Donated dressage horses benefit collegiate riders, special-needs riders, and even horseless youth. Thinking of donating? Read this first.
By Natalie DeFee Mendik
Reprinted from the January/February 2021 issue of USDF Connection magazine.
Donating a horse to a dressage program can be the perfect combination of practicality and doing good. Ideally, it’s a win-win: The horse enjoys a soft landing, with an appropriate workload, security, and lots of TLC; and both the donor and the beneficiary reap financial benefits.
Nonprofit entities that accept horse donations have diverse needs and offer varying lifestyles for the horses, and the reasons for rehoming range from tight owner finances to horses retiring from their current jobs. So what’s in it for the horses? The owners? The recipients? In this article, we’ll look at the reasons horse owners may decide to donate instead of selling, and we’ll offer advice on finding the right situation for your horse.
A Leg Up: Dressage4Kids’ Lease Program
“Many horses that have been donated to us have been for sale and for some reason are not selling,” says Olympian and Dressage4Kids founder Lendon Gray. D4K, which began as a youth-only dressage competition and educational offerings, now includes a robust horse-lease program that seeks to bridge the gap between potential donors and young people who otherwise may not have access to suitable dressage mounts. A common sales obstacle, Gray finds, is “a little physical problem,” which can range from difficulty handling the heat in a southern climate to a soundness issue. On occasion, the reason for donating has nothing to do with the horse’s health; it’s that the owner is retiring from riding or has decided that the horse is no longer suitable. In any event, she says, “by far the majority of horses that have come to us…have turned out to be fantastic.”
In fact, D4K has been the recipient of some top-notch dressage horses (for one example, see “Donated Horse Takes Her Rider to the Top” on page 51). And it’s not just the “fancy” horses that have paid it forward: Lower-level horse and pony matches have given numerous kids a solid start in the sport.
D4K’s lease program essentially acts as a matchmaking service. Unlike collegiate dressage programs and the like, D4K is unique in that the organization doesn’t actually keep and care for the donated horses.
“We don’t accept a horse until we know who will take it,” Gray explains.
Young people interested in leasing a D4K-owned horse complete an application. When a donated horse looks like a good match, the applicant is given the opportunity to try the horse and even to have it vetted, although occasionally riders accept a horse sight unseen, according to Gray, who says the organization has accepted nearly 70 donated horses since its lease program began.
A few D4K leases have involved a bit of a gamble on the rider’s part. According to Gray, “Some people who have taken on these horses have spent a tremendous amount of time finishing rehab and money maintaining the horse.” If the investment pays off, “in exchange, they have a wonderful horse. We had one horse come to us—a lovely Grand Prix horse—part of the way into rehab for a soft-tissue injury. The rider spent more than a year rehabbing the horse and now has had the horse going Grand Prix for several years.”
Not every horse that D4K receives is top-caliber, but the opportunity to learn and compete is there for kids that are willing to make the most of it, Gray says.
“There have been a handful of kids who have gotten horses that have taken them into FEI and on up to Grand Prix. While some have received lovely, lovely horses, others have gotten what I considered somewhat limited horses, and they have still gone up through the levels, and it really made a difference in their lives,” she says. “It makes me really proud of what these kids have accomplished.”
With the popularity of equine-related degrees and intercollegiate equestrian competitions, a number of colleges and universities with equestrian programs accept donated horses—although they may not advertise that fact, preferring to develop relationships with horse owners, who spread the word to other potential donors that a college’s equestrian program will take proper care of their cherished mounts.
“All of the horses that we use for both the team and the educational parts of the program are either donated to us or leased to us from owners,” says Lisa Moosmueller-Terry, equestrian-center director at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia. E&H offers BA and BS degree programs in equine studies, and riders can participate in Intercollegiate Horse Show Association and Intercollegiate Dressage Association team competition.
As Moosmueller-Terry explains, some people choose to lease to E&H “because they would rather retain ownership of the horse,” but 75% of the horses in its program are donated. “We have had fabulous donors and repeat donors who have gifted us with very accomplished horses,” she says.
“If these programs did not exist, there would be a lot of horses out there that really have no place to go,” Moosmueller-Terry points out. She says that typical donated horses are high-level performers that may not pass a prepurchase exam or that need to step down a level. Happily, “College programs are well-equipped for this scenario: We can take the horse that can no longer compete at the FEI levels and give him a job at Training and First Level.”
Obviously, not every horse being rehomed is an FEI-level performer; in fact, when talking about donation arrangements, many of us envision the solid-citizen stalwarts. Many such steady Eddies find their way into therapeutic-riding programs, says Lee Dudley, executive director of Equine Partnership Program in Elizabeth, Colorado, which provides both mental-health counseling and therapeutic riding.
Programs that fall under the “therapy” heading, says Dudley, generally include mental-health programs and therapeutic-riding programs for the physically disabled. These distinctions are notable, she explains, as the two sectors seek different types of horses.
“Programs for physical disabilities are looking for the unflappable ‘old soldier’ kind of horse,” she says. “Those horses, surprisingly enough, have to be pretty sound, because they carry a lot of weight, and a lot of times it’s dead weight, which is much more stressful on them than able-bodied riders would be.
“On the flip side, in the mental-health world, some programs don’t do any riding at all—just ground work—while others do,” Dudley continues. Mental-health programs “are looking for horses with personalities—either outgoing or a little timid, so people have to connect with them, but still very safe.”
The Forever Home (or Not?)
Some horse owners like the idea of donating because they believe that—unlike with a sale—their animal will have a home for life and will never find itself unwanted or passed along to a new owner. But that may not always be the case, our experts caution.
“In general, if you are thinking of donating a horse,” Gray advises, “do some serious research about where the horse is going and what its long-term prospects are.”
