Donate Your Horse

If your horse can no longer perform at your competitive level but he's still got a lot to give, the right donation program could be a great destination for him--and a wise choice for you. By Kip Goldreyer for Practical Horseman magazine.

By Kip Goldreyer

Your wonderful competition horse just isn't what he used to be. Whether he's showing his age or a little unsoundness has cropped up, maybe he's stopping at 3-foot jumps he used to sail over. Maybe, just when you thought you were ready for Second Level, his hocks are getting too iffy for collected work. Or maybe he's just jumped around one cross-country course too many.

You've helped him along with a well-planned show schedule, regular shoeing, chiropractic, joint supplements and the judicious use of such nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) as bute. But in most cases there comes a day when even you have to admit that those efforts aren't enough.

You wish your pockets were deep enough to let you keep him as a pet, but realistically they probably aren't. As for selling him--you worry that you won't get what he's worth, and you may also worry about losing a say in what happens during his "golden years." A not-so-caring owner might risk injury and burnout by trying to push him beyond his limits. And you have nightmares that he'll get passed from hand to hand and possibly wind up abused, neglected, in pain or sold at auction.

Maybe There's Another Option
You may have another alternative that benefits both you and your horse: donating him to a nonprofit riding program, such as a therapeutic-riding center for individuals with disabilities, Pony Club or a school or college with an equestrian curriculum.

If your guy is like most older or serviceably sound horses that go to such programs, he'll enjoy:

  • the lighter, toned-down, lower-demand work. In fact, the consistency of a well-run riding program may well keep him going and happily useful far longer than almost any other career choice.

  • the affection and energy transfer he gets from daily touching and handling as people from little kids to doting adults groom, fuss over and love him.

  • the healthy interaction with other horses. (Most programs turn their "schoolies" out in social herds at least part of the time.)

And you'll have:

  • the satisfaction of knowing he's become a school master who's comfortably extending his life by teaching a new generation of students.

  • the reassurance that you won't lose track of him and he won't spend his last days in pain and suffering (something we'll say more about later).

  • possible eligibility for a tax credit that may actually make more financial sense than selling him for a pittance. (Many "for-profit" riding programs welcome donated horses, too, although they won't qualify you for a tax deduction. For more about tax considerations, see "Get Your Donation's Worth" below.)

Sound good so far? If so, ask yourself some important questions.

Am I Ready to Let Go?
You are if you can shrug your shoulders and say "Oh, well" at the prospect of some well-meaning student's combing half the hair out of your horse's beautiful tail. You are if you can accept that even a normally good-minded and easygoing horse who's been privately owned may act a bit resistant and uncooperative in the new activity and lifestyle that his career change involves.

You are if you understand the inevitability of at least a few bumps and bite marks after your horse's first week in pasture, and the possibility that he may temporarily lose a bit of weight--not because he's being worked too hard or fed too little, but because he's too busy socializing or just trying to find his place in the pecking order. And you're really ready if you can be a "hands-off" donor who neither hovers, meddles, nor nitpicks, but can stand back, watch and be proud and happy to see him being useful and well cared-for.

Photo courtesy of Centenary College
MaryAnne Hayter of Centenary College assists client Morgan, on Chisholm, as she learns to hold her half-seat to strengthen her hamstring and quadriceps muscles weakened due to cerebral palsy. | Photo courtesy of Centenary College
You probably aren't ready to let go, by the way, if you insist on dictating restrictions that in no way improve his health or well-being (like NO COMBING HIS TAIL), or making demands that a program with many horses and students may not be able to enforce (like insisting that he wear a particular halter).

Is My Horse Suitable?
Not every horse is suited to life in the therapeutic or educational world, of course. Attitude and manners are critical: Such a horse must be gentle on the ground--no biting, charging or kicking. He must be tractable under saddle--no rearing, bucking or bolting. If he jumps, he shouldn't stop at doable heights. He must be reasonably easy to shoe and medicate. He needs to accept new experiences calmly. He needs to be able to tolerate group lessons, neither getting fired up by the activity nor becoming defensive about his "space".

