Retraining Thoroughbreds is hard work. Rescuing horses out of high-risk situations is hard work. And doing this work in an impoverished area makes it all the more difficult.
Heart of Phoenix does just that and more. The West Virginia-based organization assists with neglect and abandonment cases in Appalachia, in addition to bringing horses in off the track from Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
Founder Tinia Creamer says a leading cause of her organization needing to help horses from these situations is because of a problem originating with a human’s lack of horse-care knowledge. Her nonprofit, which is accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, works to alleviate those gaps in education.
Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance communications manager Erin Shea talked to Creamer about her West Virginia-based program, the issues she faces in Appalachia, and her experience with off-track Thoroughbreds.
Can you explain the work that Heart of Phoenix does, not only in rescue but also education?
What I saw early on is that knowledge and information about horses was the leading cause of the problems that we encounter in our region and I would say [the problems encountered] nationally.
[Education] has always been a focus, but, as a very small group in the beginning, what we could do was pretty limited. As we’ve grown, we’ve tried to maintain a focus on education. We try to focus on education for the community, as a whole as a foundation for everything. Even if you’re a very capable horse person, we still want to find some way to reach you and be relevant to you through education.
On the social-media side, we try to hit every facet of horse care. We do a lot of articles on our blog, and some of those circulate to millions of people. We talk about basic horse care, we talk about things that you can do if you’re running into a neglect situation and how to approach those situations in your state. We talk about training issues. We want to be relevant to everyone who is interested in horses.
On the other side of it, we try to make sure that we’re having clinicians come in and offer clinics. We try to make ourselves available at all of our locations that are open locations. We try to network with people and connect them with the expert who is going to help them.
We just try to build everything that we do around being relevant to the horse community and have a way to have someone find the answer so they become a better horse person. In the short and long run, it turns into better care for horses.
Why is education an important component for your work? And for the region?
We have to be honest as to where we work. Where Heart of Phoenix works is an economically depressed area, so education, historically in any topic, is going to lag behind in an economically depressed area. That [situation] put it at the forefront for me right off the bat.
But no matter where you look, nationally a large part of the reason rescues deal with horses coming through [the pipeline] has to do always with an educational component. Someone did not know the cost of care. Someone did not empower themselves to handle the horse properly and the horse became too hard for them to handle. Someone took a very nice horse and they mishandled it inadvertently because they didn’t know what they were doing and created behavioral problems in the horse, so then the horse ends up sold or given away or ends up at a rescue. We continually saw that come up. It was always an educational component.
What kind of educational programs do you do with your adopters?
We first want to make sure, if we don’t think you’re already a good skill-level match for the horse, that you will be working with a trainer. We guide you in that direction. If we feel, through the process of the application and meeting the horse, that this horse is above your skill level and you are not going to be working with a trainer, we’re going to tell you that you need a different horse.
We do clinics and we’ve worked a lot with Patrick King Horsemanship, so we’ll get offers and we pass it onto adopters. At any time, if you reach out to us and say that you have an issue, we’re going to find someone to help you.
We try to let people know that, when they adopt, and we hopefully try to portray this to horse people in general, if there is a problem with the horse, it’s not the horse’s problem. What do we need to do is to get you the information that you need to be a better horse person so that you know how to ask the horse properly?
We really have good success, and most adopters are newer to horses, and they have been appreciative of the safety net for the horse if the horse doesn’t work out. They have someone in their corner who wants it to work for the horse’s benefit and their benefit.
Where do your organization’s Thoroughbreds come from? What is it like adopting them out in your area?
Prior to deciding to become TAA-accredited, we would get Thoroughbreds through neglect and cruelty cases. And it was not common. We might get one a year.
I knew that we had tracks that had a need [for aftercare services] and I really thought we needed to meet some of that need. I hated to see tracks sending horses out of the state. So that was in the inspiration in becoming TAA-accredited because we knew we were at the size where we can do something that we can help.
We reached out to Charles Town. We had an in there through a woman who had been an animal control officer and had worked on cases with us. So that was the start of the process last year. Around the end of November, we started accepting a few horses through Charles Town. We have talked to Mountaineer, but we haven’t started getting horses from there.
The Thoroughbreds that we have right now, about half came through Charles Town, the other half had been owner-surrender or they had been neglect or cruelty cases.
Our focus as an organization has always been and remains animal-control and seizure cases, so it’s about half and half, and it would probably stay that way.
Certain horses that we really thought had a lot of potential — they weren’t really coming off the track with an injury, that their [on-track] career has just now ended and are ready to go straight into something else — we’ve been able to network a few horses like that without accepting them [into our program] to make the impact a little bigger.
Do you think there’s a need for more education for people who want to adopt OTTBs?
We have found that adopting Thoroughbreds from where we are is not easy, but the need is still there. I think on our end, it’s continuing education of exposing the abilities of Thoroughbreds beyond eventing.
Every horse that we get can’t do that. Most of the horses we get, that we are accepting, cannot. So letting people know and see all of the directions they can go and their versatility. If we want to harness a more local adoption population, we really have to — and I would say the industry in general has to — show that there are things beyond eventing and dressage.
Most [of our] adopters are trail riders. We do a huge trail riding fundraiser called Ride for Rescue. We take horses out and let the public see Thoroughbreds doing jobs that they don’t think of. So I think it’s really just expanding the view of potential adopters of the versatility of the Thoroughbred and not boxing them into one or two jobs.
What initiatives are you currently working on?
Right now we are trying to increase our capacity and trying to go [to becoming] an open-type shelter. We struggle with having to turn horses away. We don’t want to have to do that.
We are working to do more clinics on site and have more of an open-door policy. So, if somebody wants to come in with a question, they don’t feel like they’re just reaching out to social media, and the facility itself becomes more a part of the local horse industry. That we can have a facility where people can just come in with questions and have more hand-to-hand and horse-to-horse contact with people. It’s not so much new ideas but expanding the ideas that we have, because I think a lot of what we do needs to be done on a bigger scale.
One thing we try to tell people, and it does come up, we like to let people know that within the horse community and within the industry we really appreciate how much the Thoroughbred industry tries to stand behind their horses. I wish we could see that across the board.
To us, we think it’s pretty phenomenal, and the luckiest horse we can pick up is a Thoroughbred or a Standardbred because there is some care from their registry and their industry. It’s been a thing that we talk about frequently. I’ve always thought how fortunate the Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds have been.