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A Practical Guide to Helping Neglected Horses        By Patricia Mack Newton
  Shandry2 The sight of it hits you like a ton of bricks. A starving horse. Your reaction is actually visceral, and once you begin to recover from the initial shock, you are eventually moved to disbelief, then to anger. You don’t have to be a horseperson to feel these things, you just have to be human. Most of us tend to shake it off and wonder why someone hasn't done something. But for some of us, the overwhelming and inescapable call to action finally supercedes our emotions and we suddenly find ourselves on a mission.

What can you do to effectively help animals stuck in perilous conditions?

You may think the answer is a no-brainer -- simply call the local animal control or humane society. They come to the rescue and everyone lives happily ever after, right? Not quite. In fact, it's rarely, if ever, that simple. To be an effective advocate for animals at risk, you must be prepared to commit a potentially substantial amount of time and effort toward achieving some sort of resolution to the suffering.

Background on some causes of neglect.

I advise you not to approach an owner, even if you know them. It is helpful to understand that people generally allow animals to decline and languish for two basic reasons, i.e., they do it out of ignorance, or because of financial hardship, or sometimes both.

At worst, any intervention on your part may evoke hostility, possibly putting you into a volatile and dangerous situation. At best, your interference may elicit strong feelings of shame and embarrassment, putting the owner on the defensive. Ultimately, such confrontations are generally unproductive, potentially explosive and, frankly, not worth the risk.

Ignorance which allows such blatant cruelty can be beyond your comprehension, but you must try to understand if you are to begin to deal with its consequences effectively. Hard as it is to imagine, the ignorant owner just doesn't see what you see, nor do they have the ability to recognize for instance, the horses down the road with their glossy coats and rounded muscles look different from those they keep. The ignorant owner doesn't always live on Tobacco Road either; many a rescue has been conducted in the priciest neighborhoods. Ignorance transcends socioeconomic status.

Neglect resulting from financial hardship can be exceedingly difficult to deal with for a number of reasons. Neglected, starving horses are a (sometimes) highly visible symptom of an extremely sensitive, intensely private malady. Over time, pride evolves into denial, then spirals into neglect, which is generally succeeded and compounded by embarrassment, further denial, and shame. An emotionally charged environment like this can and does create unique legal barriers to providing relief for the animal, which; in the eyes of the law, is private property. Sadly, the thorny issue of private property can become an insurmountable barrier to critical rescue efforts.

Occasionally animals fall victim to willful, malicious cruelty or depravity, but, thankfully, these instances are far less likely. The link between such behavior and the potential for ensuing criminal behavior is so demonstrably strong that the state of California has mandated rehabilitation for convicted offenders. If you observe such behavior, do not intervene, but do call the appropriate law enforcement agency.

Where to begin.

Mare and geldingFor starters, assess the situation as best you can without trespassing. Note the condition of the animal, the environment in which it is kept, if there is food, water, and shelter, the address, and any other pertinent information. No matter how bad it is, even if there is no water or shelter and it’s 100, DO NOT attempt to help the animal yourself. This can work against you and the animal. First, no matter how noble your intentions, you are trespassing onto private property. Second, if, for instance, you give the animal water, when the humane society investigates and finds it has water (even if it knows you gave it to the animal), you’ve inadvertently sabotaged the animal and your efforts.

Once you've made the decision to get involved, be prepared to commit some time and energy to the task. Get a notebook, a pen, and call the local animal control, humane society, or other governing agency. If at all possible, enlist others to call and register their concerns. Don't underestimate the strength of allies -- they are powerful tools in establishing and maintaining credibility and helping to motivate agencies to action.

Befriend animal control/humane officers assigned to the case and keep in touch with them. They are important resources and can provide, among other things, insight into protocol. They can advise you regarding the tools at your disposal and, perhaps most importantly, they can tell you what their limitations are.

At the risk of insulting you, I advise you to be professional, courteous, patient and, above all, be persistent. Dealing with county or state agencies charged with the welfare of animals can be an enormously frustrating process, especially when you are emotionally invested and can see that time is of the essence. Take detailed notes of your conversations, the names of people with whom you spoke, dates, and times. Get them to open a file, investigate, and monitor the situation.

Follow-up is essential. You'd be amazed at how common it is for a case to fall through the cracks. For instance, my efforts to aid a starving horse were significantly delayed because Animal Control saw that County Humane had an open file so it closed its files; trouble is, County Humane saw Animal Control had an open file and closed its files too. It happens, be vigilant.

