Archive for June, 2013


“You can’t judge a book by its cover” and you can’t judge a horse rescue by its web site.

In today’s world of global interactions, social media, and convenient web design templates, it is easy to create a persona online.  Who doesn’t want to Photoshop a pound or two off a profile photo? Trying to determine the legitimacy of a person or business is not as easy as it was in the days before the Internet, days when face-to-face interactions were the norm and not something to schedule.

I never thought about the “inner workings” of horse rescue organizations. Even though two of my horses came to me through our local rescue, I tried not to think about their situation too much. I wanted to think that there wasn’t too much suffering involved. I stayed away from reading the stories that would appear in news releases or on the Internet about law enforcement seizures. I would send some money to horse rescue groups every now and then, but keep an emotional distance. I had done my part. And then the Horses In Need Documentary Project came along through the Equine Photography Network. I thought a long time about whether I thought I could handle photographing horses in need. I was afraid. Afraid of what I might see; afraid of what I might hear; afraid of what I might learn; afraid I would want to take all the horses I saw home with me and hide from the bigger issues.


Through the lens of my camera I felt compelled to investigate what it meant to be a horse in a rescue/sanctuary environment.  Since 2009, I have annually participated in the project. The horses I have met along the way have taught me about different types of rescue operations.  Through participating in these documentary projects, I have met people inside a variety of organizations.  For the past 5 years while researching and photographing horses for my projects, I have developed a commitment to “help the hands that help.” But I want to be sure of who and what I am supporting.  As a result of my interactions with rescued horses and their situations, 10 questions have developed in my mind that need to be asked and answered about a rescue facility to determine if it is a reputable and reliable organization.  I don’t want to wonder a few months down the road if the donation I  made to an organization, or the story I told, really supported what I hoped it did.

Ten Questions to Ask:

1.      What type of rescue does it claim to be?

(Owner surrender, law enforcement/seizures, breed specific, feedlot saves, buys from auctions, off the track Thoroughbreds)

2.     Where do the horses in the facility come from?

(Are they local or shipped in?)

3.     What services are provided to the horses at the facility?

(Vet care, training, foster homes, etc)

4.     Who cares for the horses on a daily basis?

5.     Can the facility tell you about their horses and can they account for what happens to the horses placed in their care?

6.     Have “accidental” breedings occurred at the facility?

7.     Does the rescue provide contracts with the adopter of the horses and provide a plan for taking the horse back if the adoption doesn’t work out?

8.     How does the organization meet its expenses? Can the rescue document how money is spent and show evidence that donations go towards the horses’ expenses?

9.     Have any complaints been filed with local authorities regarding the facility?

10   Has the facility met the standards of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS)? If not, who oversees the quality control for the facility?


Recently I read the book, The Elephant Whisper, by Lawrence Anthony the acclaimed conservationist who saved a rogue herd of wild elephants at his sanctuary in South Africa.  The struggles he went through to save the herd, and the uphill battle he faced against poachers, ill-informed people, and ingrained traditions inspired me to think more about rescue efforts and what it means to be a sanctuary.  The elephants he described felt like the horses I know.  In learning more about the efforts of sanctuaries world wide, I stumbled upon the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) and its role in the welfare of animals.  This organization does not create sanctuaries, but rather helps sanctuaries help animals and sets standards for humane care.  GFAS is involved with all types of animals and already has specific equine standards.  If the public asked the rescues they support to be GFAS  verified more uniformity would be provided for the care horses in rescues/sanctuaries.


In 2009 I met a horse named Shelby.  Her story demonstrates how the situation of virtual allure and lack of  verifiable standards caught her in a web of deceit.  Shelby, originally a Nevada Mustang, ended up placed a horse-rescue facility in Oregon.  Shelby was a hard to adopt case, as many Mustangs are, and the Oregon rescue found what was thought to be the perfect placement for her. The place was a 1900-acre ranch where horses could roam freely with an abundance of grazing land available.  The web site looked beautiful. The sanctuary was located in Nebraska. It was a non-profit (501K) organization with a goal and a mission. Everything checked out on paper.  Arrangements were made to transport Shelby there. It was suppose to be a place of comfort for horses.  Apparently, for a while, it was the dream it claimed to be. But the facility was mismanaged. Horses ended up in unhealthy and starving conditions. Ultimately, it ended in a multiple state effort to rescue the horses from the sanctuary.  Shelby was identified through her brand and transported back to the rescue in Oregon. If uniform standards and peer monitoring were in place the problems could have been identified before the situation got out of control.

The tale of a rescue operation going astray happens all too often.  Especially in hard times when the strain of the economy reaches deep into everyone’s pockets and more horses find themselves in unwanted situations. Having clear questions in mind and awareness of acceptable standards can help sort out the operational procedures, identify policies, and determine if it is an organization to get involved with.

Oregon & Washington Equine GFAS Verified Rescues/Sanctuaries:

Sanctuary One
Strawberry Mountain
Equine Outreach
Linn County Animal Rescue
Horse Harbor Foundation

Link to complete list of GFAS sanctuaries provided below:

GFAS Sanctuaries

Special Thanks to Darla Clark At Strawberry Mountain Mustang Rescue for your conversations on the topic.


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