Neglected, abused or abandoned horses: How to help

When you see a horse suffering in a bad living situation, of course you want to help. But it’s important that you know what to do to stay within the law.

The aging gray mare across the back fence likes to hang out near your two geldings, and you often stop to say hello to her as you go about your business.

But recently she’s been getting thinner and thinner, and now she’s alarmingly gaunt. What should you do? Can you do anything?

Yes, you can. The good news is that help exists for starving, abused, neglected and stray horses. Most of the time, all you need to do is make one phone call—to the sheriff’s department, police department, animal control, local humane society or an equine rescue. 

But before you pick up the phone, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with how rescues and animal control agencies work. Your actions can help a neglected horse get the help he needs— but if you do the wrong thing, you may delay the process or, worse, get yourself embroiled in legal troubles.

To be as helpful as possible, it’s important to understand how terms like “abuse” and “neglect” are defined in your local and state laws. And then you need to know what to do—and what to avoid—to make it easier for law enforcement agents to do their jobs.

How animal cruelty laws work

Most states require that a law enforcement official be involved in investigations and seizure cases. Rescues may conduct investigations, but they cannot legally enter property without the owner’s permission.

Neglect, abuse and/or abandonment are considered cruelty to animals and are a criminal offense in many states. After a complaint is made, an officer will come to the property to investigate, and if he finds evidence of any apparent wrongdoing, he may obtain a warrant to seize (forcibly remove) the horses as well as a warrant to arrest the owner.

If found guilty, the owner faces fines, restitution (payment to cover the cost of caring for the animals) and possibly time in jail. The owner can appeal a conviction, and sometimes these cases may drag on through the courts for years—this can result in a huge expense because the agency that seized the horses must keep them until the legal process reaches its conclusion.

In some states, cruelty to animals is a violation of the civil, rather than criminal, code. An officer may still obtain a warrant to remove the horses based on findings of cruelty, and the case is often heard by a judge or a justice of the peace (JP). If the judge agrees that the animals are neglected, he may order the owner to pay restitution for their care, but he cannot send the owner to jail. Some states limit the owner’s right to appeal in these civil cases, so the horses may be sold or adopted out more quickly. Often owners who lose their horses to civil code violations are prosecuted for cruelty to animals after the civil case is finished.

Most states require that a law enforcement official be involved in investigations and seizure cases. Rescues may conduct investigations, but they cannot legally enter property without the owner’s permission. Rescues may also assist in gathering horses in seizure cases, documenting their condition at the time of seizure, housing and caring for them, and providing testimony in court—but all of this must be done in coordination with a law enforcement officer. In addition to obtaining and serving the seizure warrant, the law enforcement officer works with the rescue and the county or district attorney to prepare for court.

Some states have a legal exception that allows rescues to remove horses (or other animals) when the animal is in immediate danger of dying.

See something, tell someone

If you encounter a stray or loose horse, call 911 immediately. He poses an immediate danger to human life as well as his own if he wanders onto a road and causes an accident. If you can catch the horse safely, do so, and let the dispatcher know that you have the horse haltered. But be careful not to chase the horse, especially if he’s moving toward a road or another hazard. If the horse can’t be caught and is moving toward traffic, see if you can circle around and “herd” him toward a safer area. Just don’t put your own life at risk. When you call, tell the dispatcher exactly where the horse is, whether or not you’ve caught him, and whether he’s in danger of getting onto any major roads.

If you see a horse—or any other animal—that you believe may be neglected, abused or abandoned, call in a complaint to your local law enforcement and/or animal control agency. They can get involved only if someone alerts them to the problem. This may seem obvious, but I’ve heard many complaints that “it took us long enough” to do something about a neglected animal. We don’t know the suffering horse is out there until someone reports it!

If you’re not comfortable reporting a case to the police or sheriff, call a local horse rescue that works with law enforcement and tell them what you saw. Even if you do report the case to the authorities, you might want to contact the rescue, too, so that they can get in touch with the department and offer assistance. When you report the same case to multiple agencies, be sure to let them know so they can coordinate their efforts. There’s no reason for them to double up their resources.

How to make an equine welfare complaint

When making a complaint about neglected, abused or abandoned animals, please adhere to the following lists of dos and don’ts. To help a case proceed as smoothly as possible, here is what you want to do:

• Provide the address where the horse is located. If that’s not possible, give directions that are as precise as possible. For example, heading north on highway 77 from the interstate, go two miles to county road 100 and turn right, then drive about a mile. The horses are on the right side of the road, behind a barbed wire fence next to a mobile home that appears to be abandoned.

We often get directions such as, “The skinny horses are in Moody, Texas, on highway 7,” but highway 7 may be hundreds of miles long. I’ve even received directions that say, “There is a starving horse behind the yellow house in Emory.” Without specific information, we cannot locate the horses and get them help.

• Take photos or videos from a public road, if it’s allowed in your state. These images will help law enforcement and/or the rescue identify which horses you are reporting and decide how dire the situation is before they act.

