Their adoption committee is troubled by this and does their best to give rehoming help to Bob via networking. At the same time, the committee discusses at what point is the charity still responsible for the horse’s behavior vs when is Bob more accountable as the current owner — and reviews their adoption contract requirements to avoid this type of issue in the future. The horse is eventually rehomed by Bob to a professional trainer that he found with good references and standing in the local horse community.

Scenario B

  • A college girl contacts a charity wanting to adopt a horse. She has no equine vet references, hasn’t had a horse since she was in sixth grade (and her parents owned the horse) — but she is planning to open a riding lesson and training business. She can provide only one reference for her horse ability and experience — and it turns out to be her aunt. The charity politely declines her application when she can’t produce any other references. She berates the charity for being hoarders and for discriminating against young people just getting started in the horse industry.
  • Outcome: The horse rescue feels like their adoption approval process worked in this case — as it is clear that the girl’s inexperience would not have made her a good adoption candidate. Her emotional response to the situation only reinforced the rescue’s decision and confirmed to their adoption committee that current horse references are a very important part of the application process.

Scenario C

  • An experienced colt starter adopts a four-year-old unbroken gaited horse that was donated to a charity. Three years go by before he gets around to starting the horse under saddle due to unexpected family commitments. The gelding rears and has anxiety issues. The adopter contacts the charity and wants to return the horse as being too difficult and unsuitable. He states that he’d hate to send the horse to auction, but will do so if the charity won’t take the horse back.
  • Outcome: The charity is able to rehome the horse to a volunteer for the group (who had fostered the horse when it originally came to the rescue). The rescue group isn’t happy that the adopter threatened to send him to auction. But they felt that the horse was so at-risk (as an unbroken seven-year-old) that they had to rehome the horse themselves as soon as possible. The original adopter’s file was marked as no longer suitable to adopt in the future due to his willingness to send the horse to auction (against the original adoption contract stipulations).

Scenario D

  • A very horse experienced family applies to adopt a horse from a rescue in their area. They have good references from their vet, farrier, and two local trainers. The horse that they want to adopt is a sound, young Thoroughbred with an adoption fee of $600. The rescue approves them as adopters and the family visits the horse. It appears to a wonderful match — the young gelding is green and a little nervous, but seems to immediately bond with the family (who has had much experience with young horses). They tell the rescue that they want to adopt, but can’t afford the adoption fee — and ask if they can do a payment plan or have the fee discounted. When the rescue explains that this won’t be possible (due to their policies), the family becomes upset and accuses the rescue of trying to make a big profit on the adoption horses.
  • Outcome: The rescue feels that this was the right decision. Their group doesn’t allow payment plans or fee reductions based on financial need due to a specific policy decision. Since keeping horses does require a certain amount of cost (for feed, hay, vet care, farrier, etc), the rescue sets firm adoption fees as a way to make sure that prospective adopters can indeed afford to take care of a horse. The rescue has found that allowing payment plans or free adoptions almost always results in the horses being returned or mishandled (usually because the adopters don’t have the financial resources to care for them). The adoption fees are set based on providing a reasonable, below market fee for the horse. Since the rescue provides several weeks (or months) of feed/hay, farrier work, vet care, vaccinations, worming and other care to the horses, the adoption fees never meant to cover those costs completely (as that would mean regularly setting fees at commercial market rates, which the rescue feels is inappropriate to their mission).

Scenario E

  • A terrific family adopts an older, experienced horse for pleasure riding from a rescue specializing in at-risk auction horses. Five years later, the mother contacts the charity — the family is going through a divorce and relocating out of state. The adopted horse is now geriatric with some arthritis — and she asks if the charity will please take the horse back, as it is difficult for her to rehome him “since he is older now and it is hard to find good homes for older horses.”
  • Outcome: The horse rescue in this case has a policy that horses can only be returned within a certain amount of time after adoption. Their philosophy is that adopters who have owned the horses for several years would be better suited to find the perfect new home than the charity (which typically adopts horses within a month of their arrival). They worked with the mother to help her find suitable retirement options for the horse — and added more detail to the clause about returns for future adoption contracts.

