When COVID-19 tore through the country last year, Erin Clemm Ochoa, CEO of Days End Farm Horse Rescue (DEFHR), Woodbine, MD, initially suspected that the financial impact of the virus on people’s day-to-day lives would cause ramifications to equine welfare almost immediately.

While DEFHR did have to pivot quickly and get creative to ensure operations continued despite a decreased volunteer staff and fewer opportunities for fundraising, it wasn’t until December 2020 that some of the largest challenges were presented.

In December, DEFHR responded to a call that required them to take 17 critically ill horses into the facility all at once. In addition to severe emaciation and dental neglect, many of the horses were suffering from painful mouth ulcerations, debilitating lameness, blindness, neurological symptoms, and untreated infections.

Receiving a large number of horses in critical condition is not unusual for DEFHR. However, the operational issues the organization now faces are anything but normal.

With its facility closed to the public, 2020 fundraising events canceled, and only a limited the number of volunteers allowed on the farm, there is significantly less help available for the labor-intensive needs that come with caring for so many critically ill horses. There is also less funds to provide for all of the horses in DEFHR’s care.

Ochoa believes that this recent influx of horses may be indicative of how the pandemic will continue to affect equine welfare in 2021 and that we may begin to see an increasing number of horses in need.

“With so many people impacted financially, I thought we’d see more horses requiring rehabilitation and rehoming earlier on,” noted Ochoa. “But I think it’s coming this spring.”

Days End Farm Horse Rescue recently took in 17 critically ill horses all at once. Large impounds like this will present new challenges for rescues as COVID-19 has forced many rescue operations to limit volunteer support and fundraising activities. Photo courtesy of Days End Farm Horse Rescue

Ochoa attributes this thinking to the fact that that animal welfare agencies, including animal control and local sheriff’s offices, tabled routine investigations for a large part of 2020, choosing to respond to emergency calls only in accordance with social distancing guidelines. With routine investigations open again, Ochoa expects equine rescues will increasingly be called on, which in turn will present new obstacles for these organizations.

Ochoa offers her advice for other equine welfare organizations and professionals as they look ahead and prepare for how the pandemic will continue to affect their work.

Communicate often and in detail

Donors play an important role in any non-profit organization and Ochoa impresses upon the need to keep lines of communication open between organizations and donors now more than ever.

“Transparency with the community and especially with donors is critical,” said Ochoa. “During the pandemic, we’ve taken the position of increasing our communications and letting donors ‘behind the curtain’ a little more. We want to be clear about exactly how funds will help us continue operations, especially as we operate with a skeleton crew.”  

Plan ahead

Though DEFHR is fortunate to have staff, bigger cases like the 17 critically ill horses require a tremendous amount of labor outside of day-to-day operations. With staff working overtime and volunteers putting in long weekend hours, operations become extremely expensive.

“If your resources are limited, sit down and map out your entire month,” Ochoa stated. “Be thoughtful about how you plan. Schedule content early—whether that’s donor communications or managing your social media—and think ahead about what marketing you’ll need.

“Everyone in the rescue environment knows that time flies and it’s very easy to get swept up in what’s in front of you,” continued Ochoa. “Now, even though it feels like time is dragging [because of COVID-19], there is always something coming. Getting ahead as much as possible will help in the long run.”

Think big picture

Ochoa also talks about the need to consider the whole picture. “At some point, the facility is going to be full,” she said. “So, [to avoid turning horses away] we have to think about all sides of [taking horses in].”

Part of thinking big picture involves making very tough decisions about which horses are able to rehabilitate and which horses will not. Ochoa comments that these decisions have to be made thoughtfully, but also in a timely way to ensure they are doing right by every horse in their care.

In addition, it’s imperative to consider how to increase adoption numbers to make room for new cases. Ochoa goes on to talk about the recent impoundment of the 17 critically ill horses. Many of these horses will need to be adopted as a companion horses, which presents a unique challenge as the facility thinks about how to increase adoptions.

“As a rescue organization, planning for a large ‘companion herd’ means that we need to think early about how to get these horses homes and how to market the value of taking in a companion-only horse.”

The last year has been filled with countless unknowns and for many industries, including equine welfare, there is still a lot to be determined. As rescue organizations and professionals prepare for what could be a busy year, it’s important to dedicate time to thoughtful planning and forward-thinking. Though we can’t plan for everything, planning for what we do know or what we anticipate can go a long way in keeping operations moving and ultimately improving welfare for horses.

For more than three decades, Days End Farm Horse Rescue has been renowned for working to not only prevent equine abuse and neglect, but also to educate the public about equine welfare and help their staff, volunteers, and members of the public become better horsemen and women. Learn more about DEFHR‘s adoptable horses as well as their numerous education and volunteer opportunities. Visit www.defhr.org or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

Feature image: Erin Clemm Ochoa, CEO of Days End Farm Horse Rescue, encourages rescue organizations to plan ahead and prioritize communications to donors to help alleviate pandemic-related obstacles. Photo courtesy of Days End Farm Horse Rescue