You may not trespass to obtain images. If you want to go onto neighboring property to see the horses better, you must first get permission. Some states have “ag gag” laws—anti-whistleblower measures that make it illegal to record incidents of alleged animal cruelty in farming practices. You might be able to make the case that an ag gag law doesn’t apply to photographing a neglected or abandoned horse, but a judge may disagree if the owner sues or presses charges.

• Document as many details as you can. Write down the number of horses, their colors and distinguishing markings you can see from a distance, the condition of each horse, and any other pertinent details. If you see the horses frequently, start a log and record the date and time you see the horses, and note any changes in their condition.

• Give the authorities time to work. If a neglected horse’s life is not in immediate danger, most law enforcement officers will give the owner an opportunity to correct the situation. They will educate the owner on proper care practices and set guidelines for improvement, then visit again to see whether the owner has complied. Law enforcement may also take the time to get a second opinion from an expert, such as a veterinarian or farrier. All of this takes time—weeks, at least, or maybe months. If, after all of this the owner has not complied and the horses are still neglected, only then will law enforcement begin procedures to remove the horses.

If you see a horse whose life you believe is in immediate danger, call the authorities and ask them to meet you at the scene. Dire situations would include horses with no water in the summertime, a horse who is down and cannot rise, one who is tangled in the fence and struggling, or a horse who has been seriously injured.

If you’ve reported a case and are worried that it isn’t being handled in a timely manner, you can check back in with the agency you called. They most likely won’t discuss the details of an ongoing investigation, but they may let you know if they determined that there was no legal neglect or abuse. They might do this because the case was borderline and didn’t meet a prosecutable legal definition of neglect or abuse; the horse might have been ill and already under the care of a veterinarian; or the horses might have been gone when the authorities investigated.

What NOT to do when you suspect a problem

Your impulse when you see a neglected horse may be to jump right in and help—and that’s laudable— but doing so can jeopardize the case. Your actions may even end up letting the owners get off the hook. To keep yourself safe, and to give law enforcement a chance to investigate and possibly prosecute the owners, here are some actions you need to avoid:

A thin or emaciated horse may already be under a veterinarian’s care or on a diet designed to rehabilitate him.

• Do not trespass. While it is tempting to go into a pasture to help a horse, your trespassing only makes the situation worse. The property owner can have you arrested, and then instead of investigating the neglect, the law enforcement officer will be focused on dealing with the trespassing charge. You could find yourself in court and facing fines and/or jail time.

• Do not feed or water neglected horses, even if you can do so without trespassing. When an officer arrives and sees that the horse has food and water, it will be harder for him to make a case against the owner, even if you tell him that you are the one who provided it. If the situation is critical, call the authorities to report the case, and tell the dispatcher what you’ve observed and ask for help to arrive ASAP.

Remember that a thin or emaciated horse may already be under a veterinarian’s care or on a diet designed to rehabilitate him. Feeding him strange foods or excessive amounts can cause serious—even life-threatening—health problems, and the owner may sue you.

• Do not take the horse. Even if you believe that a horse has been abandoned, you have no legal right to take him. The owners could press charges against you for criminal trespass as well as theft, and the horse will end up right back with them. Let the authorities work on the case.

An exception might be if you find a stray horse running loose in your neighborhood. If you can catch him safely, you may keep him confined in a paddock or stall, but call the authorities right away to report that you found a horse.

• Do not comment on social media. Too often I have seen posts along the lines of “There is a neglected horse belonging to so-and-so at this address! This is awful! Everyone please call the sheriff’s department and report this immediately!”

Although well-meaning, messages like these create several serious problems. The sheriff’s department may become so overwhelmed with calls that it can’t manage the extra work, other cases and calls may get lost in the onslaught, and the investigation will be delayed. This is especially true in smaller departments, which may have only one or two people to start with. The owner may see the post and move or hide the horse, who then won’t get the help he needs. What’s more, if the owner is never found guilty of a crime, you may be sued for libel.

These posts never die. They may be resurrected months or years after the situation is resolved. Then authorities have to waste time and resources fielding calls for an old investigation that’s already been concluded.

Once you’ve made that call

The specifics of how an individual law enforcement agency will handle a complaint of animal abuse may vary, depending on the size and resources of the department, the nature and scope of the local and state laws, etc. But the course of the investigation will likely follow this general path.

When you call to report a problem, you will normally speak with a dispatcher. He or she will record all the information you provide, and he will likely ask for your name and contact information in case you need to provide a clarification about directions, the complaint, etc. If you are nervous about retaliation by the owner or are unwilling to leave your name, some (but not all) agencies will allow you to make an anonymous complaint.

The dispatcher will then assign the case to an officer. At some agencies specific people handle animal com-plaints. Smaller police and sheriff’s departments may not have a specific officer for animal cases, so your complaint will be assigned to whomever is available. In that case, the officer handling the animal abuse complaint may be simultaneously investigating cases of domestic violence, burglary, assault, etc., and your call may not be his highest priority. But he will get to it.

