Horse & Halo: Caring for Horses at the End of Their Owners’ Lives

Written by Mandie Stuhan

Peer reviewed

I am a Karen Pryor Academy-Certified Training Partner in Boise, Idaho, and the owner/operator at Horse & Halo. Horse & Halo is a facility that boards horses on behalf of individuals who currently suffer or have died from cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. These are horse folks of different skill sets, disciples, and socioeconomic categories. What they all have in common is an adoration of their horses. Some of them have a hard time letting go until they know their horses will be adequately cared for.

There are currently ten horses at Olive Ranch, home of Horse & Halo, who have no “person”—no one to visit them, groom them, check on them in the cold winter months, constantly tweak their diet, take them for walks, or provide companionship. Some owners prepare for horse care for the end of their lives, while others do not.

Walking through these life-changing events with both the horses and their owners has given us intimate insight into how to support individuals who have life-limiting injuries or are at the end of life, and who desperately want to know their horses will be cared for in their absence. We also offer resources to family members struggling to keep their loved one’s horse, but perhaps lack the knowledge, desire, or facilities to care for the horse themselves. Horse & Halo was not originally formed for this niche of clients, but through a series of events, it has become who we are. The unexpected transformation has not only changed what our caregiving role looks like; it has changed our lives and the lives of the horses we care for.

 

Basic beginnings

Three years ago, I had the idea to provide horse boarding to support my horse habit. I have been in the pet care industry over 15 years, and it seemed like a perfect plan. I had no idea how a series of new clients would evolve a habit into a passion, and into the birth of Horse & Halo.

Our first client was a veterinary behavior referral; the horse had minimal handling and human interaction, and exhibited aggressive behaviors such as striking at handlers in his stall, biting, and kicking out. The veterinarian was familiar with my training approach and felt this horse was a good fit for Olive Ranch. During an interview with his caregiver, I was quick to realize what a unique situation this was. The woman was quite committed to seeing that her best friend’s horses were properly cared for. One of the horses was purchased as a yearling the same year the owner became ill. The owner could not work with her young horse—the horse we had in training. It all made sense. We still provide ongoing care for these two lovely equines. Her kindness and commitment to her best friend were heartfelt. I wore oversized sunglasses during our initial two meetings because I was overwhelmed with emotion. Horse & Halo is proud to support a friend who is dedicated to follow through on her commitment to her best friend.

Just a few months later, I had the pleasure of meeting another woman whose horses had always been a part of her family. She too was terminally ill and no longer able to provide day-to-day care. Her hallway was filled with photos from childhood forward of each horse she had ever owned and all of the different events she took part in with them.

Horse & Halo agreed to provide care to help the family through the winter. Having offered to transport her horses to our facility, upon arrival I noticed tears in her eyes as we loaded the large animals. As I departed with the horses in the trailer, I was faced with a tough realization—that this was the last time her horses would be at her home, and that in time she would pass away. For the next two years, she and her loving family bestowed her three horses’ care to Horse & Halo. Having visited her over a couple of months, the last visit, three days before her death, was the most impactful for me. During our visit, she went over each horse’s riding tack and riding preferences, shared her favorite memories of each horse, and much more. I promised her I would care for each of her horses like they were my own.

These two experiences created relationships that identified the purpose and passion behind Horse & Halo. Today, we serve seven horse owners, caring for 13 horses. There are several insights I have gained that can be helpful for horse owners preparing for life-altering events. I intend to share these tools here in hopes that my experiences may help you, a loved one, or perhaps your clients.

 

Statistics

Twenty-seven percent of unwanted horses in the U.S. are from individuals who could no longer provide care due to an illness or death. When culminating this research, I realized my passion for rescue. Horse & Halo is the manifestation of my calling to offer horse owners and their loved ones lifesaving options for the precious equines bestowed upon them, thereby reducing the number of unwanted horses that find themselves in life-threatening situations such as auction or slaughter.

 

Formalities

Identifying resources

Identifying resources is an invaluable tool for horse owners struggling with a care plan for their horses in their absence. This can range from locating caregivers knowledgeable and capable of representing their desires for their animal to connecting them with someone who will act as an advocate for their animal. It is essential to speak to individuals about their comfort level and assess their knowledge and skillset to provide long-term care, make educated decisions for farrier work, veterinary care, leasing to an outside party, overseeing interaction with the horses, and full disclosure of the cost to care for the horse.

