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Conte's Whirl soon after coming to the Illinois Equine Humane Center. (Photos courtesy of the Illinois Equine Humane Center)
After showing horses as a child and later transitioning into becoming a racehorse trainer, Gail Vacca had a strong background with horses before starting the Illinois Equine Humane Center (ILEHC) in 2008.
As a teenager, Vacca spent summers at Rockingham Park cooling out racehorses to earn extra money so she could afford to show her horses in top level hunter and jumper shows. That experience found her spending more time at the track as the years went on.
“I just fell in love with the horses; the beauty and the athleticism of the racehorses. It’s an addiction,” Vacca said. “I did that during summers when I was a kid then when I got out of high school, I kind of spent a little more time at the track. I was a groom for a couple years and then that evolved into me getting my trainer’s license when I was 24.”
During her time as a trainer, people would come to Vacca with horses who needed to be rehabilitated or rehomed. That eventually turned into Vacca rescuing retired racehorses and finding them new homes before starting ILEHC seven years ago.
“It was just kind of a natural progression of things with me for being involved and advocating for racehorse welfare while racing and after racing for all those years just kind of evolved into me ultimately opening my own facility,” said Vacca.
ILEHC gets horses from both the track and neglect cases, so depending on the situation horses can go through the program in only a few weeks or they can stay for the rest of their lives. Horses who can’t be ridden generally go on ILEHC’s permanent resident list but in some cases those horses will be adopted out if the right non-riding home comes along. However, if the horse is healthy, it will be ridden a few times to figure out what it is best suited for.
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If a local potential adopter comes to ILEHC and decides to adopt one of its horses, the process can go quickly, but it can take longer if the potential new home isn’t in Illinois.
“It’s usually a pretty quick process if they’re local,” she said. “If they’re out of state, it can take a little longer because we tend to network with other groups that might be in that physical location and another group might have somebody available to go and do us a favor and do the on-site inspection. We don’t approve any applications without doing a physical evaluation of the facility where the horse will live.”
ILEHC is fine with owners selling horses they adopt from the program but does require notification that the horse is for sale so they can keep track of who buys it. The main reason ILEHC wants this information is so it can let any future owners know that if the horse needs a place to go at any point in its life, it can come back to the program.
“We don’t want to alienate people who are trainers and might be going to work with [the horse] and retrain them then rehome them at some point,” Vacca said. “We like those people to still be able to adopt horses, it helps us to be able to be in a position to help more horses. But we want to make sure whoever has ownership of a horse at any point in its life is aware that it was one of our horses and that at any point in its lifetime it can come back to us.”
The program also doesn’t deny an application if the potential adopter isn’t experienced with horses, but they must have a trainer help them with the horse. Vacca recommends that those who aren’t experienced with horses or retired racehorses volunteer at an aftercare organization where they can handle retired racehorses before they venture out to buy their own. Any horses a person, inexperienced or not, buys should also be vetted to make sure the horse is suitable for the goals a buyer may have for it.
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However, even with those warnings, Vacca isn’t shy of recommending the breed to anyone looking for a horse.
“They are the most versatile and athletic breed that you can choose. They can do it all, there’s really nothing that they are not capable of doing. They are athletic, they’re beautiful, they’re versatile. Their work ethic, well there’s no better work ethic among the breeds. I work with a lot of breeds of horses riding show horses and the Thoroughbred just wants to do what you want them to do and they’ll do it all day long. They never tire, they never get sick of doing what you ask them to do and I just love them. You can’t beat them,” she said.
The Illinois Equine Humane Center was recently accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), a program Vacca thinks is a much-needed addition to the aftercare community.
“I think it’s fabulous that [the racing industry] stepped up to form the TAA. Now that donors and horsemen that need to relinquish their horses have groups that they can contact that have been thoroughly vetted by TAA it’s just a win-win situation. It’s a win for the horses, it’s a win for the horsemen, for the people that love the horses, and it’s a win for the rescue community in general because now donors can feel confident that the money is being well-spent for the intended purpose. They know that the groups they are supporting are providing the proper care for the horses. So it’s really important that TAA was founded.”
For those who may want to help ILEHC but aren’t ready to adopt a horse, they can donate time, supplies or money to the program. To learn more about ILEHC, readers can visit www.ilehc.org.
If you know of a Thoroughbred Aftercare program that you think should be covered in America’s Best Racing’s Aftercare Program Spotlight, email Melissa Bauer-Herzog (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the program’s name and website.