Nevada Swift never got a chance to race due to dummy foal syndrome when he was born but has found his calling in life as a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder therapy horse (Photos courtesy of Second Chance Ranch).
Katie Merwick was given her first off-the-track Thoroughbred when she was 6 years old, leading to a lifelong love of the breed. After spending years around retired racehorses and seeing a growing need for a way for them to find secondary careers, Merwick started Second Chance Ranch, a 501(c)3 aftercare facility in 1999.
Located in Stanwood, Wash. Second Chance Ranch is the longest-standing rescue in the Washington and Oregon region and is the only non-track sanctioned Thoroughbred-specific aftercare program in the state of Washington. Since 1999, Second Chance has adopted out an average of about 50 horses per year. Merwick has also adopted out hundreds of horses by working with connections on the track and at private farms to rehome horses if she doesn’t have room for the horses at the farm.
“I believe in quality not quantity,” Merwick said. “You could re-home 100,000 [horses] a year and there are still several hundred thousand more. So, it’s really not the number that makes the difference. It’s the quality of work you do, the example and standard you set and the education you provide that will make a change in the industry.”
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When adopting out horses, Second Chance Ranch realizes that the adoption process can take more than just a few days when the goal is making sure horse and rider are a good match. This is why it has potential adopters take the horse home for a trial period, so both the adopter and Second Chance can make sure it is a good match.
“I liken the process to dating. You can’t get married on the first date,” she said. “I want the potential adopter [and myself] to have a week to a month to evaluate the horse in its new environment. There will be new horses, a new trainer, a new rider and different feed. Everything changes and all of those things factor into whether or not this is a good match.”
Second Chance Ranch also stays involved in its horses’ lives after the adoption, taking back any horse that may need a new home for any reason.
“If you no longer want the horse or are not able to care for it, the horse must be returned,” Merwick said. “We do have a policy that if the horse being returned is of significant value due to the adopters investment in training, I reserve the right to market him for fair market value but give the adopter the proceeds. This way, their costs stop, they get the price they would have if they had sold the horse privately and I get to have an adoption contract on him. Most people love the idea of not being stuck with a horse who doesn’t work out, and it weeds out the people really looking for a resale project. We want forever homes.”
The amount of work done with each horse depends on its overall state of development at the time of adoption. Some are adopted straight off the track while others looking for the right match will be worked with while on the farm. The program also only lets people who are experienced retraining racehorses adopt a horse, unless an inexperienced adopter is working with a veteran trainer.
“Because I adopt only to truly qualified people, the process for transitioning takes less time. Some horses are adopted directly from the racetrack, however some are at the farm for a long time waiting for the right person,” she said. “Racehorses are highly trained, despite popular misunderstanding. If they are sound, you can transition them to a less-experienced rider in 30 days. What is really critical for people to understand about bringing a racehorse home is that success is all about environment and handling.”
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Merwick has seen the popularity of Thoroughbreds increase over the last few years but believes that it is because people are coming back to the breed. As the only breed that is seen successfully showing in every discipline, she believes that they are the most versatile breed on the planet.
However, she recommends that anyone looking to purchase a Thoroughbred take a Thoroughbred-experienced trainer along to look at the horse. She also recommends that the trainer be involved in the discipline the potential owner wants to pursue so they can make sure the horse is suitable for the rider’s needs.
“Be sure to board at a barn that appreciates and understands Thoroughbreds – and their previous training - and buy the book ‘Beyond The Track’ by Anna Ford,” she said. “Every Thoroughbred owner should have this book! It is the most comprehensive literature available on how to choose the right horse and how to care for and transition it. If you don’t have much horse experience at all, lease a horse, try different barns, and spend a year finding the best fit before you buy one.”
Among the horses Second Chance Ranch has been involved with are two Longacres Mile winners. No Giveaway won the race in 2005 while The Great Face won the Longacres Mile in 2007. Another horse Second Chance has worked with is Flying Notes, who set a track record at 1 1/8 miles and equaled Secretariat’s best time at 1 1/8 miles.
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For those looking to start an aftercare program, Merwick recommends that the program be treated like a corporation. A major question she thinks everyone should ask is if a corporation would hire you as president of the company. Volunteering for other aftercare organizations is a good way to get started and provides a foundation of knowledge of what is involved in running an aftercare organization.
“You need a solid Board of Directors with both business experience and knowledge of every aspect of the horse industry,” Merwick said. “Choose a brand and clear mission statement. You need a budget, first! Don’t collect a herd of horses and beg for money. Once you have a [board] and budget, go to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance website, and to the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries website and download their applications and checklists. This is how an organization should be set up. It is important to work toward accreditation and to follow the guidelines of these organizations.”
Second Chance Ranch recently moved from its location in Yelm, Wash. to Stanwood, Wash., a relocation that cost the program more money than anticipated. Because of this, it is seeking donations from anyone wanting to help the program.
“Donations are the biggest need for our aftercare program at this time,” Merwick said. “Grants and donations are down. There are many needs such as farrier, veterinary care and feed that can only be supported with funding. The generosity of our supporters is amazing to me. So many lives have been saved and changed simply with a willing heart and the stroke of a pen.”
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Merwick applauds the help the racing industry is giving aftercare programs and says she finds that those who criticize the sport of racing usually do so without knowing the work the industry does. She encourages those who criticize racing to learn more about the industry and to help find racehorses new careers after their racing days are over.
“I invite the critics to join forces with the racing industry, whether you like the sport or not. Be part of the solution not part of the problem. You are not helping horses by destroying the horse’s credibility as an athlete or by not recognizing the valuable culture and environment they come from. These horses love their job,” Merwick said.
“The racing industry is the only equestrian industry that puts forth millions of dollars and dozens of aftercare programs, all sponsored and provided by the racing industry. I cringe when I hear people say that racehorses are used and thrown away at feed lots. The truth is that while every sport has its unfortunate people involved that make the entire sport look bad, I find most of those racehorses at feedlots were dumped there by someone who took it off the track and decided they didn’t want it – not put there by the race trainer or owner.”
If you know of a Thoroughbred Aftercare program that you think should be covered in America’s Best Racing’s Aftercare Program Spotlight, email Melissa Bauer-Herzog (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the program’s name and website.