Laurie Jackson, Executive Director, and Audra Agnone, Equine Placement Coordinator at Happy Trails, and Ellen Rawlins, Vice President of Operations at HSNT, shared their journeys towards equine open admissions and how it’s making a huge difference in the lives of their horses.
Why Shift to Open Admission
A critical reason to shift towards open admission is supporting horses before they become at-risk – not only improving welfare but shortening length of stay and reducing the cost of care, rehabilitation, and training. For Happy Trails, they saw a need for equine help in their community and realized that their barn’s open space was their ticket to helping with owner surrenders. “We realized that the sooner we can help these horses, the less likely for it to turn into an abuse or neglect case that requires legal action,” says Agnone. Jackson adds, “Open stalls help no one. And, as our exposure has increased, our requests for help from owners have as well.”
Making the Change
HSNT notes the importance of identifying your communities’ needs for care or support. The key for them was prioritizing within their existing criteria to start. For Happy Trails, they recognized the need to streamline their owner relinquishment process, which previously required a web request form, populated a spreadsheet, then required an owner call informing them they were on a waitlist and giving other resources if needed. In short, they realized they needed a more streamlined system. They created a relinquish request where staff would immediately follow up and prioritize—that was a game changer. “We are more easily able to contact owners for more information and prioritize who and how we can help,” Jackson states. “All while still keeping some space available for our criminal case priorities.”
Open Admission: Benefits & Challenges
The biggest payoffs? Streamlining has been phenomenal, but even more amazing is that both organizations have seen fewer equine cruelty cases.
HSNT says that the shift improved their approach to how they prioritize, plan, and utilize different strategies to help outside of intake. “We had to acknowledge that we cannot save them all when only focused on intake,” says Rawlins. “The open admission model allows us time to strategize while determining how to help (either on site or keeping them at home) depending on the owner’s needs, such as finances, owner’s health problems, moving, etc.” HSNT believes this approach is essential in identifying and providing supply or veterinary assistance to struggling horse owners before they fall into a neglectful situation that turns dire. And, if intake is still needed, the horses arrive healthier and are generally easier to rehabilitate and adopt.
Jackson has seen first-hand how the innovation saved more lives (and time). “We continue never to say ‘no.’ By offering guidance and supplies, sometimes intake is never needed because that was the solution,” says Jackson. “And, helping horses from an owner in need can intercept those horses before they become criminally neglected.”
Additional bonus? They have seen how fewer investigations take workload and pressure off their local humane agents by reducing the number of cruelty investigations so those remaining cases can be covered more expediently.
Both organizations recognize that the opportunity has been positive even though operational changes may occur hour to hour each day which can also be physically demanding. Rawlins notes that the ability to be flexible helps provide enough structure to stay present while also preparing for the future.
Also, at first, they anticipated that owned horses would be easier to place based on their known history. In some situations, owners may not have the time or skills to thoroughly assess a horse's condition or temperament. Owner-relinquished horses can be just as difficult as a criminal case due to their medical or behavioral issues present.
When owners call about senior horses that have become terminally ill, open admission programs work closely with their veterinarian to determine the best course of action for the horse’s welfare. “Emotionally, it can be tough,” says Jackson. “That takes a toll on staff, although we are humbled to be able to provide that last act of kindness.” To minimize stress on the horse, it’s key to have the veterinarian assess the horse before attempting to transport them to the shelter, and if euthanasia is needed, do so in the comfort of the horse’s familiar home.
"We realized that the sooner we can help these horses, the less likely for it to turn into an abuse or neglect case that requires legal action."
Advice for Moving Towards an Open Admission Model
Start small and expect bumps in the road is sage advice. Tactics such as bringing horses in as you’re able (not quoting a timeframe) and bringing in a mix of companion and rideable horses can be helpful.
Jackson notes that any pilot program is messy but advises not to be afraid of change. “Start with just a few stalls to test your program, and you’ll see where you need to adjust. You’ll definitely begin to see the value and the success of open admission,” Jackson says. “It saves lives!”
Rawlins recommends following ASPCApro’s guidance to best serve horses with a strategic approach that includes:
Stay true to your mission
Keep within the budget
Know when you can say "yes" or "no" to horses in need - what community do we serve when removing barriers to seeking help?
Plan appropriate staffing
Stay within your capacity for care
Reduce equine suffering by identifying and supporting at-risk horses earlier
How the Open Admission Model Impacts Adoptions
By changing their model, these organizations have expanded their capacity for care – both for the horses and for their communities. Expanding their safety net programs has helped keep equines at home, preventing horses from having to be rehomed. They’ve made further impact by transitioning more horses into happy adoptions. It’s been a fulfilling change that all are proud to have implemented. At Happy Trails, they’ve moved from helping an average of 18 horses a year toward 40 or more!
Happy Tails (from Happy Trails)
Agnone: We took in a 25-year-old mini with several health issues. Upon posting her on our Facebook page, her owner from 22 years prior, who was also a donor, saw her. She was ecstatic to be immediately reunited and adopted her!
Jackson: We took in a gentle mare who was malnourished and quite the medical mystery. We went to work searching for the reason she was struggling to gain weight. After our equine veterinarian looked at blood work and ultrasound, we feared she had a mass and prepared ourselves for the worst. Our hearts filled with both love and laughter as news traveled that her “mass” was a foal who appeared one morning; we named her Miracle Whip. It’s not often we have a new life to dote over—let alone a surprise!