Beyond the forever home

I train my horses to be happy, willing and generous performers so they will attract the kind of owners who will love them and take care of them for the long term.
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I train my horses to be happy, willing and generous performers so they will attract the kind of owners who will love them and take care of them for the long term.

If you’re like me, you’ve seen the term “forever home” thousands of times while perusing horse ads: “looking for a forever home” or “will only sell to a forever home” or “offering a forever home.”

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We all want the best for our horses---a lifetime of green pastures, boundless resources for the best of care, proper training, nutritious feed, kind treatment, consistency and friendship. And for many of us, that means providing a forever home. But is this always a reasonable promise to make or expect? How realistic is the expectation of a forever home? Can a forever home actually be detrimental to a horse?

As I write this I’m looking out at a 4-year-old filly I recently bought. She’s a Shire-cross sport horse built like a true athlete, with a tight-kneed jump and fluid movement. I purchased her to start for a client who wants a novice eventer. This filly is a perfect prospect for her, but not a long-term one for me.

Don’t get me wrong---I have a few horses that would be especially hard to part with---the old Paint I raised from a foal, my Friesian cross and a recently adopted Kiger Mustang. But I’ll always have a youngster-in-training around---both for the opportunity to contribute another well-prepared horse to the equestrian community and because it helps me to become a better trainer.

Starting young horses has become a driving passion for me over the last decade. The money I make from my horse sales pays for my equestrian habit, but honestly it’s just the icing on the cake. The true compensation is in what I learn every day with each new horse. I don’t show often, and when I do, it’s mostly low-level schooling stuff. For me, there are no ribbons blue enough to top the thrill of the steady and sometimes surprising day-to-day progress of a green horse. But because a horse can stay green for only so long, I offer the antithesis of a forever home.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about my sales horses or do everything I can to make sure they have good lives once they leave my barn. My horses have gone to families, mounted patrol units, jousters, dressage enthusiasts, eventers and lesson barns over the years, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.

But my experiences have taught me that sometimes a “forever home” isn’t in the best interest of a horse. A classic example would be the point-and-shoot show pony with the heart of gold. Eventually that pony’s little girl is going to outgrow him, physically and mentally. As her experience broadens, she’ll begin to crave a horse who can take her to new levels of challenge and achievement. And when she gives up her pony, the next beginner will have the benefit of learning to ride aboard an experienced mount generous enough to teach her.

In other cases, a horse and rider may simply be mismatched. I rode hunters and jumpers eons ago and loved it, but at this point a horse with gifts in those areas would be wasted on me. Similarly, an average, responsible horse owner might buy a young colt thinking he’ll be have a trail partner for life, only to learn eventually that the horse is much better suited---and more inclined---to jump courses or chase cows. In other cases, a horse’s personality---whether forward or excitable or sluggish---may make him a fun and challenging mount for some riders but a dangerous or frustrating one for those without the right skills.

Finally, there are heart-rending cases when someone has a financial hardship or injury. We’ve all seen situations where horses stay with a down-and-out owner longer than they should. There are no winners when a horse’s needs outstrip his owner’s ability to meet them.

For all of these reasons, I don’t offer forever homes, and I don’t demand them, either.

Yes, I sometimes add stipulations or buy-back clauses to my sales contracts. But as more and more of my training horses have made their way out into the world, I have often found these safeguards unnecessary. I have clients waiting for my draft crosses---they are generally people I know either because they are previous buyers or were referred by them. On the few occasions when a buyer is a stranger I check their references and get to know them before making the deal. I’m still in touch with the majority of my buyers and sellers, and most of the horses I’ve sold are still with the people who bought them from me originally. Nonetheless, I am aware that every time I sell a horse I lose control of where it goes.

So I am not opposed to forever homes. But I do believe that, though romantic, the concept of the forever horse can be unrealistic at best or counterproductive at worst. Instead I try to focus on readying horses for the world, preparing them to perform confidently, even as I work to find the right partners for them. I sell each horse knowing I’ve given him the best possible start, which will make him more valuable and likely to attract the kind of owner who will love him and take care of him.

I’m not going to say I don’t get attached to my project horses. I have shed plenty of tears as the trailer leaves my driveway. But many of my buyers are still in touch on a regular basis with updates and photos, and that is the best reward of all.

So if I buy your horse, my pledge to you is that I will teach him with dignity, and I will welcome and respect what he teaches me. I will throw him sweet, clean hay and provide fresh water. I will prioritize his welfare. I will scratch his neck where it itches and appreciate him for who he is. I will give him everything. Except the promise of a forever home. 

About the author: Charis Collins bought her first horse with her own money when she was 13 years old. Since then she has shown hunters and jumpers and informally rode the Paint and pinto show circuits. But she found her true calling starting warmbloods and draft crosses, drawing heavily on the influences of master horsemen Tom Dorrance and Mark Rashid. She is currently educated by Luke, a Friesian-Morgan cross, and Dante, a Kiger Mustang, and is lucky enough to be able to see them from her bedroom window

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #470, November 2016.