Creating a care plan

Creating a care plan helps us collect as much information as we can about how an owner cared for their horses. For instance, Horse & Halo cares for a gelding who displays extreme reactivity when he sees a UPS truck—probably not the best time to ride. One may be surprised where UPS trucks show up. As a caregiver, it was helpful to have this information in order to set the horse up for success, especially while being ridden by novice riders.

Fred and Georgia’s story

The hay supplier for Horse & Halo asked us to consider visiting these two horses whose owners had recently passed away. Upon arrival, our team thought we must be at the wrong location, considering that the horses appeared to be the height of a standard pony from a distance. As we approached the horses’ enclosures, we quickly realized these horses were in crisis. They had worn a path along the fence line deep enough to mistake their 18-plus hh for the average pony. Both horses exhibited a body score of less than 3, had open sores, and a handful of other ailments. Their owner had fallen ill and enlisted a close friend to care for her horses over the past year. Fred is a very large Clydesdale, and Georgia is the most beautiful Shire I’ve ever seen.

Although our team wanted to remove these horses immediately, we planned with the friend for our return the following morning to create a care agreement that he was comfortable with to include visitation options, an opt-out option, and a purchase agreement for $10. Others might consider a different approach in this situation. And though it was challenging, our team opted to dig deep and not judge the horse owner’s friend but choose to remain neutral for the benefit of the horses. If a person feels judged by me or any of the staff at Horse & Halo, we will no longer be perceived as a resource. Upon returning the following morning, we loaded the horses as fast as we could, said our goodbyes, and invited the friend to visit any time. Here is a short video of Georgia unloading from the Horse & Halo trailer.

Following their arrival, Fred and Georgia saw a veterinarian, and a health care plan was established. Although we did not meet the owner’s extended family, in the days that followed, we did receive a text message that said, “My sister loved her horses. Thank you for caring for them.”

The one struggle Fred had was the farrier. The farriers willing to work on drafts in our area are few and far between; this, coupled with his size and muscle atrophy (he had a hard time holding himself up), made it extremely challenging to find a farrier with the appropriate skillset to work under a large Clydesdale. In the beginning, I resigned myself to the fact that in an effort to keep everyone safe and keep moving forward with his health, he would need to be sedated. Although behind the scenes, I was clicker training Fred to lift his feet. Over time, we used clicker training to work on lifting his foot for hoof work. And the last time the farrier was here, Fred was willing to and capable of having his feet trimmed without sedation.

Fred has shown remarkable improvement, but Georgia struggled. Due to the lack of proper preventive care, nutrition, and hoof and dental care, she was highly vulnerable. Although we were fighting for Georgia and so badly wanted her to be happy and comfortable, her success story did not end the way we had hoped for her. During a bout of midnight colic, Georgia lacked the muscle strength she needed, and she became agitated and stressed. We chose to give her relief and peace from her discomfort. After all, it isn’t about writing a perfect success story; it’s about providing for a horse’s happiness, comfort, and quality of life.

Fred continued to gain weight and build muscle. His feet started to take a healthy shape. It was clear that he felt good. We began to see the “real Fred,” although he was lonely without Georgia. We introduced Fred to an orphaned rescued yearling, Ketchum, a very small-gaited gelding. The result? Fred and Ketchum have become the best of friends. They are complete opposites in size but adore each other’s company. Here’s a video of their extraordinary friendship.  They have a morning ritual of play. They wait for one another at the gate, then they eat together and nap together. Fred and Ketchum have created an incredible bond.

Although Fred and Georgia’s story ended under different circumstances, the overall story reveals the vast differences in the backgrounds of the horses we receive and care for and what Horse & Halo does to create a happy, healthy environment. What do they have in common? Owners who loved them but were affected by a terminal illness.

Understanding state statutes

Once a resource of responsibility has been identified, it is essential to research how to structure written documentation that accurately represents the owner’s wish for the animal. In the United States, animals are legally labeled “property.” Each state has different guidelines regarding how “property” is handled in the event of a death or life-limiting illness. Research your state’s laws in assigning “property,” especially when coupled with financial resources. Typically, with an assignment that involves money, a separate notarized document is required in order for it to be legally recognized.

More challenging matters: personal dynamics

Emotional response

First and foremost, it is human nature to respond with emotion when faced with the loss of a loved one. Simultaneously, family members must create a plan to handle financial and business matters resulting from their loss coupled with identifying viable solutions for the care of their animals. It is challenging to navigate, if not overwhelming. Allow yourself and others to respond with real emotion, and offer them genuine compassion, kindness, and love. In my experience, the creation of a care plan for the ill or deceased person’s animals frequently goes unaddressed, which tends to place the animal at a disadvantage. I highly encourage family and friends to have multiple conversations relative to the matter, leading to co-creating a formal animal care plan.

