Terms like “neglect,” “abuse,” “abandonment” and “stray” have precise legal definitions that can vary by state. So while the specifics in your state may differ, the following definitions provide a general guideline for these terms as they are usually defined by law:
• Neglect generally means that an animal does not receive adequate care. Neglected horses, for example, often do not have access to any food or to enough food to maintain suitable body condition. But neglect can also cover requirements to provide potable (drinkable) water, proper veterinary and/or farrier care, and sufficient space to move around.
Neglect is probably the easiest to prove, depending on the local or state laws. In Texas, for instance, the law requires that horses be provided with necessary food. When a horse is emaciated and no food is available on the property, it is not hard to prove that the horse is neglected. Things may get more difficult if there’s food on the property yet the horse isn’t getting enough to keep up his weight—but that’s often proven by a veterinary or equine expert’s examination of the horse’s condition, backed up by their testimony of the horse’s body condition score, bloodwork that shows nutritional deficiencies, and photos that document how the horse gains weight once he receives proper food.
• Abuse is hard to define and harder to prove. In Texas, abuse includes overwork and torture, but some states don’t define or address abuse at all. Proof of abuse is often elusive. Owners and trainers may claim that a horse’s wounds were caused by injuries or accidents in the pasture, and it can be hard to prove otherwise unless the officer witnesses the abuse occurring and is able to document it.
Also, the terms “overwork” and “torture” are subjective: What one person calls torture might be considered an accepted training method for another, and what one considers overwork may be a normal day for someone else. Is it truly abusive or normal horse-keeping when a trainer ties a horse up for several hours? Rides with spurs? Leaves a horse in a stall for days on end? Rides for five or more hours in one day?
• Abandonment means someone has left horses and made no provisions for their care. This could happen when someone moves away and leaves horses behind, or when someone rents property, drops off horses and fails to come back and care for them. Real estate agents or those buying land occupied by abandoned horses will often call the sheriff’s department for help, as will landowners who find abandoned horses on property they had leased out. If you know that a neighbor has moved, and you see no evidence that any horses left behind are receiving care, you can report these cases to the authorities to investigate, too.
It is not typically considered a criminal matter if someone abandons an animal at a boarding barn. Rather, it’s a civil breach-of-contract issue—this is why all boarding barns need good contracts and should understand how to file liens in their state.
• Stray livestock, called “estray” in some states, are animals including horses who either wander loose or who show up on someone else’s property. If you see loose horses or other livestock, call the local authorities to report them. Not only may their owner be looking for them, but they’re also in danger of being hit by a vehicle, which can result in severe injury or death to the animal as well as the people in the vehicle.
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The exception is horses who are in designated “open range” or “fence out” areas. Cattle and other livestock are allowed to roam freely in large swaths of many Western states—if you as a property owner want to keep them off your land, it is your responsibility to put up a fence to keep them out.
If a strange horse shows up on your property, report it to the authorities right away. If you don’t, and the horse had been reported stolen, you may be investigated for theft if the animal is discovered in your barn. When you call, either offer to hold the horse for the local authorities until the owners are located, or request that the horse be picked up and treated as a stray.
Each state has its own laws for exactly how strays are handled. In most cases, they must be held for a certain amount of time while the authorities attempt to locate their owners. They’ll check for microchips or any relevant brand registrations, and they may also place “found livestock” ads in the newspaper or on county or city websites.
The laws will also detail the fines or costs owners must pay to reclaim their strays as well as what is done with the animals if no owner is found. A lot of people believe that if you find a stray horse, he is yours to keep, but that’s not true. If you want him, you may have to file for adoption once all legal requirements have been met.