Amber is a 30-year-old Arabian mare which was slowly starving to death because her owners had run out of money to care for her. Because of her age and lack of potential and worth, Amber's owners allowed her to be pushed out of food and veterinary care in their herd of 35 horses. The husband finally decided to give Amber to a nearby therapeutic riding center, which promptly contacted the Hooved Animal Humane Society. After several months, Amber recovered, but one of her former herdmates, still at her former home (a stallion), wasn't so lucky. The stallion died before state-approved humane investigators could convince the owners of the seriousness of their financial predicament or take the proper legal steps to remove him.

--Lydia F. Gray, DVM, Executive Director,
Hooved Animal Humane Society

It's a sad fact that far too many horses in this world suffer from neglect and abuse. And it's another sad fact that if horses are not rehabilitated properly, they can suffer more problems, or even die. Rehabilitation begins with a veterinary examination, and the road to recovery depends on the severity and type of abuse or neglect. Well-intentioned, but unknowledgeable, rescuers can literally "kill a horse with kindness."

No one knows how many horses are abused or neglected in the United States each year, but the Hooved Animal Humane Society in Woodstock, Ill., receives more than 300 calls a year to investigate possible abuse or neglect, with about half of the cases needing action taken--and that's just one animal control agency. Although the legal phrasing varies from one jurisdiction to another, neglect is essentially the intentional or unintentional withholding of basic needs--i.e., food, water, shelter, veterinary care, hoof care. "This is manifested as starvation, exposure, or health problems such as overgrown hooves, overgrown teeth, and potbellies from parasitic overloads," Gray says.

Jennilea Ambrester, office manager at Colorado Horse Rescue, Longmont, Colo., notes that neglect is very common, due in large part to ignorance. "People are not educated well enough on the care of horses," she says, "and thus tend to overlook small problems and let them snowball into large problems."

Other factors leading to neglect, adds Gray, are lifestyle changes involving finances, marital status, increased work schedule, and having children.

Older horses seem to suffer disproportionately from neglect, primarily through underfeeding and under-treating. "They often come to us emaciated and with untreated arthritis," Ambrester states. Besides not understanding the changing needs of older horses, some owners lose interest in senior horses because they perceive them to be essentially valueless pasture ornaments.

Abuse is generally the physical, mental, and intentional harming of a horse, often in relation to "training" or submission methods, and is harder to enforce. "Either no one can catch the person in the act, or the witness isn't willing to come forward and testify," says Gray.

Unlike neglect of a limited-value horse, abuse is more likely to occur in the otherwise well-cared-for, costly horse. Says Janice E. Sojka, VMD, associate professor of large animal medicine at Purdue University, "I don't think the abuse like the Black Beauty image of people beating horses really exists, or if it does, it's a very, very tiny aberration. I think abuse tends to be, ironically, in the best-kept horses--getting fed very, very well, meticulous grooming--and is done to maximize performance or to change the animal's behavior in the show ring."

For example, this might include tying up the head of a Western pleasure horse for 24-48 hours so when the head is released, the horse keeps it down; or paralyzing the tail muscles via tail blocks so the horse can't swish his tail around. "That kind of stuff goes on quite bit," Sojka says, "but it's not something you're going to see dealt with by a humane society."

However, many breed associations have strict rules against such abuse. For example, the AQHA severely penalizes anyone found to have altered tail function in
an American Quarter Horse (i.e. tail blocking).

New Admissions

Whether a horse suffers the consequences of neglect or abuse, the first step in dealing with a horse which comes into a new haven for treatment and recovery is to quarantine him. This protects resident horses from contracting any diseases or parasites the rescued horse might harbor. Generally, new horses should be quarantined for two weeks, although that will vary depending on veterinary findings. Quarantine also saves the rescued horse from the strain of finding his place in the pecking order right away. Rescued horses are often weak and ill-suited to hold their own in a herd of healthy horses; fitting into a new herd or fighting for food can stress an already taxed horse and prolong recovery.