In the meantime, familiarize yourself with local ordinances and state laws relating to animal abuse and neglect. Ask for copies from agencies or search the Internet. In California, go to to find the California Penal Code. The animal welfare provisions can be found at 597. Be prepared to accept the ambiguous definitions of the law; the nebulous language makes it difficult to prosecute even the most heinous offender. For example, CA Penal Code 597(b) states, "…or in any manner abuses any animal or fails to provide the animal with proper food, drink, or shelter or protection from the weather…" "Proper food, drink, or shelter" are all left to interpretation. You’d be amazed how this language can hamstring efforts to rescue an animal.

What I have found is animal control officers are reluctant, and often unwilling, to take even the most egregious case to the District Attorney because they know it cannot be prosecuted (see photograph). Officials can be extremely reluctant to intervene because horses are private property, residing on private property. Such private property issues and the legal ambiguities combine to make prosecution extremely difficult, if not impossible.

News media are quick to cover stories showing animal control officers impounding neglected and starving horses. We've all seen these incidents and even taken some comfort in the knowledge our tax dollars are working to protect such animals in need. However, the astute viewer will note (or the media may neglect to report) that one or more horses had died prior to or during the impoundment procedure. This is a prosecutable case. Anything less is legally problematic.


You may reach a point where the bureaucratic inertia makes it clear there is no measurable relief in sight for the animal you are trying to help. There are a number of rescue organizations and volunteer groups willing to get involved. Some work with animal control officers, some contact owners, and some provide funding for rescue efforts.

Many of these organizations can be found through this (BAEN) web site. However, there are others which are lesser known and may not be readily found through a word search on the Internet but are worthy of note.

Shandry3 In 1996, Rio Vista Products, Inc., president, James B. Towle, established The Rio Vista Fund to help rescue and rehabilitate abused and mistreated horses and dogs. Rio Vista sets aside a certain portion of each sale of Rio Vista products to finance organizations working toward this goal. Specifically, the funds are issued for the rehabilitation of a particular animal, with the aim to establish a relationship with a particular animal, not for the agency general fund.

H.O.R.S.E. (Helping Our Rescue Save Equines) is a tax-exempt humane corporation based in Ventura County. They recently opened a new location in upstate New York.  H.O.R.S.E. is active in many areas that encompass horse interests and fosters the humane ethic and philosophy through education, legislative, investigative, and legal activities. Chris and Mike Dodge started H.O.R.S.E. in 1993 and incorporated in 1997. They’ve adopted out over 150 horses and provide sanctuary for those deemed unadoptable. Their web site is a goldmine of information and resources for those in need.

Go to for a comprehensive map detailing animal rescue organizations for any location in North America including Alaska.

The UC Davis Center for Equine Health is a tremendous resource for horse-related information. In 1992, the School of Veterinary Medicine was the first veterinary school in the U. S. to develop a faculty position addressing animal welfare issues for agricultural animals.

The July, 1998 issue of The HORSEREPORT is dedicated to UC’s ongoing research relating to rehabilitating the starved horse. As part of this study, UC has developed a body condition scoring system to aid the assessment and communication of a horse's condition. Condition is scored from (1) Extremely emaciated to (9) Obese. This scoring method will aid you in determining the condition of a particular horse and help you to communicate it in a professional, coherent manner.

The media can be a useful ally in your attempts to rescue an animal. Contact the local "troubleshooter", "human interest", or "environmental" reporter. This can be dicey since it again involves the "sacrosanct private property" issue, but the media can make the call. The power of the public hue and cry over such stories can pay big dividends. Give great thought to your "visible" involvement – it could come back to haunt you in ways you never imagined.

I realize the tone of this article borders on pessimism. My intention is not to discourage you from answering that call to action, but to arm you with information to keep you from becoming discouraged and giving up. And I’ve tried to steer you toward some resources to help you along the way. There are an awful lot of people out there working on behalf of animals in need, but remember, despite their apparent numbers, they are a rare breed. Count yourself among them, take a deep breath, and never lose sight of the nobility of what you are trying to accomplish.


  Formerly an equine photojournalist, Patti Newton occasionally freelances for a variety of publications, especially when the topic is one she’s passionate about. She and her husband, Richard, own and operate Newcourse Jumps in San Marcos (San Diego County). An official show jump supplier for the 1996 Olympic Games and for many of the major Southern California hunter/jumper shows, Newcourse has been serving the horse industry for 27 years. You can write to Patti at

? 1999 Patricia Mack Newton. The above story and photos are the property of the Author and may not be duplicated or redistributed in any way without permission.