Scenario F

  • A riding instructor submits an adoption approval form to a rescue for a gelding with minor arthritis and some maintenance needs (annual injections). Two of the four references she has listed tell the charity that she wouldn’t be a good home due to perpetual financial issues. They ask the group to please not tell the applicant that they told the charity this, as they feel it would affect their relationship with her.
  • Outcome: To the charity’s relief, the horse in question happens to be adopted by another home (with good references) before the riding instructor’s application is fully processed. They know that they are in a pickle if the riding teacher wants to adopt a different horse, but fortunately that doesn’t happen (the riding school closes shortly afterward). For future applications, they resolve to immediately decline applications with negative references — and notify the references that this will happen. Some of the rescue volunteers are nervous about doing this, as they are worried that future references will be upset with the charity for this.

Scenario G

  • A young woman who grew up with horses adopts a horse from a local horse rescue that takes in auction horses. After she has had the horse a couple of weeks, he becomes very food aggressive and attacks other horses in the paddock during feeding. When he is fed separately, he then begins threatening the person bringing the food (striking, nipping, backing his hindquarters). Eventually, the aggressive behavior begins to display itself even at non-feeding times (such as when he is being led or haltered). He eventually bites the adopter (the bite is serious and requires medical attention). The adopter contacts the rescue and asks to return the horse.
  • Outcome: The rescue tells her that they only had the horse a short time and can’t help her with this situation. They aren’t able to take the horse back since he is displaying dangerous behavior that he didn’t show during his time with them. The adopter turns to other horse experts for advice, gets some referrals for vets and trainers specializing in problem horses and decides to keep the horse.

Scenario H

  • A trail rider adopts a handsome, sound gelding. Four years later, he calls the charity — the horse has had an accident and has very serious lacerations plus tendon injuries. He wants to donate the horse back, as he can’t afford the vet bills. He tells the charity volunteer that he doesn’t want to sell the horse off cheap, but might have to — if the charity won’t help him.
  • Outcome: The rescue has a very flexible return policy — but it does stipulate that the horse be returned in the same condition as when it left the rescue. After a discussion with the organization’s directors, the group decides that they can’t take back a horse after so long that also has a serious veterinary condition. They offer to assist the adopter in rehoming the horse by passing the word to their volunteer group network. The adopter ultimately decides to euthanize the horse. The rescue is saddened by this, but isn’t sure that it could have helped without setting a troubling precedent to take back horses at any time no matter what their condition. A board meeting is called to discuss the situation and a fundraising campaign is launched for an emergency fund to help unusual cases in the future.

Conclusion

As you read through the different “difficult scenarios” above, you can see that setting adoption policies can be a delicate and tricky process. We don’t necessarily agree with all of the outcomes listed above — but we recognize that each charity has to find their own way to deal with unique challenges. A rescue that takes in extremely at-risk horses from neglect or abuse situations has different priorities than an adoption group that specializes in rehoming retired show horses with soundness issues.

Most horse charities regularly go above and beyond what their adoption contract requires of them — because they simply can’t stand to see a horse be at-risk, even if it is not due to negligence on their part. At the same time, they must also be careful not to set up impossible horse return standards and adoption approval requirements — otherwise, they will end up taking back unlimited horses while only approving a small number of people to adopt. Since most adoption charities operate on modest budgets, this is a recipe for disaster — and results in the all-too-familiar case of horse rescues needing to be rescued themselves.

Hopefully, this post helps give readers a sense of the many elements that go into setting adoption requirements at horse charities. It sometimes can seem like more of an art than a science, but most horse groups truly make a sincere effort to monitor and emulate the best practices in the nonprofit adoption world.

The vast majority of adopters are terrific owners who respect the adoption contract and take wonderful care of their horses. The “difficult scenarios” listed above are extreme cases and don’t represent the norm. When reviewing adoption policies, we try to keep that fact at the top of our mind — so that we can keep the process simple and continue to attract the kind of responsible, caring people who have adopted horses from LOPE in the past!

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