So What is really Abuse?

By Shannon Ott

Executive Director Shenandoah Valley Equine Rescue Network (SVERN)

     I have been blessed the past four years to have had the opportunity to work with rescue horses of all types and backgrounds. Ranging from the owner surrender of elderly horses or horses that need rehab or care that they cannot provide, to the heartbreaking animal control seizures of horses that have been seriously abused and neglected, as well as all the in-betweens. Recently I was working with some of our latest horses on both vetting and routine hoof trims (these particular horses had come in from a large-scale animal control seizure), I was flabbergasted when one of those present suggested that they were not at all abused, and were instead just unhandled by humans and that wasn’t the same. It brought the question to my mind… What exactly is abuse for equines? This is a complicated question to answer as all horses are not built the same, and there will always be exceptions to every rule in the horse world, but I am going to try my best to explain what I have witnessed, learned, and how my opinion of horse abuse has changed over the course of the last four years.

      First, some background on these horses I just mentioned that will be my focus. All six mares were seized from a breeding facility housing around three hundred horses. Three hundred of any animal is a lot, but three hundred horses… to put it in perspective, we currently house twenty two horses and go through about 3-5 round bales of hay every two weeks in the winter. This property of three hundred horses was putting out 2-3 round bales at a time, allowing some, but not all horses to eat. Realistically, there should have been 15-30 round bales at a time for 300 hungry horses. Due to the food shortage, most of the horses we received from this operation were starving and low on the Henneke Body Scale (how we rate the body condition of horses).      

      Along with the issue of feeding, the horses were essentially foal factories. Once, or twice a year they were herded to the barn by riders on horseback, where they were then drugged, in order for vetting and breeding to then be accomplished. Babies were sold, or kept for breeding stock, and the cycle continued. This is an extreme case of animal hoarding mixed with genuine greed (a lot of animal hoarders are coming from a place of compassion), and in my opinion everything about what they did to those horses is and was abuse.      

      Horses first and foremost need: food, shelter, clean water, and regular farrier/vet care. These things not being readily accessible to them is abuse. Period. On the opposite side there can be too much of good things as well. Over feeding horses can lead to some serious complications like chronic founder (something we see often), this is also a form of abuse, especially given that the pain of chronic founder can potentially lead to euthanasia. There currently is a horse in the care of the rescue that was absolutely at risk of being euthanized due to chronic founder, and we must be extremely careful with her diet even now because of the carelessness of her past owners.      

      Shelter is also vital to horses but leaving any creature locked up 24/7 is simply put, unkind. Imagine locking a child in their bedroom all day every day or confining a dog to a kennel day in and out. Horses should be allowed a period of being turned out in the field in order to move around freely and graze openly. Of course, there are times when horses unfortunately must be stalled for longer periods of time, such is the case with injuries, but even then, hand walking/grazing can often be utilized to make for a happier horse, given the injury is not at risk through that movement.           

      Training and handling is so important to the overall wellbeing of any horse. Four out of the six horses previously mentioned are petrified of people. These horses were only handled when they were herded in and then handled only while drugged. After 11 months of care, they are now finally accepting things that most horses consider to be second nature i.e., haltering, receiving vaccines, and having regular hoof trims; all without the use of sedation to keep both ourselves and the animals safe. Horses often outlive their owners, several horses we have helped were unfortunate in that this was what happened to them. Horses that are not well trained or able to be handled especially for basic maintenance are more likely to end up at auction or bouncing around multiple homes, to then ultimately end up at an auction.      

      Having a horse well broke to ride is also a good idea to save them a cruel fate down the road if they are ever rehomed for any reason, consider hiring a trainer or asking a friend for help if unable or unknowledgeable in training. Not every horse needs to be a top-level eventer or barrel racer, but they must at a minimum be safe on the ground, and benefit from saddle knowledge; not only for the humans around them, but also for their assurance of their own wellbeing. Of course, there are two side to training as well. Horses are often abused through aggressive training techniques and rough handling. It is so important that new owners look to other more experienced horsemen and women for help, and that experienced owners also be willing to learn from others as we are always learning new things about handling these creatures.      

      I do believe most horse owners go into ownership with the absolute best of intentions, however, without the knowledge of how exactly to care for these animals there can be a lot of unintentional abuse and neglect; a good example is a new owner not floating teeth, simply because horses do not come with manuals and no one would know their teeth continually grow without first learning about horse teeth. The fact is, the line between good horse ownership, and abuse/mishandling are incredibly thin and sometimes it is also blurry. Ignorance and unwillingness to change are the main causes of horses ending up in extreme rescue situations. We certainly do deal with physical abuse cases but changing violent and outright cruel people is much harder than educating those willing to learn and change. Becoming a knowledgeable horse owner is the best way to ensure that your horse(s) are well cared for. The quest to be the absolute best horsemen must begin with widening our viewpoints and helping one another. If you think someone is mistreating a horse, or any animal, you should contact your local animal control.