Horse Neglect: What to Do?

Experienced horse people who notice neglect should contact the proper authorities to ensure the best outcome for the horse involved.

Every morning on the way to work, you drive by a small pasture that contains seven horses. It is winter and the ground is frozen and covered with snow. There is no hay on the ground, and the horses appear to be thin under their shaggy coats. You want to help, but what should you do? What can you do?

Should you drive up to the house and suggest that the owner provide feed for the horses? Should you just bring some hay over and toss it across the fence?

"We normally don't recommend that you confront the owner," says Sara Spensieri, one of six animal control officers for the Boulder County (Colorado) Sheriff's office. "There are issues concerning trespassing on private property that can be involved, and we have to be careful of that."

Scot Dutcher, who heads up Colorado's Bureau of Animal Protection, adds, "Sometimes feeding the horses can do more harm than good in the long run. Starving horses can become impacted and also can colic when not fed appropriately. Plus, it can harm a case if there is a criminal prosecution."

Patty Wahlers, president of H.O.R.S.E. of Connecticut (Humane Organization Representing Suffering Equines, established in 1982), a nonprofit rescue facility, agrees that personal confrontation by concerned members of the community isn't the answer. In many cases, she says, the abuse or neglect stems from ignorance rather than cruelty, and an emotional confrontation can arouse anger, which can lead to a lack of resolution of the basic problem.

If you are concerned about a particular situation, says Spensieri, call the animal control officer for the county in which you live. For counties that don't have animal control officers, the contact should be the sheriff's department.

Spensieri says early contact with an animal control officer is important if one suspects that animals are being starved or abused. "If you see a horse that you're concerned about and just keep putting off contacting animal control, a thin horse can become a starving horse by the time you report it," she says.

Animal Control

Animal control officers have a standard procedure they follow when reports of starvation or abuse come in, says Spensieri. First, they quiz the person making the report. In cases involving horses, they want to be sure that the person making the complaint is a "horse person" and understands the animal and its needs.

Second, Spensieri says, the person will be asked to describe exactly what they saw and where they were when they saw it. If they were trespassing when they viewed the horses in question, she says, the issue is immediately more complicated.

If they drive by the place regularly at a particular time of day, she says, that could be significant. "If they drive by at 6:30 every morning and there is no hay for the horses, it could be that the owner doesn't feed until later in the day," she says. "We might go out that afternoon and find hay on the ground or in a feeder."

If the animal control officers believe the complaint has validity, they will check out the situation. "We, too, must be concerned with trespassing on private property," Spensieri says. "We normally will go to the front door and contact the owner or, if the person is not at home, we'll leave a note letting them know that we were there."

In a number of cases, she says, a visit by an animal control officer can result in a change of approach by the owner. They will begin providing more feed or will have a veterinarian out to deworm or a farrier to trim overly long hooves.

Boulder County officials also ask people calling about neglect or abuse to be patient and allow time for change when ignorance rather than cruelty is involved in a given situation and the owner has made a positive change in approach. "Even with plenty of feed, you can't make a thin horse fat overnight," Spensieri adds.

In other cases where neglect has reached a point where the horse or horses might be starving to death, officials can impound the animals. If animal control feels the horse is in danger of imminent death, Spensieri says, the horse can be impounded on the spot. In less-dramatic cases an impoundment order from district court would be sought.

Something of an ideal situation for handling horse abuse cases exists in Colorado. Boulder County, for example, has a contract with Colorado Horse Rescue, which is located in nearby Longmont. It is a nonprofit organization that relies primarily on donations from the public.

During court proceedings, says Stacey Couch, officer manager for the rescue, impounded horses are kept at the facility and the county pays Colorado Horse Rescue a fee for maintaining the horse. If the court rules that the owner is not a fit caretaker and orders that the horses be impounded on a permanent basis, ownership is transferred to Colorado Horse Rescue, at which point the animal is no longer the county's obligation. Once the horse is rehabilitated it goes up for adoption.

Potential adopters pay $25 to post an application. If they want a riding horse, they are asked to come to the facility more than once so staff members can evaluate whether it is a good match. Staff members also check out the horse's new home and make periodic checks three and six months after the date of placement.

Adoption cost, Couch says, can range from $350 to $2,000, depending on age, quality of horse, and the rehabilitation cost. Older and companion horses are on the lower end of the price scale, and trained, healthy riding horses are at the top.

Unfortunately, not every county in Colorado has animal control officers like the six who operate in Boulder County. Some have none. When that is the case and horse neglect or abuse is suspected, Couch says, the person observing the neglect should report it directly to the sheriff's office.

