With the closure of U.S. horse slaughter plants and a decline in the U.S. economy, more horses than ever before are being offered "free to a good home." Horse rescue organizations are full to capacity, leaving the private sector to absorb many of these lost equine souls. However, before you adopt, there are some important considerations.
Free Horses Aren't Really Free
There's no such thing as a free horse. For starters, unless the horse is already on your property, you'll need to go and pick him up, which translates into gas money (and if you don't have a truck and trailer, paying a hauler). Then, unless you have extras on hand, you'll need to buy some basic supplies, such as a halter and leadrope, a salt block, a feed tub and a water bucket. If you're lucky, the tack, bits, blankets, protective boots, and other equine et cetera you already have will work for the new horse. If you're not so lucky, you'll be making at least one trip to the local tack shop.
Where will you house the free horse? Do you have horse property with an empty stall or paddock, or will you need to make some improvements or even pay board? If you plan to pasture the horse with your other horses, will they get along with each other, or will they engage in dominance battles that result in vet bills and broken fences? What will you do if the new horse doesn't peacefully join your existing herd?
What kind of physical shape is the free horse in? Does she need to have her feet trimmed? Are her vaccinations current? Does she need worming? Is she in need of an equine dentist? Is she underweight? Does she have special health needs? Is she pregnant? Ka-ching for each "yes" answer.
Now, consider the free horse's current training level. Even if the free horse is intended to live a life of leisure, behavior is a serious consideration in a 1,000 pound pasture ornament. How are his manners? Does he have any bad habits? Has he been abused? Is he broke to ride? If so, does he need a refresher course? Unless the free horse is perfect in every way, or you have the time, experience and skill to train (or re-train) him, you'll need to hire a professional trainer.
Even if your new equine family member is in perfect health and very well-trained, he still has to eat. And use bedding. And have his feet done. And receive routine vet care. In short, you'll likely spend several hundred dollars per month on his upkeep, so make sure your budget can really handle another horse before you sign the adoption papers.
Horses are Gifts that Keep Giving
Hopefully, the free horse will give you nothing but gentle companionship for years to come. But be aware that free horses are always free for a reason. Sometimes, the reason has nothing to do with the horse, such as a change in the horse owner's financial circumstances. Other times, the reason is horse-based, such as the fact that the horse has health or lameness issues, a bad habit, or simply isn't trained. Before taking on a new horse, the horse adopter should do some diligence to determine why the horse is really being given away. For example, a pre-adoption vet check would be an excellent idea. If the horse is broken to ride, the adopter should take ample time to try out the horse before agreeing to adopt it, preferably with some input from the adopter's trainer, or at least some knowledgeable horse friends. Remember, if the free horse sounds too good to be true, he probably is!
Some People Expect a Free Ride
Time and time again, Equine Legal Solutions receives calls from anxious horse adopters frantic because someone who gave them a horse is now threatening to take the horse back, weeks, months or even years later. Sometimes, the adopter and former owner had a legitimate misunderstanding from the beginning. Far more often, the former owner regrets having given the horse away and their financial situation has improved. Or they see what great things the adopter has done with a horse they considered worthless. In most of these cases, the parties had nothing in writing, leaving the situation open to interpretation (and litigation). The former owner can claim that they really just "free leased" or loaned the horse to the adopter, or that the adopter agreed to buy the horse and hasn't paid, or even worse, that the adopter stole the horse. Occasionally, the former owner can support a claim of ownership by producing registration papers for the horse in the former owner's name and/or a bill of sale between the former owner and a previous owner. Frequently, the adopter has nothing to support their claim of ownership other than canceled checks for the horse's care expenses, leaving them with an impossible choice between defending themselves in an expensive court battle or reaching a settlement with the former owner. To prevent these types of problems and make sure they obtain proof of ownership, anyone adopting a horse should insist that the horse owner sign the horse over to them in writing, preferably using a document like Equine Legal Solutions' Equine Donation Agreement. ELS recommends that the adoption be unconditional, so that the adopter can rest assured that the former owner will not try to take the horse away at some future date and so that the adopter is free to find another good home for the horse should the need arise.