The TRF rescued this gelding and three others from a neglect situation in New York in 2019
Horse abuse or neglect is an emotionally charged topic for many people. First of all, one person’s definition of abuse or neglect may be extraordinarily different from another’s. Horse people have a huge variety of opinions, and now with animal rights organizations bringing their views of horses to the mainstream, many non-horse people are forming their own opinions. In the vast majority of instances, people mean well, but lack the knowledge and experience to understand the horse’s circumstances. Often involved in the situation are veterinarians and law enforcement officials. The best thing for all parties involved is education and knowledge.
Dr. David Ramey, an equine veterinarian based in Chatsworth, Calif., feels it is first important to separate abuse from neglect.
“Abuse – which is a direct action – is pretty rare when compared to neglect. Neglect is probably most commonly due to lack of economic resources,” he said. “Of course, none of that considers practices that may be considered abusive, e.g., ‘soring’ Tennessee Walking Horses. Even in the field of ‘abusive,’ you’ll find a lot of opinion, e.g., some may consider racing Thoroughbreds as abuse.”
Dr. Alina Vale, the newly-appointed chair of the AAEP’s Welfare & Public Policy Advisory Council and an official veterinarian for the California Horse Racing Board, is passionate about promoting the humane use of horses and consults for various equine organizations to improve equine welfare and public perception.
Vale said that in some states, veterinarians are required to report abuse or neglect to state authorities, while in others they are not “mandated reporters.” Even if there aren’t laws requiring vets to do so, they have a professional obligation to report it. Up until recently, Kentucky was the only state where vets couldn’t report a suspected neglect situation, but that is no longer the case. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) maintains a state map detailing veterinary reporting.
Many states provide veterinarians immunity for liability if they report in good faith, but choosing to report a case can still potentially cause a problem for veterinarians.
“The equestrian community is not that big,” said Ramey, “and reporting cases might be considered by some as ‘ratting’ on someone (e.g., a prominent breeder or trainer).”
In addition, Vale points out that some veterinarians may be frustrated if they have reported other cases in the past and they feel there wasn’t adequate action taken. There can be lots of reasons a horse doesn’t immediately get removed from what a neighbor or veterinarian feels is a neglectful situation.
When law enforcement is called to investigate a potential neglect case, many times officers do not have much in the way of basic horse husbandry skills. Training programs for animal control and police officers in animal care are few and far between, and it’s even less likely an officer outside of a few key geographic regions will have gotten training on dealing with horses or livestock. They may look at a large moldy pile of hay and think the horse has plenty of food or see muddy, stagnant water and not realize a horse isn’t likely to drink it.
This is a big area where veterinarians can make a positive impact. Ramey recommends veterinarians introduce themselves to local law enforcement and express their willingness to help.
“My experience has been that animal welfare authorities really appreciate the help, and that many of the authorities don’t have a lot of horse experience,” he said. “They really want to do right by the horses.”
Vale points out that the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has compiled resources to help veterinarians and law enforcement work together to address equine welfare in their community: https://aaep.org/owner-guidelines/equine-welfare.
“The AAEP encourages its members to proactively establish a relationship with local law enforcement to prevent equine abuse and neglect and form a strong team when faced with a case,” she said.
Similarly, if civilians suspect abuse or neglect, they should contact law enforcement or animal control. The National Link Coalition maintains a state map detailing contact information for agencies to call. Vale emphasizes that you should not trespass or put yourself at risk.
If, on the other hand, you as a horse owner have been accused of neglect, Ramey recommends that you be open and willing to help law enforcement. Don’t be defensive or angry.
“While there are exceptions, most of the time when reports are made, it is because of someone’s genuine concern,” he said. “Everyone will be happy if it’s assured that horses about which concern has been expressed are actually well-cared for. If there are problems, be open about that, as well, because authorities may be able to help there, too.”
Ramey stresses that law enforcement officials would much rather have horses be kept at their homes than be taken away, and they usually will work with owners who need help. Not all jurisdictions have facilities available to them to house seized horses, and the expense to the local government for a seized horse is considerably more than a seized dog or cat. Similarly, Vale says that depending on the situation, veterinarians may agree that client education and monitoring is an appropriate first step.
“If law enforcement is called, a horse owner may be interviewed about their horses before the horses and environment are examined,” says Vale. “Steps will include a physical examination and photographs (and possibly video) of each horse, and the fencing, shelter, food and water will be inspected. Blood and fecal samples may be collected from the horses. Any medical records related to the complaint should be shared, such as wound treatments or a diagnostic workup for a thin horse. A feeding schedule and/or feed bill may be requested.
“This will likely be an emotional situation for a horse owner, however, just because a concerned citizen made a report does not mean the horse owner is guilty of abuse or neglect. It is important to discuss the situation with the regular veterinarian. There may be cases where the horse owner needs to have a difficult conversation and consider what is in a horse’s best interest. This may include finding a new home for a horse (if the owner is suffering from caregiver burden due to time, financial, physical limitations, or other constraints) or considering humane euthanasia. Depending on the situation, a horse owner may contact an attorney for legal advice.”
According to Vale, fortunately the pandemic has not seemed to cause an increase in neglect cases.
“We reached out to some Thoroughbred aftercare organizations in early summer, and they weren’t noticing a problem,” she said. “They were still able to rehome horses.”
Both Ramey and Vale say that the AAEP has devoted a lot of energy to the subject of equine welfare and maintains a trove of detailed information on the organization’s website.
And if you, or you know, a horse owner in need, a resource to check out would be the Vet Direct Safety Program from the Foundation for the Horse, the ASPCA and AAEP. Learn more at https://aaep.org/news/innovative-vet-direct-safety-net-program-help-horse-owners-need.
Stephanie J. Ruff, M.S., has been a freelance writer specializing in the horse industry for over 20 years, and was the recipient of the Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Ladies Darley Award for Outstanding Female Journalist in 2017. She blogs about her riding and writing life at www.theridingwriter.wordpress.
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