Horse rescues, in the tradition of Blanche DuBois, more often than not depend on the kindness of strangers to keep their stalls and paddocks open. Donations are the lifeblood of rescues and, sometimes quite literally, of the horses in their care.

It’s a complicated relationship, the one between donor and recipient. It’s a relationship built mainly on trust: for the rescues, trust that money and support will be there when it’s needed; for the donors, trust that the money will be put to the best use possible. Most rescues do an amazing job with far fewer resources than they really need, but some don’t. When donors’ trust is abused, and a rescue becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution, animals suffer and other rescues are tarred with the same brush.

On May 3, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, on behalf of the People of the State of New York, charged current and past directors of the non-profit Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation Inc. with "failing to properly oversee and manage the organization’s operations and finances in light of TRF’s unique responsibility for the welfare of more than 1,100 retired Thoroughbred race horses."

The complaint was filed in New York state court and is the first step in the legal process. The numerous allegations in the 35-page document are serious charges, but they are not proof of anything. Although TRF director John C. Moore told the Associated Press that the charges are not true, the defendants have not yet had an opportunity to file an answer. The road to trial likely will be a long one, and whether the allegations actually can be proved is a question for a jury to decide sometime in the future.

Keeping in mind that the complaint presents only one side of the story, it offers a sordid and troublesome look into the supposed inner workings of one of the largest horse rescues in the country.

Nature of the Case

The complaint charges that "many TRF horses do not receive adequate feed to supplement pasture grazing, particularly in the winter months, and much of the herd does not receive required maintenance care, such as tooth filing and hoof trimming, when needed. Horses have been deprived of proper treatment for injuries and medical conditions and turned out without adequate shelter. At some facilities, TRF horses have suffered severe malnutrition, prolonged and unnecessary pain, and death from starvation and exposure."

The allegations of neglect are the headline-grabbers, but at the heart of the complaint are more mundane charges that TRF directors breached their fiduciary duty to the organization.

The neglect, the complaint alleges, is a direct result of financial instability brought on by "years of mismanagement" at a "dysfunctional organization." The problems at TRF, according to the New York AG, include:

  • a herd of horses too large for the organization’s resources to support;
  • improper supervision of TRF horses and the organization’s facilities;
  • series of "irresponsible financial transactions" that protected assets of individual directors at the expense of the organization;
  • unauthorized use of endowment fund principal in violation of the trust agreement.

The complaint asks that the TRF directors be removed for the alleged violations of their legal duties of care and loyalty to the organization, and for improper administration of charitable assets and a not-for-profit corporation. The complaint also asks for an accounting from the directors for violations of those fiduciary duties and an injunction preventing TRF from accepting any more horses without prior court approval.

If the allegations in the complaint are true, it’s a classic story of good intentions gone terribly wrong. And while most rescues don’t have the luxury of properly utilizing a multi-million-dollar endowment, there are lessons here for everyone who takes in horses in need. Most important is this: balance the number of horses in your care with the resources available for their needs. Big hearts and empty wallets can be a dangerous mix, and the kindness of strangers sometimes doesn’t materialize.

If you run an equine rescue, how do you decide how many horses is enough?