The second step before embarking on any treatment or recovery program is a veterinary assessment of the rescued animal. A complete history (if possible) and physical examination might be all that is necessary, although preliminary findings could indicate additional diagnostics (including radiographs, ultrasound, or blood tests) are necessary.

A veterinary exam is imperative because well-intentioned, non-veterinary rescuers who treat presumptively could cause more harm than good; even experienced rescuers/rehabilitators rely on a veterinary assessment. Notes Erin Martell, barn manager for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) at Nevins Farm, "We always get a thorough veterinary exam for every horse that comes through here, as different types of neglect and starvation require different treatments. We rely on our veterinarian's advice in terms of re-feeding in order to decrease the risk of founder or colic in a horse in the early stages of recovery."

Feeding too much, too soon can be fatal. Even deworming a weakened horse could have dire consequences, according to information at Equine Rescue's web site (www., "Caring For The Rescued Horse"). Death of parasites can result in an inflammatory response that might affect blood vessels, myocardial function, gastrointestinal function, and more.

Once a proper veterinary diagnosis is made, the right treatment can begin.


Possibly the most common form of neglect is malnutrition, ranging from thinness to starvation.

"The typical horse we see is thin, maybe a body condition score of 2, but we generally can't get authorization to impound them until they become a 1," says Gray. "These emaciated horses are fed an initial diet of small amounts of alfalfa hay frequently, about every two hours, as described in the research article on re-feeding (details on that coming up) by Carolyn Stull, PhD (extension specialist in the animal welfare program at the University of California, Davis).

"We don't expect to see any weight gain in those first two weeks; the horse is using every bit of nutrition to recover internally," continues Gray. "After two weeks, we begin to feed larger amounts of alfalfa hay at longer intervals, about every four hours, and start them hand grazing. We start most of them on a hand-walking and grooming program at this time, too. Then it's time to introduce them into a herd, which is done very carefully by selecting another horse or horses about the same size with the same needs as the new one. That is, we wouldn't put 600-pound (272-kg) Amber, who gets fed three times a day, in with 1,200-pound (544-kg) Sunny, who gets larger and larger just looking at grass."

Generally, thin horses recover completely and easily, regaining their full potential. The truly starved horse is another matter.

When a horse is starved, his body metabolizes stored fat, then muscle tissue, eventually leading to the total depletion of fat, protein, and electrolytes from the body. In other words, the body uses muscles as an energy or food source. Explains Stull, "With severe starvation, the body doesn't discriminate which muscles it's going to use for energy when it is in a truly starved situation. Some tissue can regenerate, but some tissues can't. These severely affected horses may have cardiac problems or other long-term consequences."

From observations of starved concentration camp survivors as well as research studies conducted on emaciated or fasted human patients, researchers found that a fatal condition dubbed the "re-feeding syndrome" can occur within five days after reintroducing a calorically dense diet.

"When you introduce calories, you have an elevation in the insulin," Stull explains. "When insulin increases, it starts an electrolyte shift that ultimately can cause a respiratory compromise. Consequently, red blood cells collapse; with that, the patient doesn't have adequate oxygen transfer and the horse goes into this irreversible condition that can lead to death."1

In some starved horses, re-feeding the wrong diet can lead to death from heart and lung failure within three to five days.

Although research is limited concerning the physiological responses of chronically starved horses to re-feeding, Stull conducted a study comparing three different diets for the chronically starved horse. Best results occurred with the following re-feeding program:

Days 1-3--Feed one pound (0.45 kg, about one-sixth of a flake) of leafy alfalfa every four hours for the first three days, i.e., six pounds (2.7 kg) of alfalfa per day in six feedings. Oats and grass hay were found to be too bulky. Horses not accustomed to alfalfa might experience temporary gastrointestinal problems such as mild diarrhea or soft manure.

Days 4-10--Slowly increase the amount of alfalfa and decrease frequency of feeding for the next week to slightly more than four pounds (1.5 kg) of hay every eight hours, equaling 13 pounds (5.9 kg) a day in three feedings.

