Dawn Mellen, President, After the Finish Line
Karen Groebli, Tijuana River Valley Rescue
Related Story: Ex-Race Horses May Get Second Life
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The end of this year's Del Mar racing season is less than two weeks away. And each year, the racetrack features some of the world's fastest and most beautiful thoroughbreds. We tend to think of them as pampered and treated like prize athletes. They are for a while. But what happens when their racing days are done? Horse lovers in San Diego are working to rescue former racehorses who are routinely auctioned off to slaughter houses after their racing days are over. My guests are Dawn Mellen, President of After the Finish Line, and Karen Groebli with the Tijuana River Valley Rescue. Dawn, I believe that most people think racehorses are put out to stud when they get too old for racing. They spend the rest of their days on a big ranch somewhere. Is that typical?
MELLEN: For a few of the horses, yes. The horses that are the best athletes, are the best equine athletes will. But there are many, many horses who are not going to achieve going to stud. These are horses that we can help to transition into second careers in lieu of going to slaughter and in lieu of going to the breeding shed.
CAVANAUGH: When your organization after the finish line, what kind of fate is awaiting these horses?
MELLEN: They can take many different paths. There are many, many good owners and trainers in racing. And they do take care of their horses, they do try and find a home for their horses when they're done racing. But then there are those who do not. These horses live up to 30 years old, they race maybe until they're 7 years old. So they have a long life ahead of them. And as talented as they are on the racetrack, as talented as they can be as a hunter, jumper, a trail horse, a therapy horse. So we are her to give them that opportunity because they can go be adopted into loving homes and just live a wonderful life. And they deserve it for all the excitement, for everything they've given to us on the racetrack. People profit from these horses immensely. And we're here to say now it's time to step in and help these horses when they can no longer race and breed.
CAVANAUGH: Some of the organizations that you fund save these horses from kill pens. What are they?
MELLEN: There are several auctions here in California where resources are taken, maybe when their owners no longer want them, and it's a bidding process. The highest bidder gets the horse. And it's not necessarily that the horse is being bid on by an owner who wants to take it to their home and make it their ped or riding horse. There are people who are actually there who are bidding on these horses to then take them to slaughter. And this is what we want to stop. We want to avoid this from happening and catch this before the horses even get to the auction. So after the finish line, the rescue organizations, we help to save horses from auction, we help with surgeries.
CAVANAUGH: And let me also make the point that the reason they would be slaughtered, they'd be slaughtered for meat because that meat is sold not here in the United States but in Europe and perhaps Asia for human consumption; is that right?
MELLEN: Exactly. At a restaurant overseas, you can find horse meat on the menu where you would not find that here in the United States.
CAVANAUGH: And Karen, what kind of shape are the horses in when you rescue them.
GROEBLI: Well, we ask them from many different backgrounds. We'll get horses directly off the track from owners and trainers that are relinquishing directly from that environment. We pick horses up later in life that have maybe gone on to be a pleasure horse or a show horse that can no longer compete. But we also very often get horses directly from the kill buyers. There are several known kill buyers in town. There are several people aware when a thoroughbred ends up in their lot. And my organization does not buy from auction. We buy directly from the kill buyers. And many times Dawn has helped us with funds to get the horses off those lots and get them help.
CAVANAUGH: What makes horse owners abandon them in this way?
MELLEN: It's a business. And there's a profit and expense to it. Their concern is to have racing horses in their stability, not injured horses in their stable that can't go out and compete on the racetrack. So we step in we can't punish a horse for having a bad owner. And many people think that the trainers and the owners should be taking care of their horses, which they really should. But when that doesn't happen, after the finish line comes in and works with the rescue organizations to provide funding to save and rescue these horses, that's our role in this.
CAVANAUGH: How much does it cost to maintain a retired thoroughbred?
GROEBLI: An incredible amount. They have a very high metabolism and require two to three times as much feed as another breed. And even horses coming off the track with a minor injury, those rehabilitation processes are extremely lengthy. You're talking six months to a year if you're really going to rehab them properly. Between the vet care and just housing them for that amount of time, it's very expensive. And that's why a lot of people at the track, if you have a lower level horse, they're not going to put the time and effort into rehabbing that horse for that amount of time. They'd rather just send them to an avenue that's really not appropriate.
CAVANAUGH: Dawn, was there a catalyst, a moment that caused you to start this organization after the finish line?
MELLEN: I've always loved horses. And one day at the racetrack, I was just reading an article in a newspaper, and I saw a small ad for a horse rescue organization. And I thought why do these horses need to be rescued? I couldn't put two and two together. And when I visited the website and I learned, I was just surprised, me as a horse person, didn't know. And I don't think everybody understandings what does happen to these horses.
CAVANAUGH: Did you have that idea in your mind that all these horses were just living out their lives happily on some huge ranch somewhere?
