MSPCA Prevention, And More

One goal of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) is to rescue, rehabilitate, and find homes for all animals in need. The group also is in the business of educating owners, and they specifically are working to train horse people around the country to handle emergency situations at competitive events, transport down horses (horses which can't get on their feet due to malnutrition, accident, or injury), correctly place down horses in slings to support their weight, and respond to natural disasters or other crisis situations that involve horses.

The equine ambulances aren't a new thing to the MSPCA; they had one for work horses back in 1868.

Today, the MSPCA has three full-time, fully equipped ambulances. that travel to events around the country.

They have found that 90%-95% of the calls they get for the support services mentioned above are due to farm accidents or problems that happen on trail rides, said Joe Silva, director of the MSPCA's Nevins Farm and Equine Centre, in Metheun, Mass.

"Our mission is to make things better for horses over the long haul," said Silva. "We rescue horses, we try to help people find homes for horses, and we educate people who own or are taking those horses. We know we can't be successful with horses unless we train people.

"We take every horse (offered.) Unfortunately, that means we will put some horses down if they are too aggressive to place or are not pasture sound."

Silva, who grew up working on a horse farm in Massachusetts, operated a dairy farm for a time. Plagued by carpel tunnel syndrome, he was forced to take time off from the dairy. His love for animals drew him to a job as executive director for a humane society in Vermont.

"I fell in love with the work. I was an advocate for animals, especially farm animals. And I became aware of the gap in knowledge of people who own those animals."

His quest to fill in that gap landed him at the MSPCA a few years later, first working with small animals and building or re-building shelters, then with Nevins Farm. Nevins not only is home to the equine center, but takes in many other farm animals--geese, ducks, goats, sheep, pigs, and cows.

The MSPCA also is a pioneer in equine rescue and emergency transportation services. It operates an around-the-clock veterinary referral service for transporting horses in distress and a sport horse emergency ambulance service at sporting events. Recently, Nevins Farm started a series of equine rescue training programs for humane organizations around the country. Groups trained include the American Humane Association, Animal Rescue League of Boston, and Tufts Veterinary School.

Silva remember times when the horse 'ambulance' at an event doubled as the judge's booth for dressage. The MSPCA is changing that.

In The Beginning

The MSPCA began in 1868 following a "notorious incident of animal abuse in which two horses were raced to their deaths." The continuity of that mission to the present time makes the MSPCA one of the nation's oldest societies working for animal welfare. It also is the largest organization of its kind, giving hands-on care to 250,000 animals each year. The group's goal also includes making lasting changes for the benefit of animals and the people who care for them.

"Our goal is not to provide services nationally, but to raise the bar," said Silva. One way the MSPCA is doing that is by teaching individuals how to create a useful equine ambulance from an ordinary horse trailer for about $1,500.

"A lot of people go to (horse) events anyway, and by showing them how to equip a trailer inexpensively, and training individuals how to use the equipment properly, they could have the event emergency trailer," explained Silva. "Then maybe that person could be on call for local vets if there is a horse down. Or if someone is running a lot of events and had their own equipment, we could fly in ourselves and have experienced people to help."

Silva said his experiences at MSPCA have helped him and his co-workers become specialists at moving down, alive horses. "People are amazed at how easy we can do that, even with something as complicated as a down draft horse in a stall," said Silva. "That is what we hope will catch on. You can go to a farm and save an animal when it can be transported to a veterinary hospital. We rescue, and we transport."

A goal was set forth about eight years ago to develop a trailer that could be taken to major events across the country, used in case of emergency, and also demonstrate that horses which are unable to rise can be moved safely and efficiently to the nearest equine clinic. The MSPCA now has three of those trailers. One is a four-horse trailer with stalls head-to-head and an additional side ramp; one is a two-horse trailer; and one is a two-horse trailer with a side ramp. All of the trailers were bought "off the lot," then equipped for handling emergencies so people could duplicate the transformation.

The MSPCA volunteers their services--and their trailers--at events to show the industry what can be done. But the welcome hasn't always been warm. He says people felt that because the MSPCA was a "humane" organization, that their representatives were at events to judge competitors and what was done with the horses. Silva said it took years for people to realize the role of the MSPCA in treating injured horses.