Day 10 to several months--Feed as much alfalfa as the horse will eat while decreasing feeding frequency to twice a day.

Do not feed any grain or supplements until the horse is well along in his recovery--at least three to four weeks--as early feeding of grain and supplements can complicate the return of normal metabolic function, resulting in death. Introduce grain in very small amounts after three or four weeks, depending on the condition of the horse. Free access to water and a salt block should be provided.

Avoid using "consumable" bedding such as sawdust or straw, Stull cautions. "Some starved horses will eat anything," she warns. "In our research model, we just put down rubber mats."

Address critical veterinary problems as needed. Deworming and correction of dental problems will aid in recovery by allowing the horse to utilize all of the nutrients that he consumes, but neither should be done until the 10th or 11th day after the horse is restarted on feed, Stull says. Floating teeth can stress the horse, while deworming could stress the gastrointestinal tract. If possible, let the deworming and hoof work go for about 10 days.

Take it easy with cleaning the horse those first few days. "We'll groom them lightly," says Stull, "but we don't bathe them or do anything that might cause them stress."

Provide an environment that is quiet and free of drafts and cold temperatures. "If horses were kept as a group in a small lot, try to provide similar accommodations," Stull says. "Horses accustomed to stalls would probably do best in stalls, but horses never individually confined may have increased anxiety and stress. You don't want to increase any type of stress on these horses because they'll utilize available energy, which you want to avoid."

Hand-walking horses for 10 to 15 minutes a day is advisable for horses kept in stalls to assist with circulation of the lower legs. "Do not force walking," says Stull. "Just go for a stroll."

Forced exercise should not be implemented until the horse is at least a body condition score of 4. Then start slowly and be cognizant of early fatigue or respiratory exhaustion.

Total rehabilitation can take three to five months before a horse regains normal body weight. Says Stull, "Starvation is almost completely reversible with the exception of a starvation that has started to metabolize vital tissues." A weight loss of 50% or more of body weight is usually fatal.

Hoof and Leg Problems

The second most common problem seen in neglected horses is lack of hoof care, often along with confinement in dirty stalls. "Animals are kept stalled for long periods of time without having anything done to their hooves," says Sojka, who lectures on equine welfare at Purdue. "Hooves become very overgrown. Additionally, horses like that tend to be kept in a very dirty environment--the stall is never cleaned. This can lead to thrush."

Overgrown hooves cause lameness and chronic discomfort. "Trimming the hoof and getting the hoof back to a normal shape can sometimes reverse the problem," reports Sojka, "but sometimes the damage is permanent." This is because the hooves can crack and split, allowing infection to invade the tissues. "Consequently, if hooves develop abscesses that cause the horse to be lame and they're lame long enough, they'll get permanent changes to the (sore) hoof: The hoof will get smaller and kind of turn into a club foot, whereas the other foot will get larger and is prone to develop laminitis."

An overgrown hoof can sometimes be trimmed right back into a normal hoof shape in one trimming. Other times, the hoof needs to be taken back in gradual stages. Explains Sojka, "If the sensitive laminae and blood vessels in the hoof are shaped differently or incorrectly, you can't (trim the hoof) as easily because this will cause severe pain and bleeding, and increase the risk of infection. Instead, you make moderate changes to modify the way the hooves grow, and then continue to modify the hoof back to a more normal look."

Timothy B. Lescun, BVSc (Hons), MS, Dipl. ACVS, assistant professor of large animal surgery at Purdue University, has a special interest in diseases of the feet in horses as well as treatment of physical or traumatic injuries. He points out that horses which spend long periods standing in soiled conditions might develop severe cases of thrush, canker, foot abscesses, or sometimes deeper infections from injuries.

"The main response from the body is inflammation and pain, usually resulting in lameness and reduced weight bearing in the affected leg," says Lescun. "If severe, laminitis can occur due to excessive weight-bearing in the opposite leg. Some severe infections, if not treated promptly, may necessitate euthanasia of the horse."

