Equine rescues survive on the charity of others. But what happens when an equine rescue betrays the trust of its donors?

More than 50 malnourished and neglected horses were seized from Hidden Meadows Equine Rescue in West Virginia a few months ago and one of the owners, Mary O’Brien, was charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty. She eventually entered a guilty plea to one count of animal cruelty and escaped with a fine of $1,000 and time served in the county jail. The horses were the obvious victims, but there were others, including the generous people who gave money to the organization and other equine rescues that might find future donations reduced as a result of guilt by association.

How much was donated to Hidden Meadows?

Hidden Meadows was, and apparently still is, a 501(c)(3) organization recognized as a legitimate public charity by the Internal Revenue Service. In 2009, according to the IRS Form 990-EZ filed by Hidden Meadows, contributions to the group totaled $130,014.31. That’s a big chunk of money and many equine rescues do good work with a lot less. Also according to the organization’s tax return nearly all of it, $129,013.91, was spent on "Vet, Hay, Feed, Farrier, Dentist" during the year. Contributions and expenditures for 2010 are not available yet, but the 2009 figures beg the question: what went wrong at Hidden Meadows?

Past contributors to Hidden Meadows who are scratching their heads and wondering where their donations went probably have little recourse at this point. The IRS or state authorities certainly should investigate. More important for people with a charitable bent is how to ensure that future donations go to an equine rescue that actually does what it is supposed to be doing.

Giving money away is easy, finding the best recipient is not.

The IRS qualifies equine rescues and other charitable organizations as tax exempt after a lengthy application process. The decision is based on what, if anything, the applicant group has done in the past, qualifications of the organizers, and promises about future plans. According to the 2009 tax return filed by Hidden Meadows, the "primary exempt purpose" of the organization was "Equine rescue, rehab, retrain, and adoption." Based on the seizures and criminal charges, that did not work out very well.

The IRS currently lists 160 tax exempt organizations with the words "equine" and "rescue" in their names. There probably are others with more imaginative names. Inclusion on this list only means that the organizations survived the IRS application process. It is not a guarantee that the organization does what it professes to do. The IRS does not routinely check up on tax exempt organizations after certification beyond monitoring for compliance with ongoing informational filing requirements. The IRS cannot tell a potential donor whether a charitable organization is a good investment or a bad one.

There are a number of commercial websites that provide information about charitable organizations but much of the data comes from IRS filings and from the charities themselves. Two months after horses were seized and a few weeks after a guilty plea to animal cruelty charges a quick review of some of these commercial sites found nothing to suggest problems at Hidden Meadows Equine Rescue. The group’s own website appears to be non-functional now but Hidden Meadows still shows up favorably on some independent horse welfare sites.

The best way to learn whether an equine rescue is doing a good job is to visit the facility and see for yourself. If that is not possible, talk to the owners and ask questions. Ask for references from people who have adopted horses. Ask to talk to the rescue’s veterinarian. Veterinary records and information are confidential in some states but the owner of a reputable equine rescue should not object to giving the veterinarian permission to talk to a potential donor. Ask to talk to the farrier. Find out who the neighbors are and talk to them. Talk to the local humane society. Look for red flags.

A few states have lists of equine rescues but those lists are only useful if rescues must be certified as meeting a standard of care for inclusion. State horse councils also might be able to provide information about a rescue. Look for more red flags.

It sounds like a lot of trouble, and if the only purpose of the donation is a tax deduction, don’t bother. But consider the alternative. There are a many reputable equine rescues that perform a valuable service. They need all the help they can get, especially now. Putting your money where it can do the most good takes some homework, but it’s worth it. The horses will thank you.