He's ahead of the game if he already fits into herd life peaceably and sociably. And he stands a far better chance of working out if he comes without special needs (such as diet restricted to alfalfa pellets), activity limitations (such as "no jumping" or "no children"), or vices (such as cribbing--cribbing collars tend to get lost in the shuffle, they are not considered safe in pasture, and a cribber without a collar controlling him may destroy valuable fencing and other property).

Serviceable soundness is essential. Nonprofit therapeutic and educational programs typically don't have the time or money to nurse sick or lame horses, and a head-bobbing schoolie is absolutely unacceptable. Still, though most programs are understandably cautious about taking on major or advanced cases of navicular, ringbone or arthritis, many are realistically savvy, willing and able to manage minor wear and age-related unsoundnesses that don't limit usefulness or cause discomfort. And once a horse has proven he's worth his weight in gold, most programs are more than happy to tend to special needs--regular thyroid medication, for example--that they might have refused to assume in the first place.

Therapeutic riding programs have additional requirements. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) suggests that, for ease of handling, mounting and side-walking, a donated horse stand between 14 and 15 hands high. He should be no younger than five; although some horses have been accepted at 20 or older, prospects for stability, soundness and longevity are best if he's between eight and 16. Because his movement gives direct input to a disabled rider's body, he needs to move directly forward easily and freely. He must be reasonably indifferent to have strange objects, such as wheelchairs and beach balls, nearby or touching him. And it is a bonus if he responds readily to voice commands.

However, the above is a "wish list" to which there can be as many acceptable exceptions as there are horses; for example, some therapeutic riding programs need horses 16 hands or higher to carry tall or heavy riders. And some horses adapt more readily than their owners ever would have dreamed.

Just be prepared to disclose forthrightly your horse's behavioral, training and health background, including vet records and X-rays if appropriate. The program director may ask to have her veterinarian check out any "red flags." And the director or somebody knowledgeable in her barn will probably want to try him under saddle to get a feel for his ability, responsiveness, training and habits--from tolerable ones (say, cutting corners or hanging on the left rein) to unacceptable ones such as bucking or rearing.

Have I Checked Out the Facility?
Sad to say, not all therapeutic or educational programs offer heaven on earth for horses. Visit the facility you're considering, preferably several times. Are the horses fat and happy? Do the managers stay on top of herd and feed management, daily wound care, medication and shoeing? Is the facility neat, or is it a mess? Are the personnel welcoming and cordial of brusque and surly? Is tack clean and in good repair? Are tack rooms orderly, with designated tack and grooming equipment for each horse? Is fencing safe and secure? Does the facility work with a veterinarian who knows each horse and his specific health issues and needs?

Has management reduced fighting, kicking and biting by dividing the horses into three herds: geldings; mares; and "special needs" horses (such as hard keepers or foundered ponies)? Is the grooming and tacking-up area shaded? (In terms of wear, experts estimate that a horse "works" an hour for every hour he stands in the sun waiting to be ridden.) Are the horses used for no more than three hours a day?

Is the level of performance required compatible with your horse's health and abilities? If the program's focus is therapeutic riding, do horses get occasional "breathers": rides out on the trail, or even in the ring, with an instructor or volunteer in the saddle?

Check out clients, too. Are they happy, organized and demonstrating good principles of horsemanship and riding?

Have I Got it in Writing?
When you're satisfied with the program and facility, sit down and negotiate a trial-period agreement. Whether a lawyer, you or the program director drafts the document, or you use a preexisting form, make sure the agreement specifies the following:

  • Length of trial period. Fifteen to 30 days is usually more than enough to determine that a program suits your horse and that he's temperamentally suitable and sound.

  • A statement that, if your horse proves suitable, he will be accepted into the program at the end of the trial period.

  • Acknowledgement that it's OK for you to have a change of heart, call off the trial and take your horse home--and a provision stating who, in that case, is responsible for board and other expenses incurred.

  • Basic care and living arrangements (usually the same as those for other horses in the program, including pulling your horse's back shoes for safety if he's to be turned out with the herd).

  • Medications (such as bute for sore hocks) and/or supplements (such as nutraceuticals for joints), and a provision stating who will pay for them.

  • Who will ride your horse--children, beginners, instructors, disabled students?--and what kind of activities he'll be doing. If he's to jump, for example, will he be doing crossrails or bigger stuff? If he's to carry handicapped riders, will he be pretested for unflappability by getting bumped with wheelchairs?