When treating conditions caused by poor hygiene, the main tenet is to improve the hygiene while allowing the body time to heal the damaged tissues, Lescun adds. "Prescribed medications (antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, analgesics) are often used for treating infections, reducing pain, and allowing the body to recover from the disease. Where necessary, specially designed boots will enable the horse to go out in the field and keep the foot clean and dry."

The amount of exercise allowed during recovery depends on the condition being treated. Cautions Sojka, "If an animal is painful, you don't want to force exercise, as that will make things worse. You basically allow the animal to get enough exercise to get some muscle and ligament tone, but not enough to cause further damage."

She says to begin with hand-walking, and as the horse improves, to advance to turnout in a small area where the horse can't run fast or far.

"Severe cases of thrush may be tolerated well enough to allow riding and some exercise, whereas a severe foot abscess or deeper infection will require a rest period while the infection is treated or managed," explains Lescun. "Unless there is a particular tendon, ligament, bone, or joint problem that may necessitate an enforced rest period, most horses will self-regulate the amount of exercise they do when on turnout, and so this becomes a less important issue than the hygiene. As a general rule, however, it is good to rehabilitate any injury or foot or leg problem slowly to ensure that a secondary injury does not occur from overexertion following a lay-off."

Full resolution for most foot diseases and injuries will take months, although some conditions, such as laminitis, will never fully resolve due to permanent damage that occurred. In those cases, management consists of reducing pain and lameness. "Long-term prognosis for foot diseases and injuries depends on the type of condition, severity of condition, length of time it has been present, and the treatment instituted," Lescun says.

No Prevention

It's no surprise that a horse which is barely fed, is practically abandoned in an overgrazed pasture, or left for months in a dirty stall, and which doesn't receive trimming or hoof care, likely receives no preventive dental care, vaccinations, or parasite control. Lack of preventive medicine can lead to reduced absorption of nutrition--i.e., painful teeth, parasite load--and expose the horse to infection and disease, further compromising an already weakened system.

So, as noted earlier, it's important to have a veterinarian examine the horse to determine his health status and prioritize his immediate needs before beginning treatment. Proceed with treatment and preventive care only upon the veterinarian's recommendation and when the horse's physical condition permits.

Mind Games

A horse subjected to neglect or abuse can undergo short-term or long-term behavioral changes. Just a change in his routine (even when going from bad to better) can be stressful. Notes MSPCA's Martell, "Whenever a new horse comes in, we expect it will take at least two weeks for him to become adjusted to simply coming in and out of the barn, turnout, figuring out when he's going to get his meals, dealing with the noise, and so forth."

Add physical or emotional suffering to the mix, and behavioral changes are bound to result. "Horses don't act like their true selves when they are very skinny or unhealthy," says Martell. "Their true personalities are not apparent. For anyone contemplating taking on a neglected horse, this is an important phenomenon to be aware of. It is not possible to know for sure that the placid, mellow, easy-to-handle starved horse will stay that way when healthy."

A weakened horse could act meek and submissive, but certain illnesses can cause a horse to be difficult or aggressive. Explains Katherine Albro Houpt, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVB (behavior), professor and director of The Animal Behavior Clinic in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, "If neglected and painful, the horse could be more difficult to handle because he is in pain when you touch him or he anticipates the pain. With prolonged stall confinement, the animal may develop edema (fluid swelling), which is sometimes painful; abdominal edema is common in under-exercised pregnant mares. When you try to touch these animals, they may act aggressively to prevent you from touching them again. In rare cases, severe malnutrition could lead to dementia."

Often, just reversing the horse's unhealthy condition changes the horse's behavior. Easing the pain might eliminate the fear or aggression related to human touch; getting them stronger and healthier could restore a bright, confident, independent personality.

Says Martell, "We know the horses are coming along when they start to get a little bit feisty. When they've been fed a little bit, dewormed, had their teeth done, been groomed, and are feeling better, all of a sudden they start giving us a hard time, and we know we might see their true personality!"