Dressage4Kids, for one, touts the fact that donated horses will never be resold.
“One of the pluses of donating to us is that you know where the horse is going to be for the rest of his life,” says Gray. “Anyone that leases a horse from us signs a contract that they can take care of the horse forever.”
That said, some D4K horses may pass from one child to the next, under the guidance of the organization. An Arabian mare that Gray herself had trained to the upper levels was leased first to a Fourth Level rider, then to a child at a slightly lower level, and so on as the horse aged. Eventually the mare was retired with a girl who enjoyed doing in-hand agility training with the horse.
“By passing on with our permission, the horse continues to be cared for and part of someone’s life,” Gray says.
Says Dudley: “It’s really important to clarify with the nonprofit what the long-term plan for the horse is. Under some contracts, the horse becomes the property of the nonprofit and can be sold, with the proceeds going back to funding the program.”
If you’re considering donating and you want to maintain some control over what happens to your horse, Dudley suggests, consider requesting that the donation contract include a clause giving you the option to take the horse back upon its final retirement. Then be prepared to do so when the time arises.
The Fine Print
Now let’s take a closer look at the tax implications of donating a horse, as well as at that important donation contract.
The prospect of receiving an income-tax deduction for making a charitable donation of a horse to a nonprofit organization is one of its appeals. But who decides how much your horse is worth?
“You need an appraisal of the horse; you can’t just arbitrarily state the horse’s value,” says USDF bronze medalist Steven Tarshis, who specializes in equine law at his EquiLaw LLC practice in Pittstown, New Jersey.
“As we know, what a horse is worth is what someone is willing to pay for it,” Tarshis says. “A professional appraiser can take all aspects into consideration to assign a market value to the horse.” He recommends getting assessments from three impartial trainers in the horse’s discipline (read: the donor is not a client) who actively buy and sell horses. “With the written opinion of three qualified trainers, you can feel reasonably safe of the amount you are claiming for your deduction.”
Research potential beneficiaries carefully. Moosmueller-Terry suggests finding out how horses in the program are housed and cared for, and what their typical workload entails. Ask for references from previous donors.
If you wish to place any stipulations or restrictions on what the beneficiary can and cannot do with the horse, be sure to include them in the donation agreement.
“If you have concerns, you should absolutely include restrictions in the documents,” says Tarshis. Examples range from often the horse may be ridden to a requirement that you be kept informed of any changes in the horse’s situation, such as a new location. “Also include if there comes a time the charity decides it can no longer keep the horse, the donor should be notified and be given the opportunity to take the horse back.”
Easing the Transition
Before you put your horse on a trailer, make sure that you understand the donation contract and that you’ve assembled a fair and legitimate appraisal of his value. Then help smooth his move to his new home by gathering his veterinary and farriery records to pass along, and by making notes about important information you want his new caretakers to know—feed regimen, known allergies, tack and blanket types and sizes (if you’re not donating them with him), any behavioral quirks, and the like.
“We are advocates for the horse, so any information you can pass on, the better,” Moosmueller-Terry says.
In Moosmueller-Terry’s experience, donors vary in terms of how much contact they maintain with the horse after it’s gone to its new home. Some visit regularly; others check in from time to time; still others largely stay out of the picture. While staying in touch isn’t required, Tarshis recommends it.
“Be very careful who you are donating the horse to,” he advises. “Stay involved. The organization that receives the horse should know you are watching. Insist on updates and visit. The horses are members of our family.”
“We have some owners who are incredibly active with the horse—coming to visit, watching the horse compete,” says Gray, “and we have others who don’t, although a lot of owners do stay in touch with the rider who’s leasing. That aspect is not regulated by our contract.”
With careful consideration from all sides, donating a horse may secure a good lifestyle for the horse, provide a solution for the horse owner, and benefit the greater equestrian and dressage community.
Thinking of Donating? Start Here
If you have a reliable, serviceably sound horse with dressage training that’s ready to move on to a new home, chances are that a number of equestrian programs would love to talk to you about a potential donation. As the sources in this article recommend, research programs carefully to find the one that will best suit your horse’s needs and that will provide him with good care.
To jump-start your search, check out the following organizations:
Dressage4Kids, founded by Olympian Lendon Gray, leases donated dressage horses to selected youth riders. Learn more at dressage4kids.org.
Many (but not all) colleges and universities with dressage programs are members of the Intercollegiate Dressage Association, a national organization that offers intercollegiate team dressage competitions and that promotes dressage as part of the college experience. Find the list of current member schools at teamdressage.com/coaches/member-schools.
Start your search for an accredited therapeutic-riding program at the member-center directory of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International: pathintl.org.
Financial Donations Help Equine Donations
If you’ve donated a horse to a college or other nonprofit organization, consider making an additional financial contribution toward his care and upkeep if you’re able to do so, program representatives say.
“When someone donates a horse to a nonprofit, and the nonprofit gives the horse a great home for a long time, the donor should consider making a yearly donation towards the horse’s upkeep,” says Lee Dudley, executive director of the Colorado-based therapeutic-riding organization Equine Partnership Program. Sums don’t have to be huge: “Even $500 covers vaccinations and dental work.”
Dudley believes that chipping in is “the right thing to do. Caring for a herd of aged horses can be a financial strain on nonprofits.”
Recognizing the financial challenges of providing lifelong care to aging equines, some supporters have come up with unique ways of helping out. At Emory & Henry College in Virginia, one donor created a fund for horses that can’t be rehomed or sent back to their original owners after they’ve been retired from the college’s equestrian program, according to equestrian-center director Lisa Moosmueller-Terry.
Natalie DeFee Mendik, MA, is an award-winning journalist specializing in equine media. Visit her online at MendikMe