  • Identification of who will make decisions about--and be financially responsible for--minor to major veterinary procedures and treatments.

  • The fact that accidents happen. You should indemnify and hold harmless the program in the event that your horse's injury or death during the trial period. The program should hold harmless and indemnify you for accidents or injuries that might result from his use.

  • An "exit strategy." A school or therapeutic-riding career may well extend your horse's useful life remarkably. But it won't keep him young, or middle-aged, or serviceably sound forever. Assuming he'll be accepted, get it in writing now that you will be notified (if, in fact, you wish to be) when he's no longer usable; specify what end you feel morally, humanely and ethically comfortable with and who you want to carry out that end when the time comes. (Options you'll probably feel most comfortable with include euthanasia, retirement at home or a commercial retirement facility.)

Squeamish about discussing this stuff? If all goes well, your horse is going to be a great schoolmaster. He'll serve a generation of students well. So take steps now to ensure that he's treated fairly and doesn't spend his last days abandoned, in pain or suffering.

Get Your Donation's Worth

Note: The following is a summary and is not to be considered complete information, tax advice or legal opinion. As with all such matters, consult a well-informed legal and/or tax advisor.

To take a deduction for a charitable contribution of your horse, you'll need too:
  • Make sure the organization is a nonprofit charity qualifed under the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Code 501(c)(3)--exempt from taxation because is income derives from its education, religious, charitable or humanitarian purpose. If you're unsure about a nonprofit's program status, ask to see its "statement of purpose" and "IRS exemption certificate." You can also contact the IRS for a listing of qualified 501(c)(3)s.

  • Establish your horse's reasonable worth or fair market value (FMV) at the time of the gift. If you believe he's worth more than $5000, you must have an appraisal done by a "qualified equine appraiser," including a description of your horse, the date of the gift, the date of the appraisal, terms of any agreement about the use of the horse, the appraiser's identity and qualifications, the method used to determine the horse's value and a statement that the appraisal was prepared for income-tax purposes. Even if you don't think he's worth that much, there are advantages to having in your records a letter of valuation from a knowledgeable horse professional, such as a trainer.

  • Do the paperwork at the time of the gift. (The IRS loves contemporaneous records--and if appropriate forms do not accompany the tax return upon which your charitable contribution deduction is taken, your deduction may be disallowed.) Here's what you need:

    1. For a horse valued at less than $250, a receipt from the charity showing its name and address, the date and place of the contribution, a description of the horse, his FMV and how it was determined and the terms of the agreement or understanding relating to his use and disposition.

    2. For a horse valued at more than $250 but less than $500, all of the above, plus a statement declaring whether or not you have received anything of value from the charity in exchange for the gift.

    3. For a horse valued at more than $500, all of the above plus Section A of the IRS Form 8283, detailing how and when you acquired him and his purchase price at the time.

    4. For a horse valued at more than $5000, all of the above plus Section B of IRS Form 8283 and a "qualified appraisal" made no earlier than 60 days prior to the gift and no later than the due date of the tax return.

    Who Takes Donated Horses

    Here's a starter list of organizations. Also be sure to check out local nonprofits in your area (and well-run "for-profits" if you don't need a tax deduction).

    North American Handicapped Riding Association (NARHA) Member Centers. Find centers in your area, including contact names, addresses and phone numbers, at

    United States Pony Clubs (USPC). The national organization has no "umbrella" policy regarding donations; local clubs decide on a case-by-case basis. To find the Pony Club in your area, visit or phone USPC at 859-254-7669.

    4-H. Although 4-H is part of the Cooperative Extension System and not a 501(c)(3) itself, each state has a 4-H Foundation that enjoys either 501(c)(3) status or affiliation with a university. Again, the national organization has no "umbrella" policy, so donations are handled locally, case-by-case, depending on need and facilities. Find the 4-H program in your area by checking under the Cooperative Extension listings in the "County Offices" section of your local phone book.

    Schools, colleges and universities with riding programs. Find one near you by conducting an online search, checking out the book Horse Schools or by visiting the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association's website at to find IHSA member schools.

    This article originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

    For more on donation, and other retirement options for your horse, read "Plan For His Golden Years" in the February 2007 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.
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