Would you like to reply to this month's Horse Talk, or do you have a horse rescue story to share? Please write to us at

  Readers respond:

9/27/99 - The article was very good. It is true that sometimes the owners donlt realize their horse is starving or that its feet really do need trimmed. I used to own /operate a small horse rescue and it always amazed me how the owners would actually think they were providing the best care for their beloved horse. Many times I didn't even have to take the horse, with a little education and help they soon learned the proper way to care for thier horse.  Not only did the horse improve but the owners learned the right way to care for it. It's sad to say but sometimes the starving animal was a lifelong family pet that the family just couldn't afford the upkeep, yet couldn't bear to part with the horse.

You may have mentioned this in your article but I always advise people who suspect animal neglect / abuse to use a video camara to show the condition of an animal. A video tape made over a period of days, weeks or months is hard to dispute. Cameras are good as well, even better if it dates the picture. Many times a picture or video shown to the owners makes them see what all of us see...I have sent a video/picture in the mail with a short note to the owners along with a small booklet on horse care and have seen the difference in the care the horse received without having to confront the owner. It has saved a few horses, as well as allow the owner to "save Face" since they have no idea who sent it. Sometimes discretion is the best move.

As far as being careful as to how "exposed" you become.....I advise to keep your name and face out of the news.... For several reasons, but mostly because some abusive owners will resent what you've done, even if you do save the horse. Its sometimes safer to be a faceless/nameless savior than to have your picture and name in the limelight for all to see....Happy Riding :) Long-time Stallion Manager, Horse Lover and Owner


8/27/99 - Dear Patti, I read your article on BAEN, and was pleased with the accuracy and good advice. However, please add a few words for the well-meaning novice that would help them truly assess a horses condition. Some people can cause incredible problems with horse owners who neither abuse or neglect their horses, but choose to keep them in a natural environment. Overfeeding and lack of exercise in a small enclosure are abuse too, and many people overlook this. One case of an impounded horse actually stated the abuse to be mud balls in the horses tail! That owner had to fight for months and more than pay for her horse all over again in board, vet and care costs! There are many ways to humanely care for a horse, and novices need to understand that horses are roaming, grazing herd animals and confining them to a small stall with blankets and matching boots and halters only make the horse more convenient for the owner. I have no complaint with people who keep their horses like this (as long as frequent exercise is provided), I would only wish those individuals would accept that horses kept in a natural environment is an acceptable, healthy alternative. I would also wish novices would realize that different breeds, and different disciplines, require different ratios of fat and muscle mass. A halter Quarter Horse thrown into an endurance race would truly fall into the cruel catagory. Please send out the word that common sense should prevail. A Bay Area Ranch Owner


8/27/99 - I am defensive due to a situation with a neighbor who was an "expert' after two years of ownership. My horses were kept in a small pasture area, because the larger areas had not yet been cleared of barbed wire, much of which was on the ground, tangled and rusted. We had two weeks of solid rain, very cold and unpleasant. The footing was solid mud, and yes, the horses had lost some condition, but were not (as we were assured by our local animal control) to the point where they would get involved. We were feeding twice a day, top quality feed and fresh water, in the only safe enclosure we had for them. These were five generations of a bloodline I had grown up with.One of them, although not one of the ones who had dropped weight, was in her mid 30's at the time. I did consider the source, but it didn't help to erase the rumor that was so freely passed that we "starved " our horses. That haunted us time and time again, for the seven years we lived in the area. Afler 50 years of raising and living with my horses, I consider myself a fairly informed and loving owner. I am concerned with the trend to consider a horse not kept in a box stall as "neglected". I know my foundation mare would never have lived sound and healthy untill she died at thirty seven, had I kept her confined in an artificial environment. My horses are my working partners, not pampered pets. For those who want to keep their horses as if they were a dog with a mane and tail, I won't argue with their choice, but I sure wish they would extend the same courtesy to me and others like me with a different perspective. Thanks for letting me comment on something I feel very strongly about. Again, I found your article factual and your advice to be sound. PS - The case of the impounded horse was written up in one of the bay area monthly publications, and it sounded well documented. I did not personally observe any of the situation, but I know no retractions or additional information on the case was reported at a later time. I do know of another horror story which did, actually entail starving horses. The impounding agency took the starving horses and broke open multiple bales of alfalfa allowing them to immediately eat their fill, and were terribly surprised when one of the mares colicked and died. Ignorance can surface anywhere. A Bay Area Ranch Owner