Did What: WVHN is dedicated to making a difference for horses, and they’ve proven how letting go of rigid requirements for adopters (along with tailored post-adoption support) is increasing their lifesaving capacity to help more horses. Nicky Walters, Founder of WVHN, spoke with ASPCApro about how piloting new innovations has grown their community of horse lovers into well-equipped and supported equine adopters.
The intent of the adoption application is to create conversation starters for our adoption coordinator to dive deeper into the counseling without overwhelming potential adopters.
ASPCApro: What are some creative and innovative approaches that you’ve used to engage and attract adopters and supporters?
Nicky Walters: I would say that our #1 creative route to attracting adopters and supporters has been our use of cute, high-quality, and relatable photography. We do eye-catching seasonal photo shoots with our adoptable horses, including dressing them up for holidays, doing glitter photo shoots, and once even doing colored cornstarch photos on a black background. With so many competing posts on social media, you really have to stand out and make people stop scrolling. We love to involve our volunteers in the photos too—usually dressed up in coordination with our horses. Also, at Equine Affaire, we used QR Codes as an easy way for people to learn about all our horses without having to stand there and read a poster. Even if they aren't interested in the horse right in front of them, they can meet them all just by taking out their phone. Finally, we drastically shortened and simplified our application to be a brief list of basic, open-ended questions. We now call the form an "Adoption Interest Survey" rather than an adoption application, so it’s less intimidating and more inviting. The intent is to create conversation starters for our adoption coordinator to dive deeper into the counseling without overwhelming potential adopters.
ASPCApro: What has worked to engage adopters for non-riding horses in particular?
Walters: We make a special effort to ensure that non-riding horses still have what we call a "marketable skill." Sometimes that’s a special trick we teach them, or sometimes it’s talking about how their personality makes people feel. We also make sure not to dwell on the horses' limitations but, instead, highlight their abilities.
ASPCApro: How have you engaged first-time horse owners?
Walters: Engaging first-time horse owners is kind of our thing! We've piloted two projects that really help attract first-time horse owners and prepare them to be successful adopters. The first program, Adoption Academy, is a hands-on lecture series taught by experts on various subjects. We also hosted the Treasure Hunt Program, which is similar but far more hands-on and self-paced. Both programs include mentorship elements where participants match with mentors in the horse community. The mentorships have been so vital! We help first-time adopters connect with a farrier, veterinarian, hay vendor, and other fellow horse people. And, if we think they could still benefit from more coaching, we connect them with people who give lessons or a trainer for their horse. We'll sometimes suggest they board somewhere so they can have a little extra help. Perhaps most importantly, we invite them to volunteer consistently so that their education continues long after the program ends. This is a win-win: the adopter gets continued education and support, and we get extra help caring for the horses.
ASPCApro: That’s great! What are some barriers to adoption that you’ve seen, and how have you tried to eliminate them?
Walters: We have people apply to adopt horses that aren’t a great fit for their skill level, and they often aren’t flexible in terms of being guided towards another horse who may be more suitable for them. Similarly, we frequently encounter people who are extremely particular about the horse they want and are initially unwilling to be flexible in considering a horse that may not meet each of their bullet points. We try to address this by leading with the horse's needs in our promotional efforts and connecting the applicant directly with the foster family so they can better understand the horse’s personality.
We know it’s crucial to keep every potential adopter engaged from the very first time they reach out to us— even if, at first, it doesn't seem like we have their right horse at first. West Virginia Horse Network also offers an Adoption Academy to help potential adopters get up to speed on any skills they may need in preparation to adopt.
ASPCApro: What lessons learned can you share about what hasn’t worked?
Walters: We’ve found that standard riding or obstacle videos don't get very many views (especially in relation to the time and money it takes to put them together). Similarly, traditional booths and displays haven't proven to be worth the investment. For us, connecting and talking directly with people tends to be much more effective.
ASPCApro: Can you share a story about one of your most unique and surprising adoption stories?
Walters: Whew, there are so many—it’s difficult to pick just one! In terms of surprising, one comes to mind because it shows the value of being flexible and trusting fosters. We had a Saddlebred named Snow, who was absolutely gorgeous but had a long list of bad habits (rude in a stall, threatening to bite people filling his hay bag, and a relentless cribber). Oh, and he had some medical concerns, including chronic abscesses on his hooves and early indications of Cushing’s disease. Unfortunately, the odds of quickly placing Snow weren't good.
One of our volunteers, Kristy, who had adopted a challenging little mini mule (and loves him), was hauling an emergency case for us. When she transported that horse, she met Snow. I wasn’t there at the time and got a call from a volunteer saying, "Kristy wants to foster Snow—can she? She wants to take him while she has her trailer here." There wasn't much time for contemplating, so I asked Kristy a few questions to make sure she was up for his difficulties, and she said yes. I knew she'd managed the ornery mini mule just fine, so she took Snow home. In less than 2 weeks, Kristy contacted us ready to adopt him, and he’s been with her ever since! So many stars had to align for them to meet, and I had to be flexible enough to roll with an unplanned placement on the fly. But it was an amazing connection that just happened above and beyond anything we could've orchestrated ourselves!