Posing for a photo with Opie and Happy the night I brought them home
Let me preface this post by saying that I am by no means an expert in rescuing horses. There are a number of fantastic rescues in Manitoba who work tirelessly to rescue horses, and I have included links to their pages at the bottom of this post. I encourage anyone with the ability to do so to donate and support these rescues.
When I started this blog, I asked my friends on Facebook for suggestions of topics they would like to see covered. One of the first suggestions I received was to write a post about my rescue horses, so I'll take this opportunity to tell the story of how I came to acquire my first rescue horses. I will dedicate a later post to each of my subsequent auction acquisitions, at risk of otherwise turning this post into a 50-page novella.
My first foray into the world of horse rescue was around 2001 when a rescue in Southern Ontario called Heaven Can Wait hosted a yard sale to raise funds for their horses. Their website was typically my first stop during my allotted after school computer time, and their adoptable horses were often featured in letters I wrote to my parents detailing why they should buy me a horse.
When I heard they were having a yard sale fundraiser, I collected a bunch of objects from my bedroom and emailed the director of the rescue asking if I could participate. I can distinctly recall my mom asking me the morning of the sale if I was sure I didn’t want to keep my alarm clock, and the fulfilling feeling that came from helping animals in need.
When I eventually got my own horse a few years later, I vastly overpaid for a pony who had recently been acquired at The Ontario Livestock Exchange, an auction in St. Jacobs, Ontario attended primarily by local Mennonites and “meat buyers" contracted by slaughterhouses. I was told my pony had been bred by a trail riding operation and dropped at OLEX because he lacked the quiet disposition needed for that job. He was equal parts flashy and flighty, and piecing together what little I knew about his history propelled my love for the underdog and propensity for sourcing hunter/jumper mounts from unlikely places.
In October 2017, early in my tenure as a “Kenora Horse Person”, I saw a post on social media about a herd of Lac La Croix Ojibwe Ponies who were to be auctioned off at a livestock sale in Grunthal, Manitoba, ostensibly on behalf of their owner as part of a convoluted divorce settlement. I had become friends with the owner of the farm where I was teaching lessons, and convinced her to accompany me to the auction to try to divert a few of the Ojibwe ponies from a potentially tragic fate. We set off at dawn towing a borrowed two-horse trailer with one working tail light, and arrived in Grunthal early in the morning.
When we arrived at the auction, we registered for a number to bid, then toured the holding pens in the adjacent building where horses are held prior to going through the sale ring. A large crowd of people was gathered around the pens holding Lac La Croix ponies, with various people pointing and indicating which ponies they planned to buy. In a pen behind them, a tall chestnut gelding with a blaze, four white stockings and proud flesh on his hock immediately caught my eye.
In a building full of ponies and scruffy stock horses, he was enormous and stood out as having seemingly been well cared for until fairly recently. I nicknamed him “Big Red” and stepped into the enclosure to get a closer look at his injury. In a nearby pen, an old Appaloosa gelding had resigned himself to chewing on the straw bedding.
A handwritten note was taped to the pen:
“Trigger” Experienced Older Appaloosa Gelding. Well broke to ride, very responsive to aids. Needs a refresher.
In the overflow pens outside, a small black pony with a mohawk squealed and bossed around a group of ponies. “I like her,” I told my friend as we made our way back inside the building. “She’s sassy!”
"Trigger" at the auction.
The Lac La Croix ponies were getting a lot of attention and I made a plan that I would only bid against the meat buyer, to avoid driving up their prices by bidding against other private homes. At the auction mart, meat buyers have front row seating on swiveling desk chairs, while the rest of the crowd is packed tightly onto wooden bleachers behind them. We found seats on the bleachers as the sale was set to begin. The auction ran the Ojibwe ponies through the sale first, and fortunately the meat buyers had the good sense not to participate in the bidding while the rare breed ponies were sold off individually to private homes.