The Bureau of Animal Protection has 115 commissioned agents in 23 of Colorado's 64 counties, says Dutcher. Some of the other 41 counties have animal control officers of their own who haven't sought Bureau certification. In the 23 counties in which the Bureau has commissioned agents (these areas include the densely populated regions of Colorado), Dutcher says, there were 1,498 cases of equine neglect during the past year. Included on the list were two facilities that were operating as horse rescue agencies.

Colorado Horse Rescue has a capacity of 60 horses, and when Couch was interviewed, the group had 51 animals on the property. Both she and Spensieri say they have not detected a noticeable increase in complaints concerning neglected horses in the wake of the closing of horse slaughter plants in the United States.

Rescue Groups

The approach by Wahlers and her organization is similar to that taken in Colorado when someone reports abuse or starvation. "We don't officially investigate the complaints," she says, "that is for the animal control officers. But we do tell people that they should get the address and that they should take pictures. First of all, though, we ask them to make sure the horse is in trouble. Just because a horse is lying out there in the pasture, for example, doesn't mean that it is in trouble. Long lens cameras are common today, so one can get photos without trespassing on private property. Stay on the public side of the fence when doing the observing. We also suggest that they check for a water supply and that they determine whether feed is available. If the horses are kept outside, we suggest that they also check on the availability of shelter."

While the actual investigation is left to animal control, Wahlers isn't above a little detective work herself. When contacted concerning neglected horses on a certain farm, she tramped through two feet of snow until she reached the edge of the property and photographed the horses with a long lens camera. Two were dead and covered with snow and the others were starving. The survivors wound up at H.O.R.S.E., and two of them have since been adopted.

She also reemphasizes that it is not wise for a concerned citizen to contact the horse owner when neglect is suspected. There are many cases where neglect is the result of ignorance rather than cruelty, she says, and a diplomatic suggestion for a change in approach by an animal control officer normally produces better results than an emotional confrontation.

Drew Ann Fitzpatrick, founder and director of the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation (MHARF) in Zimmerman, Minn., is also a state humane investigator, empowered by Minnesota government to enforce its laws on animal neglect and cruelty. When she receives a complaint there is a standard procedure she follows. She asks a law enforcement officer to accompany her on the investigation, then she visits the premises. In many cases, she says, that is all that is necessary. Often, ignorance is at the root of the problem. When that is the case, she provides recommendations for care and gives the person time to comply.

"There are 2-3% of the people who are just flat are not going to do it (improve animal care)," she says. When that is the case, legal action to impound them is taken.

The MHARF is funded through donations and fundraisers and staffed by volunteer workers. There is room for up to 35 horses at the main shelter, with a network of "foster homes" that also provide care and facilities. At the time Fitzpatrick was interviewed nearly 100 horses were in the foundation's custody. Rehabilitated horses are offered for adoption at a fee that is set on an individual basis.

Fitzpatrick is of the opinion that the closing of slaughter plants is not the key reason for an upsurge in neglected horses. She believes the prime culprit in her area is the economy. Property foreclosures are on the increase due to poor economic conditions, she says, and some people simply move out and leave their animals behind, while others don't have the money to feed them.

The three prime reasons for neglect through many of the 15 years that the MHARF has existed have been illness of the caretaker, loss of interest, and loss of finances, in that order, according to Fitzpatrick. Today, the number one reason has become loss of finances, with the other two reasons trailing behind.

H.O.R.S.E. of Connecticut operates a 47-acre rescue facility that has a capacity of 35 horses. There has been an increase in the number of neglect cases over the past few years, Wahlers says, and she attributes a number of cases to changing financial conditions for the owners.

The closing of horse slaughterhouses in the United States has not produced a noticeable change, she says.

One person who feels that closing the slaughter plants in the United States was a mistake is Donna Ewing, a veteran of many years in animal rescue work who heads up the Hooved Animal Rescue and Protection Society in Barrington Hills, Ill. (near Arlington Park Racetrack). Horses are still being sent to slaughter, she says, but now they are going to Mexico and Canada. "That is a fate far worse than any slaughterhouse in the United States," she says. "I have never sent a horse to slaughter, nor to a 'slaughter auction,' but they are a necessary evil."

Ewing said that she has turned down literally hundreds of neglected horses in recent months because she doesn't have the room to accomodate them.

Whatever the reasons the number of neglect cases has increased over the past several years, they need to be handled with care. For example, feeding starving horses can produce problems in addition to health issues, according to Dutcher. She describes, "I was testifying in a criminal case involving horse neglect and the owner's lawyer asked me if the horses were being fed. "I said, yes, but ... He cut me off right there. The neighbors were feeding them, but I didn't get to make that point in my testimony. Sometimes we have to tough it out and not feed in cases like that, if we want to prosecute the guilty party and solve the neglect problem long term."

Take-Home Message

Horse rescuers and law enforcers emphasize that everyone should be aware of animal neglect and cruelty, but it is better to report it to officials rather than take matters into your own hands.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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