Neglected or just thin? When to call for help

Equine extension agents are often asked whether thin horses should be reported to the authorities. The answer was not always simple.
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Equine extension agents are often asked whether thin horses should be reported to the authorities. The answer was not always simple.

Three years ago, I came home from vacation to face a complicated situation. While I was away, an established farmhand had been caring for my 36-year-old Arabian gelding, Faax El Din. All had gone well during the first few days of our family’s week-long trip, but then I received word that “Fox” had stopped eating. Of course, refusal to eat would be a concern under any circumstances but it was especially worrisome with this horse: Even in his younger days, he was never one to carry extra weight, and now he was well on his way to becoming skeletal.

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For many years prior to this point, Fox had been unable to chew grass or hay, and his nutrition had depended on a diet of soaked beet pulp, alfalfa pellets, a senior feed and vegetable oil specially formulated by an equine nutritionist to meet his needs. He received regular veterinary and dental examinations and he was dewormed as needed. But even as the years advanced, he had required no major medical interventions. In short, for a 36-year-old horse, he was in excellent health.

Now, though, he only sniffed at his feed bucket. Yet he was still alert and drinking water, and he did not appear to be in any distress or pain. A veterinary examination revealed no injury or disease that would prevent him from ingesting food, but I knew that the day I had dreaded most was near and a decision would soon have to be made. I sought the advice of trusted caregivers and carefully established a timeline to extend my horse’s “good days” as long as possible while we said our goodbyes.

Throughout this difficult period, one constant worry sat in the back of my mind: Anyone who spotted my horse from the road but didn’t know us and our situation could easily have thought he was starving---I was at risk of being reported to the authorities for neglecting the horse I loved so much.

So, on top of everything else I was coping with---at a time when I was already at my worst---I might have had to deal with a humane investigator at my door. I had seen this sort of scenario when I worked as an extension agent for the University of Tennessee. My work included checking in on adopted BLM mustangs and answering questions from the public about possible animal neglect. Often, the queries involved thin animals someone had seen from a distance. My first response was to ask questions, not give answers.

Of course, when there’s a possibility that an animal is suffering it’s always best to err on the side of caution and notify the authorities. But it’s worthwhile to consider a few questions beforehand, if nothing else so that you can provide important background for those who might investigate the situation.

1.Are the horses new to the property? Recently purchased or adopted horses may have just come from a situation where they did not receive proper care, and the new owner needs to be given adequate time to restore their health. A number of underlying conditions---such as parasites, dental abnormalities, gastrointestinal issues or general illness---can slow the process of weight gain even after other problems have been corrected.

2.Are you certain the horses are not being fed? Just because you do not see food at any given moment does not mean that it is not being provided. I presently own a mare who experienced a bout of laminitis several years ago. Thanks to a very strict management program, which includes living on a dry lot, she has not had a recurrence. She is now the very picture of health, but I often find myself explaining to uninitiated visitors to our farm that although she is not out grazing in the pasture, her nutritional needs are being met.

3.Are all of the animals on the farm thin? If all of the other horses on the premises appear to be of good weight, I would tend to suspect that the one thin horse is ill or geriatric or both. And, of course, some horses are simply “hard keepers,” who have trouble achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. It’s also good to know the average age of horses on the farm. I personally know of one herd owned by an elderly couple in which almost every horse is older than 25. I know these horses receive good care, yet some have difficulty maintaining their weight. But they are not being neglected or abused.

4.What is your definition of thin? The body condition score (BCS) is a standard method of assessing the amount of fat on a horse’s body, based on a nine-point scale (see “The Basics of Body Condition Scores,” page 44). Ideally, horses fall between 4 and 6 on the BCS. A horse who scores a 4, described as “moderately thin,” may have a slight ridge along the back with a slightly discernible outline of the ribs. The point of hip is not discernible and the withers, shoulders and neck should not be obviously thin. In contrast, the horse who scores a 6, “moderate to fleshy,” may have fat over the ribs that feels soft and spongy, and he may be developing fat deposits over the tailhead, behind the shoulders and along his withers and the sides of his neck.
If most of the horses you know fall closer to a 6, then a 4 may look “too thin,” especially if the horse in question has a slender build to start with. But that might actually be the ideal weight for that horse---many active athletes are on the lean side, and some owners will deliberately keep a horse thin to avoid stressing arthritic joints, for example, or to control metabolic disorders and reduce the risk of laminitis. Remember, being too fat can be just as unhealthy for the horse as being too thin.

Fortunately, I did not end up being accused of neglect, even as my old gelding grew increasingly thin and infirm. I am grateful that Fox and I were able to spend those last days together in peace.
I don’t want to discourage those who want to take action to help what they see as a horse in need. I only suggest that they approach each situation with humility---and, perhaps, a bit of common sense. Some situations that seem like neglect may be anything but, while others definitely warrant an immediate call to the authorities. In the end, what always matters most is doing our best for the horses.

About the author: Hope Ellis-Ashburn earned a master’s degree in agriculture education from The University of Tennessee–Knoxville and a bachelor’s degree in animal science–horse science from Middle Tennessee State University, where she was a member of the horse judging and equestrian teams. A rider since the age of 12, Ellis-Ashburn has competed in Western, English, halter, dressage, hunter and jumper classes. She currently owns a Half-Arabian mare with whom she enjoys trail riding and competing in halter as well as hunter classes. 

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #467, August 2016.