Legalities of Equine Rescue

Driving home one evening at dusk, you notice a horse standing listlessly in a small, fenced paddock on a farm located a few miles from your home. The horse looks quite thin, almost to the point of emaciation, and there is neither food nor water visible in the field. The owners of the farm bought the property a few weeks ago, moved in with several horses, and apparently plan to operate a boarding stable; you know the owners' names, but you have never spoken to them. When you get home, you telephone a friend, who has also seen the horse and who shares your concern for the animal's welfare.

What should you do? Which if any of the following actions are appropriate?

  • Introduce yourself to your new neighbors, explain your concerns about the horse's appearance, and offer assistance.
  • Stop your car on the side of the road, a public thoroughfare, and take photographs of the horse with a telephoto lens.
  • Climb your neighbor's fence and go onto his property for a closer look at the horse and for better photographs.
  • Toss hay or feed over the fence into the horse's paddock.
  • Post a notice identifying your neighbors and labeling them as animal abusers on the bulletin board of your local tack store.
  • Upload photographs of the horse and the name and address of his owners onto an animal abuse web site.
  • Wait until night, then cut the fence and take the horse away.
  • Discuss the situation with your veterinarian, who happens to be the only equine practitioner in the area.
  • Report the situation to the proper authorities.
  • Do nothing, and hope for the best.

Folly of the most extreme options should be obvious. Although the moral justification for removing an endangered horse without the owner's knowledge or permission is at least debatable, there is no question about the legal ramifications. You are stealing another person's property, and theft is against the law. Necessity can be a defense to a criminal offense, such as a driver exceeding the posted speed limit to rush his pregnant wife to a hospital, but self-help and guerilla tactics seldom are justified.

Posting notices, either in print or electronically, identifying the horse's owners as animal abusers, or even spreading gossip to that effect, might subject you to charges of defamation. The potential liability for monetary damages likely would increase if your actions damage the horse owner's business in some way.

Entering the owner's property without permission--whether to take photographs, to take feed to the horse, or simply to get a better look at the animal--is trespassing, a misdemeanor in most jurisdictions. Also, conviction for trespassing generally does not depend on the posting of a "No Trespassing" sign, so long as there is fencing or some other indication that the owner intends the property to be off limits to outsiders. Stay out unless invited.

You also must consider the possibility that the horse's poor condition is the result of illness or of some other condition that is being treated and that would be exacerbated by unsupervised feeding. Although this is unlikely, your well-intentioned efforts might make matters worse. A good rule of thumb if you see one horse which looks maltreated is to assess the condition of the owner's other horses. One thin horse among several which are fat and sassy is less likely to be the product of neglect.

The only reasonable options are communicating your concerns about the horse's welfare to the owner, to a veterinarian, or to the proper authorities. Discussing the matter with the horse's owner is a judgment call, depending on your relationship--if any--with that person. A good friend of several years' standing probably should be approached in a manner different than that of a casual acquaintance or a stranger.

Keep in mind that not all animal abuse or neglect is intentional. The problem might be the result of ignorance, personal problems, or unexpected financial difficulties. The owner might recognize a problem, but be embarrassed to ask for help or advice. The owner might welcome your interest, or see it as meddling.

A local veterinarian might be an impartial buffer between you and the owner of the horse, especially if he or she also has the owner of the animal in question as a client. Advice about the horse's condition might be more palatable coming from a medical professional. Do not expect a dialogue with the veterinarian about the situation, however. Medical records and communications between a client and a veterinarian generally are confidential, and it would be unethical, and possibly illegal, for the veterinarian to discuss with you any of the specifics of another client's animals.

Reporting the suspected abuse or neglect to the proper authorities is the best option in situations you might consider an emergency, and probably is the best choice in any event. They have the legal responsibility and authority to investigate claims, and they have the authority to seize animals for their welfare, if necessary. You should make the report as complete as possible, including your name and contact information, the nature of the alleged abuse or neglect, the location (with directions if necessary), the identity of the owner or the person responsible if known, and any evidence, such as photographs, you might have.

Making a report is an important first step in curbing animal abuse, but your responsibility does not end there. You might be required to make a formal statement under oath to authorities, and you might have to testify in court if the matter proceeds to trial. This level of involvement could be an inconvenience, but it is necessary.

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

"Out of sight, out of mind" is an old saying that too often applies to animal abuse, and it is tempting to become complacent when not addressing either directly or indirectly an immediate problem. Equine welfare is an ongoing concern, however, and government and private humane organizations always need support. One of the most important actions you can take is to help fill this need through donations of money, feed and other supplies, or your time.

Donations to many organizations are tax-deductible, depending on the status of the organization and your personal tax situation, and inquiries about their status should be directed to the organization before you send money. Your tax advisor should be able to answer questions about the latter. Whether your donations can be tax-deductible will depend on the organization's status in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service. Donations to a charity organized under a 501(c)(3) organization (not-for-profit) generally will be tax deductible, for example, while donations to a 501(c)(6) organization (also not-for-profit) generally will not be deductible.

You should be able to get this information from the organization; reluctance to provide such basic facts is a serious red flag. Also, ask what percentage of an organization's funds go to salaries, other administrative costs, advertising, and fund-raising, and what percentage actually is used to help animals. Some charities devote a substantial amount of resources to raising more money for the charity, rather than providing services. There are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes an acceptable percentage allocated to overhead, but an organization that devotes less than 50% of its resources (according to the Better Business Bureau) to actual services deserves a hard second look before you make a donation.

You also should be certain that the charity actually does what it says or implies that it does. There are disturbing reports of some humane organizations soliciting donations with photographs of search and rescue dogs at work after the World Trade Center attacks, when the organizations actually have nothing at all to do with search and rescue efforts.

It is important not to ignore local humane societies when planning donations under the mistaken belief that they receive sufficient government funding. In addition to a continuing need for funds and other donations, local humane societies generally become responsible for the care of animals seized after reports of abuse or neglect. Often sick or needing expensive medical care, these animals generally remain the responsibility of local humane societies until final disposition of the charges. The legal process can take months, and can place a serious financial hardship on the organization responsible.

It also might be tempting to start your own equine rescue organization, especially if there are limited resources in your area. The economics and mechanics of establishing and operating an equine rescue organization are far outside the scope of this article, and you should seek competent legal assistance. A poorly run and inadequately funded rescue organization, no matter how well-intentioned, can do more harm than good, and your time and money might be better spent supporting an established group. Contact a local horse charity and ask if you can volunteer and get a feel for what they do before giving money.

Doing Your Duty

Faced with an instance of suspected animal abuse, what should you do? What are you legally required to do?

Wherever you stand on the thorny issue of animal rights, you should recognize a moral obligation to prevent an animal's unnecessary suffering whenever possible within the bounds of the law. Whether there also is a legal obligation to take action is a different question, made more complicated by the status of animals as property in nearly all jurisdictions. Although considered property, there is a general recognition that animals are sentient creatures that rely on people for their care and well-being, and this understanding forms the basis for nearly all animal abuse and neglect laws. Nevertheless, most states still regard animal abuse and neglect as misdemeanors rather than as more serious felonies. In other words, your horse or dog enjoys fewer rights than a person, but more rights than your refrigerator.

This might be changing, however. Speaking at the recent American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) convention in Nashville, Tenn., attorney Douglas C. Jack reported that some 15 states now charge intentional animal cruelty as felonies, and that law-making bodies in some other states are attempting to toughen abuse laws as well. Jack also noted that some cities are recognizing the special human-animal bond by characterizing pet owners as "guardians" of animals rather than as their owners, a status that imposes special obligations for care.

The abuse, neglect, and exploitation of children and adults are against the law in all states. Separate, but related, statutes also impose a reporting obligation on "any person" who knows, or has reasonable cause to believe or suspect, that a child or adult is being abused or neglected. The statutes also define to whom such reports of abuse and neglect must be made, the general contents such reports should include, and the required actions of any state agency that receives such reports.

Although animal abuse and neglect also are against the law almost everywhere, few states have reporting requirements similar to those mandated for suspected child or adult abuse. In the few states that do have a reporting requirement for suspected animal mistreatment (West Virginia, Minnesota, Arizona, California, and Wisconsin), the legal duty to report extends only to veterinarians. In Arizona, California, and Wisconsin, the duty of veterinarians to report animal abuse is restricted even more, to instances of abuse related to dogfighting.

A few states, such as Idaho, do not require veterinarians to report suspected animal abuse, but provide protection by statute from civil or criminal liability arising from such reports made in good faith. Absent such protection, the realistic fear of a lawsuit acts as a strong disincentive for anyone, either professional or layperson, to report suspected animal abuse.

Although unable to usurp state action or inaction regarding mandatory reporting, the AVMA has adopted a position recognizing that "veterinarians may observe cases of animal abuse or neglect," and that when these situations "cannot be resolved through education, the AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such cases to appropriate authorities."

Noting that "disclosures may be necessary to protect the health and welfare of animals and people," the AVMA implicitly recognizes a growing recognition of the link between animal abuse and child abuse. The AVMA also recognizes the importance of owner education in resolving animal abuse problems.

You should familiarize yourself with the animal abuse and neglect laws in your own state, and you should learn how, and to whom, reports of abuse should be made. Your state horse council, if there is one, cannot take direct action against a suspected animal abuser, but the council might be able to direct you to the proper agency for a report. Web sites such as www., provide a state-by-state directory of humane organizations that can assist horses in distress, as well as links to other horse welfare resources.

Aside from any legal reporting requirements your state might impose, though, you should report cases of suspected animal abuse and neglect to the proper authorities for one simple reason. It's the right thing to do. 


Wenholz, Sushil D. Adoption Organizations: Charity Begins With Homework. The Horse, July 2000, 78-82. Article Quick Find #205 at


A less obvious way to help is to consider adopting a horse, which has the dual benefit of finding a horse a good home and removing the animal from the ledger of a public or private agency responsible for his care. A number of private organizations across the country serve as adoption agencies for horses needing new homes, either for retirement or for a new career.

ReRun, based in Lexington, Ky., finds homes for Thoroughbreds which no longer are competitive on the race track, but are healthy enough to be ridden for pleasure or competition. Shon Wylie, executive director of ReRun, advises that anyone interested in adopting a horse from a reputable organization should expect to be interviewed and screened before an adoption is approved. You might be asked to provide personal and financial information, information about your experience with horses, facts about your farm or where you expect to board the horse, and references. Some adoption organizations will schedule a personal visit.

There probably will be an adoption fee, ranging from a few hundred dollars on up, and you will be expected to sign a contract. Many organizations require a lifetime contract, while a few utilize a contract with a period of a few years. In either event, the contract is a legal document that imposes certain obligations for the care of the horse and certain requirements about subsequent sale or other disposition of the animal. If you are not prepared to live up to the terms of the agreement, you should not adopt the horse.

You have a right to expect an adoption organization to be honest with you about the horse, and you should have the option of returning the horse if problems develop. Most contracts require you to notify the organization in advance if you plan to sell or give away the horse.

"Adoption is not a good way to get a 'cheap' horse," said Wylie.

For more information on welfare organizations, visit and click on the Directory link at the top of the page to go to the online version of The Horse Source. From there, select the Welfare/
Rescue Organizations category, which you can view by state.--Milton C. Toby, JD

Editor's Note: Also check out the Adoptable Horse of the Week and related information on adoption organizations on our free weekly electronic horse health newsletter. Sign up at

5 TIPS: Rescuing Horses

  1. Step one is communicating your concerns about the horse's welfare to the owner, to a veterinarian, or to the proper authorities.
  2. A local veterinarian might be an impartial buffer between you and the owner of the horse, especially if he or she also has the owner of the animal in question as a client.
  3. Reporting the suspected abuse or neglect to the proper authorities is the best option in an emergency.
  4. Familiarize yourself with the animal abuse and neglect laws in your state, and learn how--and to whom--reports of abuse should be made. (Your state's horse council probably is a good starting point.)
  5. Most states still regard animal abuse and neglect as misdemeanors rather than as more serious felonies.

About the Author

Milt Toby, JD

Milt Toby is an author and attorney who has been writing about horses and legal issues affecting the equine industry for more than 40 years. Former Chair of the Kentucky Bar Association's Equine Law Section, Milt has written eight nonfiction books, including national award winners Dancer’s Image and Noor. He teaches Equine Commercial Law in the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program.

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