It’s that time of year – when little girls’ fancies turn to owning a horse…. mind you, for the truly horse-crazy little girls (and boys) of every age, no season is immune to this desire.

If you’re considering joining the ranks of the 2 million plus horse owners in the US (according to a 2005 study by the American Horse Council), there are lots of places to acquire your new friend. If you’ve shown any interest in things equine on Facebook, ads are likely to appear in your sidebar, there are classified ads at the back of most local and regional equine publications, photos and descriptions fill the billboards at tack and feed stores – it can be a bit overwhelming to even know where to begin.

The purpose of this article isn’t to help you establish your criteria for a new horse, prepare your yard for a new occupant or find a safe boarding facility – that would require a book (but stay tuned for info on said book – it’s in the works). The purpose of this article is to offer you a few reasons to consider horse adoption and to give some pointers on locating your perfect equine partner – and literally saving his life.

First, a few statistics: in the study cited above, it was estimated that 46% of horses were owned by households with incomes of between $25,000 and $75,000 per year. This study was completed 6 years ago, and we all know which way the economy has trended over that time. A CBS Evening News story from May 2009 outlined the growing number of horses being abandoned throughout the country and the fact that many rescue facilities are at or over capacity. I could list instances from every state of owners being forced to give up their animals, but you get the idea – there are a lot of horses out there looking for a home.

Now you may well be thinking “Great – I’m all for saving animals, but I don’t want some starved wreck of a horse who’s on death’s doorstep – I want something I can ride/show/put my kids on/not be embarrassed to have the neighbors see in my backyard. Well, you’re in luck. Rescue organizations across the country have an amazing selection of horses and ponies available for adoption – from young Thoroughbreds who just aren’t fast enough to be profitable (by the way – I wouldn’t recommend a young off the track Thoroughbred, or OTTB, to a novice horse owner) to seasoned show horses whose owners want to find them a less stressful 2nd career.

Two of my 7 horses were adopted from rescue organizations. Harley is an OTTB whom I adopted from ReRun in Kentucky. He was 4 when I drove to Kentucky to see him and in the 8 years since his adoption he has been trail riding, competed in Dressage, done some lessons with a few of my advanced students and enjoyed a bit of jumping. He had raced only a few times and sustained a fractured sesamoid, which was completely healed when he came to live with us.

Atlas is my other adoptee – he’s an 11 year old, 18.2 hand Belgian Warmblood with a history of competitive dressage. A change in his previous owner’s circumstances led her to send him to Brook Hill Farm in Forest, Virginia. I had the great good fortune of being invited to Brook Hill to teach a clinic for their 4-H club a couple of years ago (I’m now their regular instructor), and I met Atlas shortly after arriving. While I was interested in getting a new competition horse, it was really Atlas who made the decision. When I was in the pasture being shown the two dressage horses available for adoption, Atlas grew somewhat indignant that I even wanted to look at the other horse. He gently nudged me toward the gate and then proceeded to stand gazing at me over the fence for the next 3 hours while I taught. I assured him that he wouldn’t fit in the back of my Blazer but that I’d be back, and went home to break the news to my husband that we might be getting a really big addition to the family…..

Many people hear the word “adoption” and wonder if the horses from rescue farms are free. This varies by the program – some are free (such as Brook Hill), while other programs require an adoption fee of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Some important things to remember: first – the purchase price or adoption fee is likely the smallest percentage of money you’ll invest in horse ownership. Upkeep costs far outweigh the initial outlay. Lack of awareness of this equation is the reason many horses end up at a rescue in the first place. The second thing to consider regarding adoption fees is that these facilities usually have tremendous overheads – everything from mortgages costs to feed, veterinary and blacksmith expenses; and many non-profit rescues are seeing a decline in their donations at a time when the demand for their services is skyrocketing.

Don’t be surprised if you’re required to complete a detailed application which may ask for references from a vet and a knowledgeable equine owner. Most adoption contracts will actually be leases, with ownership of the horse being retained by the rescue. Typically, adoption contracts also prohibit breeding of mares. These measures are in place to help ensure the horses sent out to a new home are going into a good (and hopefully permanent) situation. Generally, if the new owner is unable to keep the horse at any time in the future, the horse must be returned to the rescue. A return fee may be written into the contract to help defray expenses for the farm.

A Google search for “horse rescue” brings over 900,000 results, so you’re likely to find at least one organization within driving distance of your home. Be sure to check out the facility thoroughly before signing any paperwork. Seeing thin horses on the property wouldn’t necessarily be a reason to avoid the rescue (horses may arrive ill, injured or severely malnourished); but the farm should appear neat and well run, with adequate water and hay or grazing for the horses. Obvious injuries should be treated, and the general atmosphere should be of well cared for horses. Although some traumatized horses may be fearful of humans, most equines are curious and friendly – so you should see heads turn to watch you approach in an interested manner.

With all of the horses available for adoption at the moment, your dream horse may just be at a nearby rescue facility waiting for you to appear. Hopefully, the information in this article will encourage you to consider opening your barn doors to a rescued horse the next time you’re looking to add to your four-legged family. It’s a great way to add even more satisfaction to your horsey life.