Fear and aggression can also occur from previous physical abuse. This presents as head shyness, difficulty in catching the horse, and biting or kicking. Some horses might respond that way to all humans, while others link bad associations to certain human characteristics, i.e., a particular sex, article of clothing, build, etc.

Dealing with the behavior problems of an abused horse requires patience and understanding. Gray recalls an analogy she heard from trainer Richard Shrake, which applies well to abused and neglected horses: Every interaction with a horse is a ball. The ball can either be black, for a bad interaction, or white, for a good interaction.

"Abused and neglected horses have accumulated a lot of black balls," says Gray. "These balls will stay with them forever. However, we are putting white balls in every time we work with them (positively). This increases the chances that the next time we work with them (i.e., reach into the 'bowl' and pull out a ball), the ball will be white."

In trying to rehabilitate "bad" behavior, it's helpful to key in on the cues or actions that trigger an unwanted behavior. "For example, is it people carrying brooms?" Houpt asks. "Maybe wearing a black hat?"

Look for subtle as well as obvious responses. "Look at the horse's tail and ears," suggests Houpt. "If the horse is really frightened, he'll put his ears out to the side and you might even see the whites of his eye. He might even clamp his tail or hold his tail in a sort of U position where the tip of the tail and the base of the tail are above the level of the rest of the tail. Figure out what the cues are, then teach the horse to associate those cues with good things."

In the case of objects such as a broom, desensitize the horse by placing the broom outside his stall, but near the place where you feed him so he gets used to seeing the broom. "Once he stops snorting and pawing, carry the broom and feed him until he gets used to the approach of that particular combination of human/broom," Houpt says. "Now that means something else to him. But it can be difficult, and if a strange person should come in and pick up a broom, you might have a problem."

To build confidence and trust in a horse which seems nervous or anxious around humans, begin with brief, simple grooming and leading sessions. The goal is, once again, to desensitize the horse to his fears, in this case, humans. Some feel the horse adjusts more quickly by working with the same handler rather than several different people. Work slowly and methodically, Martell says, and don't push the horse beyond his limit, making sure to observe the horse's body language for indications of stress or fear.

"If the horse's ears are pinned back, if the horse is dancing and moving away, keep the session really short," she says. "If the horse is dancing around on the crossties, but starts to relax when you brush him, you might increase the length of the session a little bit longer."

"If you think about it, grooming is kind of invading a horse's personal space," Martell says, "but it's a way for humans to give back to the horse. Through grooming, the handler can touch the horse in a pleasant, non-threatening manner."

With grooming and leading, the handler helps build trust through the act of putting the halter over the horse's head, then asking him to move and stand with the handler. "We ask them to stand very close to us, and to walk in and out of dark and light places," says Martell. "A lot of these things can be scary for any horse."

Head shyness can also be a consequence of abuse. For the head-shy horse, Houpt suggests three different desensitizing techniques:

  • Massaging the horse on his withers and his neck, gradually getting closer and closer to the head, but stopping before the horse begins to react. "Go through a process of gradual desensitization," she says.
  • Longeing or riding the horse until he's hot. "Then they often like to rub their heads on you," Houpt notes, "giving you the opportunity to scratch the horse on the head when he wants to be scratched."
  • Feeding the horse from the bucket placed in your lap so the horse has to lower his head to eat. "After a week or so of feeding him like that, try to touch his head," says Houpt. "Move slowly: If you know his ears bother him, start with his muzzle, or vice versa. He'll associate the touch with feeding and figure out he won't get the food unless he lets you touch him."

An aggressive horse needs to be retrained to approach his handler in a friendly manner and to turn his head away when he reaches the handler: A horse can't bite what he's not looking at. Houpt's preferred method for this is clicker training (or using the same principle with some other novel sound such as finger snapping). "Teach the horse to look away from you by going 'click', offering a piece of carrot, 'click', another piece of carrot, 'click', another piece of carrot. (You can use sugar, sweet feed, or whatever is convenient, but carrots and apples are easy because you can cut them into very small pieces so the horse doesn't get full.) You can give him the treat by hand or in the bucket or drop it on the floor, but make sure that it is paired closely in time with the click. Once the horse
associates the click with a food reward, wait until he turns his head away, then click."