Visitation

At Horse & Halo, we feel strongly about enabling owners to visit their horses, especially at the end of life (horse or human). It is vital to allow them to say goodbye to their horse. We have an “open door” policy and always leave the light on. Although it rarely happens, owners have permission to visit their horses at any time. I highly recommend offering a helping hand if a friend or loved one wants to see their horses; it is most always therapeutic for both the owner and their beloved horse. We have enclosures where owners can pull their vehicle up and visit their equine companion without even getting out of their car if that is needed. This can be arranged at most facilities. It is so rewarding to give an owner this time.

Family dynamics

At times family dynamic can be a little tricky. Horse & Halo employees and volunteers are the primary caregivers. We do, however, invite family members to visit and spend time with their loved one’s horses. Although this can be a very emotional interaction, I highly recommended it. Typically during the first visit, I allow friends and family their space while visiting their loved one’s animal as, for most, it brings out great emotion.

Elderly owners

It works best for the animal to transition to our facility before experiencing limitations, particularly while their owner is still capable of participating in their care. It allows for a less stressful transition for the horse and the human. I love the opportunity to get to know owners and their horses. Change before an owner’s death tends to be less stressful for everyone involved. I highly recommend locating care resources (do your due diligence). I encourage you to evaluate your value system, and when exploring long-term care options, ask yourself if the organization and the facility align with your value system and your horse’s needs.

Rehoming

Rehoming an animal that Horse & Halo has been caring for has by far been the most significant hurdle. Having made a personal commitment to each horse and owner, I do not take it lightly to rehome or place a horse in foster care. I am sensitive to each one of their needs and hold them dear to my heart. After taking horses in for three years, Horse & Halo is just now placing its first two horses in a foster home.

Horse & Halo is expanding its program to serve humans and horses in need to include fostering, volunteering, horse training, and educational programs.

Horse training

The majority of Horse & Halo guests are aging. Prior to their stay with us, many have not been ridden, given proper mental or physical stimulation, or had proper health care for years. When this happens, Horse & Halo rehabilitates these horses in conjunction with providing them training. Positive reinforcement is part of our value system at Horse & Halo. In most rescue programs, trainers, let alone positive reinforcement trainers, are rarely willing to volunteer their time. Thus, quick progression with training is limited.

CJ and Sunny’s Story

CJ is a large mid-20s horse. His owner, Paula, a school teacher, was a tall, strong woman. She raised CJ as a colt, and he grew to become the best of friends with her. In CJ’s younger years (and Paula’s healthy years), they rode the trails, dabbled in a few different disciplines, and spent endless hours together. She loved grooming CJ, having heart-to-heart conversations; Paula considered CJ her “heart horse.” Paula struggled to find a suitable boarding facility for CJ, one that would provide a healthy environment and caregivers who would be attentive to his needs. CJ has a laundry list of ailments, including colic, which has prompted two surgeries. His health issues resulted in extreme fear of turning CJ out and allowing interactions with other horses—in essence, restrictions that held CJ back from just being a horse. Paula implemented a strictly controlled diet, monthly worming, swat around the eyes and mouth, and the list goes on. When Paula became ill, CJ was her confidant. She would visit CJ all hours of the day. He lifted her spirits.

Paula died three years ago. Before her death, Paula’s veterinarian and best friend Karen promised her that she would take care of CJ on her behalf. When we met CJ (two and a half years ago), he had not been out of his stall in over eight years, had limited interaction with other horses, and minimal, if any, regular exercise. Paula loved CJ so much that she wanted to have another horse just like him before her illness progressed. Paula and her best friend Karen took a road trip to the Midwest and purchased a colt named Sunny. He is CJ’s cousin.

CJ and Sunny are brothers from another mother. Sunny is a 9-year-old orange and white paint. Initially, Paula worked with Sunny, but as her health declined, she lost her strength and became uncomfortable working with a young, energetic horse. Based on Karen’s recommendation, Paula sent Sunny for 30 days of traditional training. Once Sunny returned to Paula’s care, he had limited contact with humans and horses, resulting in a lack of basic social skills and unwanted, unsafe behaviors. It took hours to catch him. When people came into his enclosure, he remained at the opposite side, evaluating the visitor’s intention, so it took hours to halter him. His behavior escalated during veterinary visits to striking and kicking in protest. The veterinarian refrained from having the vet tech in the stall with Sunny because he was unsafe.