When all the Lac La Croix ponies were sold, the meat buyers remained seated, but the rest of the crowd thinned as the other horses started coming through, the bleachers nearly empty. Having driven more than two hours there with space for two horses in the trailer, we elected to stay.
Big Red was the first horse through the sale ring, and I deliberated briefly over whether to bid.
“Will he even fit in the trailer?” I asked my friend, trying to gauge the relative size of the diminutive borrowed trailer parked outside and the statuesque horse in the sale ring. In the instant before I decided to raise my number, the bidding was over, and Big Red had been sold to the meat buyer for the going rate per pound.
I was determined not to repeat my mistake when “Trigger” came through, and bid against the meat buyer until the price exceeded what he was willing to pay. I let out a sigh of relief knowing the old Appaloosa was coming home with us. We stayed for the entire sale, watching as one horse after another was sold to the meat buyer for impossibly low prices. Finally at the end of the day, the black pony from the pen outside came through the ring. I bid $75 and when the auctioneer said “sold!” my friend and I exchanged sheepish grins, knowing we were headed home with two new horses, having saved them from a far worse fate.
Bonding with the sassy black pony "Opie", November 2017
When horses are sold at the auction, they are herded back into numbered pens where they await their ride home at the end of the night. The lucky ones will wait for someone to back their horse trailer up to the chute and bring them home to fresh hay and water. The unlucky ones get corralled together in the larger pens designated for the meat buyer. When everyone else has left, they are loaded onto a transport trailer that takes them to a feedlot or straight to the processing plant in Alberta.
When it was our turn to back up to the loading chute, “Trigger” was in the pen but the pony was nowhere to be found. An employee from the auction apologized for the mixup and shrugged his shoulders, suggesting I go to the office for a refund. I asked if I could have a look around instead and paced down the aisles frantically, looking in every pen for a sign of the sassy black pony.
I was about to give up my search when I heard the commotion of agitated horses tussling in the overcrowded transport pen. That’s when I saw him: Big Red with his ears pricked, towering above the rest of the horses destined for slaughter. Right next to him, looking particularly stout, I saw the pony I’d been trying to find. I squeezed between the panels with a halter and lead rope in hand and carved a path through the crowd of restless horses to collect her. Big Red was strangely serene amidst all the ruckus, and I patted his blaze gently before haltering the pony. “I’m sorry,” I told him, and made my way out of the pen holding back tears.
The gelding I nicknamed "Big Red"
On the drive home, I couldn’t shake Big Red from my mind. What circumstances transpired that he went from the career he had previously to the kill pen?
Every horse is at the sale for a reason, which is not to say that I think there are valid reasons for dropping a horse at the auction. Maybe a breeder bred too many foals and can’t take the financial risk of feeding the ones they had expected to sell over the winter. A beloved family horse is too old to ride and instead of humanely euthanizing it, they drop it at the auction hoping someone will take on the burden of caring for it in its senior years. Horses may be dropped off at the sale because they are injured beyond repair, incorrigible broncs, “too spooky for summer camp”, or any number of other reasons.
In my personal opinion, the greatest disservice you can do to a horse at an auction is to leave them there with no information for buyers. No one has an unlimited budget for rescuing horses, and some baseline information can go a long way in increasing the likelihood of a horse going to a private home.
Even when we do have some information about the horse, a good deal of time is spent after the auction filling in the blanks: I have brought horses home to discover they have a variety of underlying ailments, untreated injuries, and trauma responses from prior mishandling. Knowing as little as their age, breed, or previous level of training gives us some context to work through these issues -- without it, we have to base everything on pure conjecture.
I can hazard a guess why people drop off horses without information:
To avoid judgment for the morally debatable act of dropping a horse off at a meat auction, so they don’t harm their reputation as a well-known lesson barn that takes good care of their horses, so that in an act of naive optimism someone falls in love with their “problem” horse and takes a chance they might not if they knew the full extent of its issues.
