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Texas 4-H program helps at-risk horses find homes

A new Texas 4-H program is helping address the problem of neglected, abandoned and other  “at-risk” horses by pairing them with youth who will help them transition to permanent homes.

The Texas 4-H Homes for Horses program provides 4-H youth the opportunity to be directly involved in helping neglected horses through education, outreach and adoption.

The problem

Texas has more horses than any other state in the U.S., with an estimated population of more than 750,000. Unfortunately, there is also a growing number of at-risk horses among this large population.

“Horses that have been abandoned, neglected or abused, as well as those whose owners can simply no longer afford to care for them, are all at-risk horses that need our care,” said Lexi Romo, lead graduate advisor for the Texas 4-H Homes for Horses program. Romo works in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Bryan-College Station.

Texas is in a unique position to develop more opportunities and programs to reduce the abuse, neglect and abandonment of these animals, she said.

“Many Texas 4-H youth are keenly aware of the issues and challenges related to these at-risk animals,” Romo said. “They know these horses need a new home and new purpose and want to make a meaningful impact by helping them. We developed the Homes for Horses program as a way for these concerned 4-H’ers to connect with and help these horses.”

About the program

The Texas 4-H Homes for Horses program has received an initial two-year grant from the Texas Thoroughbred Association and will aim to engage donors and sponsors to supplement and sustain its efforts. It also has key organizations with which it collaborates, including the Right Horse Initiative and adoption partners the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Texas and Humane Society of North Texas, HSNT.

The Right Horse Initiative provides insight and resources to match each horse with the right person to help create safe, long-term placements and improve equine welfare. The SPCA of Texas and HSNT identify at-risk horses for the program and provide long-term support for the participating 4-H youth and their horses.

Senior 4-H members, those of high school age, interested in participating in the Homes for Horses program go through an application process and are required to send in a video of them riding or handling horses. Program personnel then assess their level of expertise and match them to the right horse for their skill level.

“There are a variety of horses of all breeds and disciplines that come from our adoption partners,” she said. “We pair the right horse with the right 4-H member, and that youth commits to caring for the animal and improving its well-being for a year.”

Participants are given a stipend to help with the expense of caring for the horse, and at the end of the program they can choose whether to adopt the horse or to present it for an adoption auction at the Texas State 4-H Horse Show.

Currently there are 10 senior 4-H youth paired with riding horses and five paired with in-hand horses for showing, with the first year of the program culminating at the state show in July at the Brazos County Expo.

“We know some of the participants expect to adopt their horses,” Romo said. “But the State 4-H Horse Show is the key venue for finding these animals a permanent home and raising money for the program. At the show, program participants compete and try to inspire those in the audience to bid on and permanently adopt their horse.”

Preparations for equine care

Prior to taking possession of their horse, program participants are given intensive training on what their horses will require while in their care, said Chelsie Huseman, Ph.D., assistant professor and AgriLife Extension horse specialist in the Department of Animal Science. Huseman serves as the Texas 4-H Homes for Horses program leader.

This past fall, participants were given a daylong introduction and overview of their horses and learned about the horses’ needs during the program’s meet-and-greet event at the HSNT headquarters in Joshua.

“This included giving them information and/or hands-on experience related to horse handling, safety and behavior as well as proper nutrition, vaccinations, deworming and dental care,” Huseman said.

She also said the event provides the opportunity for participants and their horses to bond and get used to each other.

“Some of these horses may have behavioral issues or need nutritional changes for optimal health, and we address such issues at the meet-and-greet,” she said.

Huseman noted the program also provides the participants and their families an opportunity to learn about the value of horse ownership through a low-risk and relatively low-cost experience while helping at-risk horses.

“Horse ownership is expensive, but horse owners already know and understand the full value of what owning a horse brings to them and the full value of that relationship,” she said. “These young people care for and maintain the animals, improving their lives and making them more desirable for someone to permanently adopt them.”

Program participant experiences  

David Kendrick, a Shallowater 4-H Club member, was introduced to his adoptive horse, Haven, at the meet-and-greet event in Joshua. He was provided a folder containing all the background information available on her.

Kendrick was paired with Haven because she was a riding horse. After working with her, he realized Haven was most likely being trained as a roping horse.

“I decided I would need to teach her different leads and take the skills she already had and develop her into a more generally useable riding horse,” said Kendrick, 17, an eight-year 4-H member. “I also wanted to help finish her training as a roping horse, as it seemed that training had been started but was incomplete.”

Haven’s age was unknown, but a dental examination suggested she was 7-8 years old. Kendrick said he has provided Haven with a new diet and took care of her medical and dental needs.

“Since there wasn’t a vaccination record on Haven, we made sure she had all her shots and also had her teeth checked.”

Kendrick said he feels strongly that once he completes his fostering time with Haven, he will adopt her.     Madison Chaloupka, 14, a seven-year 4-H member in the Wildcat 4-H Club in Idalou, was paired with Exotica, a 22-year-old Arabian who she is teaching in-hand skills.

“Exotica was in good condition when I got her, and she only had a mild case of thrush, which I took care of,” Chaloupka said. “She didn’t want to be ridden, but I could tell she had some show skills, so I’m helping her develop those.”

Chaloupka said she is teaching Exotica show patterns and is also getting her used to objects that can sometimes frighten horses, such as tarps and being stalled.

“There are some challenges, but Exotica is extremely smart and a fast learner,” she said. “Having her has also helped me in that I’ve learned to be more patient and to know what kind of positive reinforcement works best for her.”

Future of the program

Romo said after only one year, the impact of the Homes for Horses program is already evident.

“In its inaugural year, the program has helped 16 at-risk horses in Texas,” Romo said. “If the program continues in that fashion, 4-H youth will be making a big positive change for the industry.”

“I know there are plenty of senior 4-H’ers who are concerned with the issue of at-risk horses and would like to be involved in helping,” she said. “With adequate funding and support, we hope to continue this program until there are no more horses to help.”

Horses from the program that will be in the adoption auction at the Texas State 4-H Horse Show on July 24 can be viewed on the Texas 4-H Homes for Horses website. Those interested in supporting the program can contact Huseman at chelsie.huseman@tamu.edu or 979-845-5264.

Photo: Texas has the largest population of horses of any state, but many are at risk for a number of reasons. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

By Paul Schattenberg with AgriLife Today.