MELLEN: Well, yes! And I wouldn't think it would happen any other way. I would think as people that we would be kinder to the horses, that we would treat them in a more humane way. And it does happen that they're taken care of when they retire from racing. But there's just too many, tens of thousands that aren't. And we can't help them all, but we do our best to help as many as we can.
CAVANAUGH: When you get an injured horse, Karen, what kinds of injuries do horses routinely suffer when they're race horses? And can they all be saved?
GROEBLI: No, they really can't. A lot of them just sustain injuries that are too much to handle. We do work with a local equine orthopedic surgeon who's helped us with a lot of our harder cases. But sometimes the joints just have so much degeneration that they really can't be saved, in which case we've taken in several horses just to humanely put them down rather than go through the slaughter avenues.
CAVANAUGH: In the it true that some of those sold to slaughtered have won substantial purses for their owners?
MELLEN: Absolutely. And that's the sad thing. Between the multibillion dollars racing industry, the industry itself, are the public sector, everyone has to come together, and there needs to be more options available to these horses. Right now, the primary burden falls upon the independent rescues and organizations like Dawn that tries to help us all continue our work.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us more about the Tijuana River Valley Rescue. How many horses do you have, and what do you do there?
GROEBLI: We started in the Tijuana river valley in a thoroughbred ranch. Hence our name. But we have our own property in Jamul. So we function through two different locations. And right now, we're caring for about 20 horses. But we have had as many as 50. So 20 even is a huge burden for a relatively small organization to give them all the hands-on care they need.
CAVANAUGH: How do you go about rehabilitating a racehorse?
GROEBLI: It's a lengthy process. If you have a tendon injury, it can be again a 6-month to a year process, and it's very tedious. How much hand-walking they get, a few weeks in, you start trotting them only five minutes. You build them back up nutritionally, a lot to sustain them, a lot of vitamins and detoxing them from a lot of the medications they have been given. So blood work. If you really want to take care of these horses right, it's an extremely extensive process.
CAVANAUGH: And remind us, what kind of second careers are we talking about? They live until 30. So what can they go on to do?
MELLEN: They're so talented, they can become hunter/jumpers, horses that compete in competitions. They can be lesson horses, they can be tresage horses, western horses.
CAVANAUGH: Sometimes you hear that thoroughbreds don't make good horses for people to own as a horse pet, if you want to put it that way. Is that not true?
MELLEN: No, I don't believe that's true.
GROEBLI: Nor do I.
MELLEN: I believe if you're educated, if you're working with your trainer, you can certainly take the time and form that bond with your horse. When you have a trust level between an animal and a human, you work together. And these horses, they want to learn. They want a job. They are so talented. And those who can no longer carry the weight of a required on their back, maybe they can be therapeutic riding horses.
CAVANAUGH: What does that mean?
MELLEN: They work with children and adults with disabilities. They get them out of the wheelchair, and the natural movement of the horse moves the individual's bodies in a natural way. They can be with, like, a wounded warrior program. They can be pets. They can be a companion horse to an owner's other horse. So there's so much life in these horses. And as we fund year-round, month after month, rescue organizations like Karen's, we give these horses the opportunity that they deserve. We as humans, we transition into more than one career during our life. And that's the same thing that can happen for these horses in we just give them the chance.
CAVANAUGH: Karen, how do you find second homes for rehabilitated thoroughbreds?
GROEBLI: I'll be honest, it's very hard with the economy, and people who have to have the right knowledge. It's really match the right horse with the right person for the right purpose. And just like humans, you have certain horses that retain a very competitive spirit. Some are just so thankful to be out of the stressful environment and transition easily into, say, a pleasure horse. But just the task of finding adoptive homes is very hard.
CAVANAUGH: There are some people who say the racing industry itself should be doing more to ensure that these incredible athletes are being taken care of after they retire.
MELLEN: Yes. And there are programs being started all throughout the United States. But I think we can do more. There's a lot of philanthropy throughout the United States, people who want to get involved in helping the horses, the racing association should be more involved. And keeping an eye out and maybe having adoption programs at their racetracks to help place the horses. There's so many of them. Once one horse leaves the track, there's another horse coming in to fill the stall. So with the amount of horses bred every year, there are definitely programs that the racing industry can pursue some more to bring money back to the horses. Of
CAVANAUGH: And I'm almost out of time. Let me talk to you about money. You've had a couple of fundraising events this summer, and you do fundraising on a regular basis. How much have you raised, and how much would you like to raise for this cause?
MELLEN: Last year we raised about $140,000. We should be in this San Diego, philanthropic community, we should be raising a couple hundred thousand dollars. But we also receive donations from outside of San Diego and California as well. Last year, we were able to award funding to 65 rescue organizations, helping about 300 horses. So the sky's the limit. The more money we get, the more horses we can help.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much.
MELLEN: Thank you.
GROEBLI: Thank you so much.