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Consider the Unthinkable

Consider the Unthinkable

By Betsy Kelleher

     If you are a horse owner, you may have thought about what to do if something should happen to your horse. But have you considered what would happen to your horse if something happened to YOU? Most horse owners don’t plan for this, but you should. When the unexpected happens, it’s too late to make provisions.   

     Last December, my husband and I had four horses in a self-care boarding stable—until I got sick and couldn’t do chores for three weeks. My husband decided to give his mare away to lighten the load (since he didn’t dare give mine away)! Of course I never expected to get sick and leave him with all the work.

     This is an important and timely issue, considering the many emails I’ve received in the past year about horses needing homes because the owner got sick or died. Any horse (or other pet) needs a safety net to provide for his future in case the owner is suddenly out of the picture. It should be a written plan, available to family and friends, with a designated caretaker and one or more alternatives.

     I started this column after reading an article entitled Estate Planning for Your Horse, posted on discoverhorses.com and originally published in the July 2008 issue of Practical Horseman. This same topic was also explored recently by an online discussion group of friends of Crosswinds Equine Rescue in Sidell.

     Legally, horses are property. If you have a will regarding other property—why not include your horses? Is anyone in your family knowledgeable about horses and willing to take the responsibility to find new homes? You can leave them to a person—or to a rescue farm or therapeutic riding center. If you decide your horse should be euthanized if you aren’t able to care for him, be sure those around you know of your wishes.

     The Estate Planning article recommended three basic actions. One, find two friends or relatives who will agree to serve as emergency and/or long term caretakers. Discuss your wishes regarding your horse in case of your sickness or death. Supply all information needed by a caretaker or new owner, including names and phone numbers for your veterinarian and farrier, and a list of any supplements or medicines each animal needs. Decide how expenses can be covered. Two, be sure to stay in touch with these people to confirm they are still able to manage a sudden situation—and if that changes, find alternatives. And three, carry a wallet card with emergency contact information related to your animals (including dogs, cats or other pets as well).

     If you board, discuss this issue with your stable owner and supply names and phone numbers for your emergency caretakers. A written agreement should include what should be done with your horses in case the unthinkable happens, or if you are unable to care for your animals for a long period of time. Determine how bills will be paid to avoid losing a horse while you are sick. And if you keep horse feed in a locked tackroom, be sure someone else has a key.

      If you keep your horse on your own property, find someone who can step in and check on things in an emergency, preferably someone living nearby. Again, be sure to make available any information regarding veterinarian and farrier, needed supplements or medicines, how much and what to feed as well as any other information about each animal. Also be sure your designated person knows where to find things and how to approach your animals safely.

     The online article also gave four options for those who wish to go even further with equine estate-planning. If a spouse or other family member is not available to step in and take over, these options may be what you need to consider. 

     A living trust is a popular choice. You set aside money for care and a named trustee has control. A trust is more flexible than a will, without court delays and costs, and can be useful if you become ill or incapacitated. Select a trustee you know and trust.

     A pet trust may be part of a living trust or on its own. Contact an experienced trust/estate lawyer licensed to practice law in your state for specific advice. A named trustee is given funds and guidelines as to how to handle funds for your horse and what to do with remaining funds when your horse dies. If you do a search online for Illinois Pet Trust Laws, you’ll find more information.

     A power of attorney can be used in the event of physical or mental incapacity, with provisions outlined for expenses. This ends, however, when the owner dies, unlike a trust or will. Powers of attorney are chosen when a person is alive and competent to do so, or a horse may lack care while waiting for legal action to be taken. Always name alternatives in case the original person is unable or unwilling when the need arises.

     Life insurance might be useful in some cases, if you lack another way to support your horse’s care. Consult a lawyer or life-insurance agent regarding how to name a pet trustee or trust as a beneficiary. There is also a book, All My Children Wear Fur Coats: How to Leave a Legacy for Your Pet, by attorney Peggy R. Hoyt, with more advice. Check out the website: www.legacyforyourpet.com.

     As unpleasant as this subject seems, planning ahead can give you peace of mind as well as more control over what happens to your equine partner. Only God knows when the need will arise. Psalm 103:15-16 reminds us, “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” But read the rest of this Psalm for the encouraging part, ending with “Praise the Lord, O my soul.”

     Extra wisdom for horse owners came from AnnMarie Cross of Crosswinds Equine Rescue during the earlier mentioned online discussion. Check out their website at www.cwer.org. Though horse owners sometimes will their horses to a rescue farm, she says to always have a second option in place. Rescues are often full and may not be able to take your horse when the need arises. She also begs horse owners to be sure each pet has good ground manners and basic training for safe riding. Horses with dangerous problems are more apt to NOT find a good home and may even end up in the nightmare of a cattle trailer en route to a Mexican slaughter house. Do all you can, she warns, to improve your horse’s skills and marketability should the day come that he needs to find a new home. Teach him to trailer load, to stand quietly for hoof cleaning, for the farrier and vet, for mounting and dismounting. Deal with any riding problems and get professional help if needed. The well trained and better behaved horse will be easier to place in a good home. And that is the horse you want for yourself, anyway, while you enjoy your time with him. Right?

(Originally published in the August 2011 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)

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