Most horses will pick up on the click/ reward relationship in minutes, Houpt says. Working about 10 minutes a day, it should take about 10 days for a horse to learn to turn his head away from you when he approaches. "To speed along the process, you might have to ask your veterinarian for medication such as oral acepromazine," Houpt states. "This lowers the amount of a neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is associated with fear."

Once fears are calmed, some trust and confidence restored, and with the veterinarian's okay, rescuers can begin working with the horse toward riding or driving, again using slow and easy methods. "We never push a horse," Martell states. "We start by putting tack on a horse and seeing how he accepts that. Then we lead him around a little bit with the tack on. We may start longeing or long-lining, and if all goes well, eventually we start riding. We begin by having another handler standing at the horse's head to make sure the rider is safe."

Depending on how many days a week one can work with the horse and the confidence of the individual horse, it could take many months before the horse is confident, strong, and safe enough to accept a rider. "It is always a good idea to have the help of a professional trainer," Martell advises, "especially if you have not had experience working with young or scared horses, and especially with abused or neglected horses. If the horse had poor basic care, he may not have had good experiences in the past with riding or driving, either."

The Long Road

The prognosis for regaining calm, confident, steady, and friendly traits in abuse cases will vary according to the horse's personality. It could take many months to bring a horse back--if at all. Some abused horses might never regain trust in humans, Houpt warns. "They could always feel fearful and lack confidence in humans. This could involve the nervousness of the horse to begin with, and the type and level of abuse."

Even horses which seem to calm down might never be able to cope with a wide variety of circumstances, such as going to a show. Houpt cautions, "You may get a horse to behave well with you in your stable, but if you put him in a different environment or with a different person, he could revert to the stronger feeling of fear. You could take the horse to the show and see him suddenly fall apart and become very aggressive. That's because he's learned it is safe in one place, but not necessarily safe in another. This could be very difficult to overcome. However, if you're most concerned with helping a backyard, pet horse, then you have a better chance of success."

Prognosis for complete recovery in neglect and physical unsoundness also varies according to the horse and severity of his problems--100% recovery isn't guaranteed.

But for both neglect and abuse cases, the doors that lead to physical and mental recovery can be pushed open a little more with time, patience, and understanding.


1 Witham, C.; Stull, C. Metabolic responses of chronically starved horses to refeeding with three isoenergetic diets. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol 212 (5), 691-696.


Myrtle "before" Our Girl Myrtle (Jan. 28, 2003)

This aged bay mare was dropped off at the farm across the road from the Hooved Animal Humane Society farm in Woodstock, Ill., sometime around Christmas. Recognizing that our facility was a more appropriate place for her to be, our neighbors walked the old, blind, emaciated mare across the busy road with only a piece of baling twine and a soft voice. This told us that either the mare is well trained or that she totally trusts and depends upon humans – the same species that dumped her. Myrtle they called her and Myrtle she remains.

Her spirit proved strong and she made great progress, letting us know she would be happy to eat 24/7. Fortunately, we knew that overfeeding a starved horse could be fatal, so Myrtle was given half-flakes of alfalfa hay every few hours. After settling in to her stall for a few days, we introduced her to the outdoors carefully. Within a week she had memorized the boundaries of her new pasture by making bigger and bigger circles until she bumped into something.

Myrtle "after"(After, March 31, 2003)

Myrtle probably doesn’t have a lot of years left in her, but what she has left will be spent comfortably here at our farm, in the pasture she has memorized. To make her last years even more enjoyable, we have provided her with an equine companion. Honey, another aged mare, shares Myrtle’s pasture and sleeps in the stall next to her at night.
During the day, the two mares are content to nibble hay and snooze in the warm sun, lips drooping.

Myrtle "after"

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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