Dr. Kimberly Brokaw, DVM
(11/2015) I have been called numerous times to help determine if a horse is being neglected. In general if a person is asking about a farm they saw, I advise them to call Animal Control. In situations where the Animal Control Officer evaluates and finds that the horses are receiving proper care, no further action is taken. In mild cases of neglect
animal control makes an attempt to teach the owner how to properly care for their horses. In severe cases of neglect or cruelty, animals can be seized and legal charges brought against the owner.
Recently news has brought attention to a farm that had several dead horses and around 100 neglected horses found on the property. Multiple people have commented on how this must have been going on for a long time and and wondered how the situation was allowed to get so bad. Unfortunately your average passerby is not familiar with horses and normal
horse care, and is unsure of when there is a problem that warrants a call to Animal Control. I have seen a case where Animal Control was called because some "horrible" person had blindfolded all of her horses and put them out in the field. In truth the horses were not blindfolded but rather were wearing fly masks. Fly masks are a wonderful mesh screen that horses wear over
their faces to protect their eyes from flies. In situations such as that, the complaint is resolved when an animal control officer visits the farm and sees a herd of very well cared for horses in fly masks and realizes the complaint was made by a well meaning person with minimal knowledge of horse husbandry.
The other unwarranted complaint I see most is in the winter when a person calls animal control for a horse not having a blanket. Not all horses need to wear blankets. A well fed and healthy horse with access to food and shelter frequently does not need a blanket to be comfortable during cold winter days. In fact, blankets can be used to cover up
neglect. When a neglectful owner does not want the neighbors to complain about their thin horses, it is common to put blankets on the horses to cover up their ribs and poor coats.
Unfortunately the opposite is also true and frequently no one calls to notify animal control when horses are being neglected. Recognizing signs of neglect can be a challenge to people who are unfamiliar with horses. A veterinarian is trained to evaluate a horse for appropriate weight, if it has worms, or is sick as well as if it has had regular dental
and hoof care. However, a passerby can also learn to correctly do a basic evaluation of a horse without entering the horse's field. The main things to look for are if the horses have the basic essentials; appropriate food, water, and shelter. While shelter is easy to see from a distance, clean water and good food may be harder to determine. People see a large round bale of
hay in the field and assume an owner is feeding the horses. Horses tend not to eat hay that is rotten or moldy. A neglectful owner can provide multiple huge round bales and still have starving horses if the hay is poor quality. If you drive by a horse farm daily, and see thin horses who are not eating that same old black round bale, you may be looking at hungry, neglected,
There are a few generalizations that can help the average passerby determine the welfare of a herd of horses after checking that the basic essentials of food, water, and shelter are met. The first is, do the horses look thin? Can you see ribs? While a herd of horses may have one older horse who is difficult to keep weight on, the rest of the horses
should be in good flesh. If the entire herd is thin then chances are they are not being cared for properly.
Another good indicator of how well the horses are being cared for is how their hooves look. A well cared for horse should have trimmed hooves with minimal cracks. Horses with long hooves that have a tendency to look like elf shoes are not getting regular hoof care. A horse's hoof grows continuously so when an owner stops taking care of the feet they
tend to get ragged, long, misshapen, and cracked.
If you feel you donít know enough about horses to determine if Animal Control should be called, talk with your neighbors who are more horse experienced. You may be looking at a thin horse in a small, dirt paddock near the barn, and wondering why all of the other horses are fat and eating good grass while he is confined. Your neighbor, who is part of
the horse community, may tell you that "Dobbin" just had colic surgery at Leesburg, and is on paddock confinement and a restricted diet for a few weeks. Dobbin will be fat and happy in a few months.
The above picture is a good example of what to look for when trying to determine the quality of care a horse is receiving. At first glance it may appear to the inexperienced that the photo is of a neglected horse standing out in the wind and snow with no blanket. However upon closer examination you see that there are multiple piles of hay around the
horse. You can tell the hay was freshly put out as it is on top of the snow rather than partly buried in it. In the background you can see the horse has access to not one but two barns for shelter. If you take an even closer look at the picture, you will see an automatic, heated, waterer along the fence-line as well a hay feeder in the barn. While the snow is blocking view of
the horse's hooves, you can see that he is fat with no ribs visible and has a dry fluffy coat. He is also standing with his legs spread and side to the wind rather than standing all bunched up with his butt to the wind like a cold horse (note the orientation of his tail and mane to determine wind direction). After looking at the horse in the field, if you still aren't sure if
he is being well taken care of, you can always call Animal Control. While the owner may initially be irritated that Animal Control was called, if their horse is well cared for it will be nothing other than a slight annoyance. If the horse is not being taken care of, Animal Control can then take steps to either educate the owner on how to properly care for a horse, or remove
the horse and relocate it to a rescue or other suitable home.
Neglect of animals is a serious problem. All of us need to be aware of the horses and other animals in our community. We need to act when we are concerned that something is not right. We should not allow horses and other animals to starve to death in our county.
Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw