When the Cheering Stops

Judith Bokman founded the Standardbred Retirement Foundation to save retired harness racing horses from the slaughterhouse.

SRF employee Debbie Frey leads Trainwreck, a rescued former racehorse now up for adoption, on an exercise walk on Hamilton property.
Photo by Chris Crisman.

After years in harness racing, Judith Bokman could no longer ignore the cruel fate that awaited many horses when they could no longer compete. Although some went on to new careers as recreational or work horses, many healthy animals were doomed to the slaughterhouse.

Bokman rescued her first horse in 1989 when she witnessed a trainer she knew selling his 10-year-old retired harness racer to a dealer she suspected of being a so-called killer buyer. The trainer, Bill Eppedio, had just walked his standardbred stallion onto the dealer’s trailer, when she ran up to him and shouted, “Bill! What are you doing?”

Eppedio turned around, startled. He didn’t think he was doing anything unusual. This kind of transaction happened all the time. As far as he knew, Shiny Shot was on his way to a pleasant new life. But after listening to Bokman’s anguished plea, he told the dealer the sale was off and walked Shiny Shot back to the barn.

The next day Bokman started taking out newspaper ads to find Shiny Shot an adoptive home. She soon placed the horse with a retired Army colonel and his wife in New Paltz, New York. But Bokman didn’t leave it at that. She and Paula Campbell, wife of prominent harness racing driver John Campbell, teamed up to form the Standardbred Retirement Foundation to save as many ex-racehorses as possible.

Horses are a billion-dollar industry in the Garden State, with nearly 80 percent of their economic impact stemming from racing. Prestigious thoroughbred events like last year’s Breeders’ Cup races at Monmouth Park draw the most ink and airtime, but harness racing accounts for the preponderance of horses and money, according to the New Jersey Racing Commission.

Harness racing is the province of the standardbred. Like thoroughbreds and quarterhorses, standardbreds are a breed. As in thoroughbred racing, the biggest purses in harness racing go to 2- and 3-year-olds. But standardbreds are often raced so often in their first few years that, by the age of 4 or 5, they are past their prime as athletes. Treated properly, though, these horses can live healthily into their 30s.

In 2007, the last three slaughterhouses in the United States—two in Texas and one in Illinois, both foreign-owned—were shut down under state laws. But the problem is far from solved. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report put the number of horses of all kinds exported to Mexico for slaughter from January 1 to mid-October of this year at 45,224, up 10,000 from the same period in 2007.

Federal legislation to ban such exports and provide other protections failed to pass Congress in 2003. New Senate and House versions of those bills introduced in July are stalled in committee. Still, the situation is better than it was in 1989—according to USDA statistics, 348,000 horses of all kinds were slaughtered that year.

Initially, with no real budget to speak of, Bokman and Campbell kept the SRF small, accepting about twenty horses a year and matching them with adopters purely by word of mouth. As the group expanded its outreach and succeeded in raising awareness through newsletters and fundraisers, the number of horses taken in a year steadily rose to its present rate of about 130.

In addition to its own leased farm in Hamilton, the SRF boards horses at 15 farms in New Jersey and 11 more around the country. To date, there have been more than 2,000 adoptions.

SRF mounts are divided into two classifications: adoptable (suitable for riding and driving) and permanently retired (best suited for companionship, not riding). A small full-time staff and a wide range of volunteers care for the animals and train them for their new lives. Horses with chronic injuries receive care indefinitely.
One of the first organizations of its kind, the SRF set high standards for screening potential adopters and, according to Bokman, pioneered the idea of monitoring the horses after adoption.

To evaluate an adopter, “We look for a history with horses,” she says. “We screen through their veterinarian and personal references to make sure they’ve not been convicted of animal cruelty. We interview the person, and we try to match them as best we can with the horse because we want to make a lifetime match.”

Adopters must maintain established standards of fencing, pasture, water, feed, and shelter from inclement weather. The foundation stipulates that “the horses cannot be raced, bred, sold, used for embryo transfer, given away, or used for any commercial purpose…. If adopters cannot provide proper care for any reason, the horse must be returned to the SRF.”

Semiannual health checkups are required, with reports coming back to the SRF. The SRF once turned down a request from the Imperial Palace in Japan, which sought horses for the Emperor, because the foundation would not be able to adequately monitor the horses’ care from across the globe.

Given a chance at a second life, the standardbred pretty much sells itself. “When people hear ‘racehorse,’” Bokman says, “they think of the thoroughbred, which has a different temperament. But the standardbred is well mannered, very easy to handle, great with kids.”

Amanda Presing, who manages Indian Hills Farm in West Milford, came to the SRF in search of a mild-mannered horse for her fiancé to ride. She found a perfect match in Melody, a retired mare.

“It’s a great feeling to know you gave a horse a second chance,” she says. “My uncle used to have standardbreds and race them, but I never knew they were good riding horses. It’s awesome to have a horse so willing and eager to learn. They can do anything with the right training.”

A growing number of SRF alumni work as police mounts in Nebraska and Virginia, in Newark, and on the Rutgers campus. “I have eighteen horses in my unit,” says Lieutenant Robert Marelli, a 38-year veteran of the Newark Police Department, “and twelve of them are from the SRF. I’m having a great run and a lot of luck with them.”

SRF horses participate in therapeutic riding programs like Horses for Heroes, a project developed at Riding High Farm in Allentown for disabled veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The SRF has also developed a program with the New Jersey Training School, where juvenile offenders take on responsibility for the animals and develop the skills necessary to properly care for and handle the standardbreds.

“I more or less instruct them on being a groom,” says Ken Lyon, who teaches equine science at the Training School to some of the toughest inner city youths. “They learn about the horses’ nutritional needs, diseases. They’re learning a vocation and a trade, and at the same time it’s therapeutic for them. That’s a little bit of the attraction of being around animals, the unconditional love. They’re going to treat you how you treat them, and that doesn’t necessarily always happen with people.”

To operate, the nonprofit foundation relies on donations of goods and services as well as cash contributions from owners, who may help subsidize some of their horse’s expenses until a new home is found. Most adopters donate $500 to $800. People who can’t take on the responsibility of adopting can sponsor a horse. Sponsors help with medical, food, and boarding expenses, and in return get to visit the horse for afternoons of riding, grazing, or grooming, depending on the horse’s condition.

Still, SRF’s resources are stretched and, despite the continuing need, the foundation can take in no more animals this year.

“We’ve exhausted our budget,” says Bokman. “This is the most horses we’ve had, and the worst financial situation we’ve ever been in. We don’t have an endowment; there’s always such a need every day. I constantly tell people, ‘A horse is not a donation. It’s really a liability, a huge expense. We’re actually providing you a service and trying to do the right thing with your horse.’”

Sources for horses: Contact the SRF at adoptahorse.org or 609-324-1500. Other horse adoption groups in New Jersey are manesandtailsorganization.org, rerun.org, and mylestone.org.

Anthony D’Amato is a member of the Princeton University Class of 2010.

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