When an officer begins an investigation, he will normally start by approaching the owner (if the owner is home), explain that he’s received a complaint of neglect, and ask to see the horse or horses in question. The officer will assess each horse’s body condition —weight and physical appearance—and he may take photos and videos. If the horses are underweight, he will ask the owner to show him what food and water are available to them. An officer who is not an expert may ask for a second opinion on the condition of the horses from an equine professional, such as a veterinarian or a trained rescuer.

If a horse appears to be ill or injured, the officer will inquire about any veterinary care he may have received and request that the owner schedule an examination. If the owner says that the horse is already under a veterinarian’s care, the investigating officer will follow up with the veterinarian to confirm the owner’s claim and discuss the prescribed treatment. The officer may then schedule a follow-up visit with the owner to ensure that the horse is getting proper care and is recovering.

Ignorance plays a large role in many cases of equine neglect. An owner may simply not understand important aspects of horse care—and so officers often become educators. They, or an equine professional who assists them, will teach the owner how to properly care for his horse. Then, the officer will give the owner a timeline to complete needed tasks, such as scheduling a veterinary examination for routine care, or having a farrier trim the horse’s hooves. In this scenario, too, the officer will make return visits to make sure that requested tasks are completed and the horse’s condition is improving.

When seizure is necessary

An officer will consider seizing a horse and removing him from a property only under certain conditions: An owner has not complied with repeated requests to improve the horse’s condition, and the situation is deteriorating. An owner tells the officer at the initial visit that he is unwilling or unable to make the requested changes in the horse’s care. The horse is in such poor condition that he may die without immediate intervention. The officer will then ask the owner to relinquish the horse voluntarily; if that doesn’t happen, the officer may obtain a warrant to remove the horse legally.

Before removing horses from a property, however, the officer will make sure he has the necessary resources lined up:

• A location to house the horses for an extended period. This may be a county or city animal-control facility, space at an auction barn or fairgrounds, or at a local horse rescue. If the owner contests the seizure in court, the horse needs to be kept indefinitely until the case is settled.

• Equipment necessary to conduct the seizure. The officer will need a horse trailer with enough space for all of the animals who need to be taken, halters and leads, and portable panels to corral horses who are hard to catch or not trained to lead.

• Experienced help. Especially with a larger seizure, the officer will need the aid of volunteers who have experience catching, haltering, leading and loading horses. In specialized cases, he may also need people capable of handling stallions, mares with foals, pregnant mares and horses who are untrained or hard to handle.

• An equine professional. A veterinarian or experienced equine rescue or animal welfare professional can help assess the horse’s condition at the time of the seizure. If the case ends up in court, that person may need to provide testimony as an expert witness.

• Cooperation from county or city officials. If legal action is required, the county, city or district attorney will need to be willing to pursue the case in court; the city or county commissioners must be willing to authorize the expenditures to conduct the seizure; and the JP or judge must be willing to sign a warrant and hear the case.

After organizing all of these resources and obtaining the warrant to remove the horses, the officer conducts the seizure. When he arrives at the property, the officer serves the warrant to the owner and explains what is happening. If the owner is not home, the officer will post the warrant in a prominent place, such as on the door of the house or the gate to the property.

Then the officer and his assistants catch the horses, photograph each one as well as the conditions in which they were living, and trailer them to a holding facility. A veterinarian or welfare professional may meet the officer either at the property or at the facility, and once the horses are at their destination, a complete veterinary examination may be conducted, including bloodwork, fecal exams and other tests, to assess and document their current condition. Additional photographs may be taken as needed.

The case then goes before a JP or judge. The county or district attorney and witnesses will provide evidence and testimony to document neglect or abuse, and the owner and his attorney will have the opportunity to present a defense to prove that the horses were not abused, neglected or abandoned. (In states where the first step is a civil hearing, the owner may not have an attorney. If instead the case is treated as a criminal charge, the owner may hire his own attorney or the state will appoint one to him.)

After hearing the testimony and reviewing the evidence, the judge or JP will decide whether the horses were neglected or abused. If the ruling is in the owner’s favor, the horses may be returned. Sometimes the owner must pay the cost of the care the horses received while they were in the holding facility, and sometimes the judge may order the officer to conduct follow-up visits to ensure that the horses continue to receive the care they need. (Outcomes like this are more likely in cases where the horses were thin but not seriously neglected.)

If, instead, the judge decides that the horses were neglected or abused, the owner could be forced to pay restitution for the costs of holding and rehabilitating the horses as well as the costs of conducting the seizure and court case. The owner may also be fined. In criminal cases, an owner may receive jail time.

Then the judge must decide what will happen to the horses. Sometimes they are ordered to be sold at a public auction or adoption event, or they may be placed with a rescue or humane society, where they will be rehabilitated and placed in a new home.

Rescuing horses is not an easy business, and it can at times be quite dangerous. But it can also be tremendously rewarding, after you’ve worked with the appropriate officials and followed the established laws, to see suffering horses get the help they need and deserve. The rewards are even greater when you get to watch these horses settle happily into new and loving homes. 

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #447.

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