Upon Paula’s death, Karen became the horses’ primary caregiver. Their boarding barn announced its closure that year, and Sunny’s unwanted behavior only escalated. The veterinarian referred Karen to Horse & Halo and me for training and long-term boarding. The veterinarian in common is familiar with our successes with other horses who have exhibited similar behavior concerns.

Upon arriving at Horse & Halo at Olive Ranch, both horses came with direct orders to stay stalled. In addition to the behavior issues, CJ was unable to be turned out due to colic, laminitis, and much more. So there was no doubt the two cousins would not be turned out to pasture. Our team watched these two like hawks.

One night CJ had “MacGyvered” his way out of his stall and did the unimaginable: He ate alfalfa. We rushed him to the vet and thought for sure he was in crisis. Like several other times during the first six months, these events drove our team mad. Not to mention every morning, turning everyone else out and leaving these two in their stalls was heartbreaking. One morning, I had enough. I knew this was not a quality of life I would want for my horse, nor did it align with the quality of care Horse & Halo strives to provide its residents. I told the veterinarian, “I would rather CJ have horse colic from overeating grass than colic from the sand.” We convinced the veterinarian to support our ideas to allow CJ to experience short turnouts with a grazing muzzle, along with positive training techniques for Sunny that set him up for a happier life of friends, forage, and freedom. With the veterinarian on board, Karen also agreed to the plan.

Sunny was taught to be haltered with clicker training and led in and out of his enclosure, arena, and pastures, and he received turnout time in small increments. The unique part about the initial turnout was that Sunny had never been turned out. And although the same person owned them, CJ and Sunny had never met. Here is a video of their initial turnout together.

Clicker training was continued, and Sunny was taught to be haltered, led, saddled, trailered, to stand tied, and to be safely handled by the veterinarian with reduced stress for everyone. Sunny is now turned out every day with other horses and leads a happy horse life.

CJ is also turned out daily, wearing a comfortable muzzle that allows him to graze safely. The Horse & Halo team gave these horses a voice and continue to provide them with a beautiful quality of life based on their mission and core values.

CJ’s first time in a pasture in at least 12 years

Expanding our services

In an effort to help additional owners and their horses, over the next 12 months Horse & Halo is expanding its program to include fostering horses, volunteering, horse training, and educational programs.

Given the opportunity, we ask the owners questions about what they want for their horses, and we abide by their wishes as much as we can. A horse coming into the Horse & Halo program will have an adjustment period, including a behavior assessment and health evaluation. Although our foster/adoption program is still under development, our focus is to match a horse’s needs with a suitable foster/adopter, the goal being that every horse has a person of their own who has the resources to provide an environment that is loving, caring, and enriching.

Potential foster homes will go through an application process. This process includes:

  • Application
  • Spending time with the horse at our facility
  • Reference checks (personal and professional)
  • Home visits
  • Completing a two-day orientation that reviews processes and protocols, and most importantly, teaches non-intrusive handling methods.
  • Fosters and adopters have a 30-day trial period.

We have met potential foster homes/adopters through various outlets, like social media, through the feed store, word of mouth, and even in the grocery store. In the meantime, we are creating a volunteer-based program called a Barn Buddy. Barn Buddies attend an orientation and are assigned to a horse based on their skill set and the horse’s needs. They take care of the horse’s daily needs such as bathing, grooming, exercising, riding, etc. With the program in mind, we are working on cultivating relationships within our community that engage individuals who need to complete community service, link with kids in summer programs, and connect with individuals learning positive reinforcement.

 

Conclusion

I never imagined I would have the opportunity to bring all three worlds that are dear to my heart together to create an amazing daily experience: being a caregiver, horse enthusiast, and rescue worker. Each morning the horse enthusiast walks out the door (I live in my barn), I smile and look forward to the day at hand, another opportunity to utilize my experience and offer ongoing care, serving horses based on their owners’ wishes. Everything we do at Horse & Halo is a positive, proactive effort, rather than a reactive one, aimed at decreasing the number of unwanted horses. Anyone will tell you that when I am working with a horse or introducing a horse at our facility, I say, “I love this horse,” and tell their story. The fact is I love all our horses here, what we do for them, and the comfort we are able to offer their owners.

In closing, I encourage you to reach out to friends, family, and clients and ask the tough questions about long-term care for their animals, whether it is a dog, cat, horse, or bunny. Be supportive and compassionate in offering suggestions. Truthfully, just initiating the thought process is a great start to making sure animals are cared for after their owners are no longer able to be present with them and provide for them.

Silly antics with Pepper and friend

A promotional video featuring our horses


Horse & Halo is located in Nampa, Idaho.

 

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