At the first three-day events the MSPCA attended, they were seen as a "dead horse service." Silva says people assumed that just because they moved a horse out of the way within a few minutes that the horse was dead. People soon realized that Silva and his crew were helping horses get treatment faster.

"Obviously, we have a humane way to remove a dead horse, but we really are there for the horses that get hurt. We can help the live horses. It's a safety issue for horses and athletes when we can get a down horse off the course."

This service isn't just for three-day events. The ambulances travel to all types of equine competitions across the country. Silva said competitors like to know that if a horse gets hurt, no matter the type of competition, that someone is there to help.

Silva thinks eventing gets a bad rap from the general public. He says he sees more accidents in a month at farms than in all the events he attends in a year!

Therefore, after two years of that voluntary effort across the country and few event-related accidents, the MSPCA personnel began to fill a greater need in their region by providing transportation services for down horses. This service is only available with referral by a veterinarian. This grew to be a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation that covers emergencies in most of New England.

"We only work on the referral of veterinarians," he said. "That way, the vet can decide what the horse needs. People should realize that this is dangerous work."

When the service was started, Silva found very few hospitals had slings adequate for raising a horse to its feet comfortably and safely. The Anderson sling came on the scene about that time, and Silva and his colleagues began providing that service to area vets.

"Now most large animal hospitals have an Anderson sling, but we still give instruction on how to use the sling," said Silva. "Our experience has allowed us to use our equipment quite a bit, and we can share that knowledge. We've found that most people who own Anderson slings have never put them on a down horse, only on standing horses. It takes some training."

From broken legs to split pelvises; from colics to a horse having fallen through the barn floor, Silva and his staff cut their teeth on solving problems by moving injured, down, or trapped horses throughout New England.

One of the things he learned through experience was that about 70% of accidents were in paddocks upon turnout after horses had been cooped up in a stall because of bad weather. However, there also were plenty of neurologic cases, horses down in stalls with seemingly no way through the door, or horses which had problems that excluded them from being sedated, and were fractious or dangerous to handle.

For some horses, their only chance of survival is getting to a clinic. If they can't be moved safely--for both horse and handler--then the only option is euthanasia. Silva hopes the spread of knowledge and equipment will make that option used less often.

"The whole idea is to share what we have learned," said Silva. "We want to let people ride with us and our people when we do rescues, and to take our expertise on the road to places and show people what can be done."

Another area of education that follows that trend is teaching emergency personnel such as firefighters and rescue teams how to handle horses in emergencies.

"You can't train people how to handle disasters and emergencies unless you've been there because they don't get hands-on experience," explained Silva. He said his group not only has the experience, but also has the caseload to allow people to share that experience first-hand.

"We hope in four to five years to have enough people around the country with trailers set up for emergencies that when a problem happens in a region--whether it's one down horse or a disaster--that people will be able to handle it," said Silva. That means rescue groups and veterinarians working together. The MSPCA is trying to make that a reality.

"It's a huge investment in personnel and equipment," added Silva, who was working the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. "We traveled 5,000 miles in the last three weeks. We put 20,000 to 25,000 miles apiece on the three ambulances each year."

Nevins Farm

Nevins is for horses the same as a dog shelter is for small animals, explained Silva. Some horses are there after being rescued from an abusive situation, some are there for rest and rehabilitation before find-ing a new home, and some were donated to MSPCA because the owner no longer could care for the animal.

"We can get overwhelmed," said Silva. "We will give the names of other equine groups who could take the horse, but we know that in the end, we will take the horse."

The MSPCA helps owners find good homes for horses, some of which are given up because of behavior problems. Some of those horses can be rehabilitated at Nevins, some are sent to professional trainers who help the MSPCA personnel decide if the horse is too aggressive to be handled safely.

The educational center at Nevins Farm will soon offer courses on behavior problems by some of the leading professionals in the country, in addition to their courses on horse care for individuals and groups. This multiple facet attack on solving welfare problems has made the MSPCA what it is today.

"Our mission is to make things better for the horses over the long haul," said Silva.

Success speaks for itself.

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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