"Happy" FKA Trigger a few days after I brought him home
I have a theory of horse ownership we’ll call the “critical number theory”, the premise being that every person has a specific number of horses they can comfortably care for at any given time. This number varies widely due to factors that include available time, finances, and other resources such as paddock space and hay. For most people this number might be 0 or 1, while others can support dozens of horses at a time.
When you surpass whatever this number is for you, the accompanying stress begins to outweigh the benefits of horse ownership. We can reasonably assume that a discrepancy between number of horses owned and “critical number” leads to many horses being at the auction in the first place, and so I developed my auction ground rules early on: to only bid on horses I could comfortably handle on my own, not to bid against private buyers on “popular” horses likely to go to a good home, and not to buy so many that I surpass my own critical number.
While I have often attended auctions harboring the delusion that I will rehab and resell the horses I buy, my record on selling horses is actually pretty abysmal: I have rehomed precisely two. The first, Tommy, was a miniature horse I made the judgment error of buying from an auction I swore I wasn’t going to attend.
In the spring of 2018 I was busy driving back and forth multiple times a day between the new farm we were building and the barn where my horses were staying until our property was ready for them. With time in short supply, I did not attend the auction that June, but received a text from a friend at the sale with a photo of a palomino pony tacked up with a braided mane.
I was blinded by his cuteness -- he had platinum locks and was outfitted in a tiny blue saddle pad -- and in a moment of weakness, asked her to bid on him for me. $100 later, “Tommy” was mine. Looking back, if the braided mane was designed to give the impression that he was well-handled, it was an entirely misleading one.
When we went to pick him up from the auction yard the next day, he was significantly smaller than expected and it took three people over an hour to catch him. This set the tone for the rest of my relationship with Tommy, and if there was one thing I learned from him, it was creative methods of catching a feral pony.
The picture of Tommy at the auction. Who could resist that platinum mane?
(Spoiler alert: not me)
Tommy was fairly docile once you caught him (which sometimes took hours) but in a herd he made it known to everyone that he fancied himself a wild stallion and considered the rest of the ponies his harem. This caused general chaos and a daily event we referred to “The Pony Stampede” that was stressful for all parties, especially the older ponies he bullied relentlessly.
Recognizing that our farm was not a congenial living situation for Tommy, I made the decision to find a home for him where he would get more individual attention and have fewer ponies to boss around. A short while later, he went to live with a family a few hours away with the stipulation that if it didn’t work out, he was always welcome to come back to our farm.
The second horse I successfully rehomed was purchased by us at the auction on a Saturday and sold back to her previous owner by Sunday morning. For the story on how I came to own a horse for just one day, click here.
While I like to say that I’ve sold two horses, my husband often points out that he doesn’t think that one counts. However you look at it, the obvious conclusion is that most of my horses are “lifers.” If you take a walk around the paddocks at our farm visiting our horses, the origin story of more than half of them begins at the Grunthal Livestock Auction Mart. Four I bid on directly at the sale, one I adopted after the fact from The Good Place, and one made his entry into the world 8 months after I purchased the fluffy black pony, without having known she was in foal.
Surprise! Peony was born in June, 8 months after we rescued Opie from the auction
Whenever an auction is held, I want to hook up the trailer and go, driven by the same motivational force every time: the desire I had as a 12 year old to help horses in need, the challenge and fulfillment of seeing an overlooked horse blossom to their full potential, and the heartbreak of letting horses like Big Red go to the meat buyer. There are rescues in Manitoba that save more horses than any individual could, and when I am toeing the line of my “critical number”, I try to support their efforts at the auction by donating directly to the rescue. I have included links to their pages here so you can have a look and support them in any way possible: by “liking” their page and sharing their posts, by supporting their fundraisers, or simply by raising awareness of the number of horses whose lives are at risk every time there’s an auction. Rescue links:
Heaven Can Wait Equine Rescue (host of the yard sale, still rescuing horses after 22 years)