Horse Rescue 101: How and When to Take Action

That skin-and-bones horse in the junky pasture down the street is obviously ill-cared for. But is it neglect? Abuse? And if so, how should you handle it? We tell you when and how to safely step in--and how to avoid legal pitfalls.

When I was in junior high school, I shared a horse with my best friend. One day while riding, we stumbled upon four horses fenced behind an old farmhouse. They were raggedy-coated, skeleton-thin, and hobbling lethargically around a weed-ridden pasture on overgrown, curved-up hooves.

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I was first horrified, then tearful, then outraged–then determined to help them.

The next day, we returned to the farmhouse and made the owner an offer: We’d take the horses off his hands and nurse them to health, then sell them to good homes and give the money, minus expenses, back to him.

If we expected the owner to be grateful, we were young and foolish. Deeply offended, he swelled up and roared–then picked up a very big gun. We ran, terrified.

We told our parents. They were furious that we’d been so impulsive and reckless. We went to the authorities. The sheriff’s deputy said nothing could be done. We were admonished from all sides to refrain from trespassing and to mind our own business.

This ill-conceived but well-meaning horse rescue attempt happened 30 years ago. But, depending on where you live, it still can be difficult to help horses you think are being neglected or abused. And it’s still not a good idea to take the situation into your own hands the way we did. Not only does it usually fail to resolve the problem, it could be dangerous.

Here, I’ll explain how to take action without risking your own welfare, and how to avoid legal pitfalls along the way. First, I’ll tell you why people neglect and/or abuse their horses, and what you’re up against, legally, when attempting to make a change. Then I’ll give you six commandments of equine advocacy to follow if you see a horse you think isn’t being properly cared for.

KNOW YOUR OPPONENT You’ll have a better chance of making a difference if you understand what you’re up against, both in terms of the abuser and the legal system. Here’s a brief rundown.

What kind of person would…? According to Idaho State Brand Inspector Larry Hayhurst, 50 percent or more of the neglect and/or abuse cases arise from ignorance. Such people truly don’t know how to properly care for a horse. Others are what animal-protection officers refer to as “collectors,” who “love” horses so much they feel compelled to own increasing numbers of them, but lack the knowledge and/or the means to give them adequate care. (You can make a difference in these cases by becoming involved in your community’s efforts to educate horse owners about how to care for their own animals-and how to recognize neglect across the fence.)

Psychologists say that some people neglect and/or abuse animals because their own personal lives are out of control. They may be down and out, struggling to make ends meet, overwhelmed with responsibilities, and feeling powerless and mistreated themselves.

In extreme cases, abusers may be psychologically unstable. They’re perhaps aware on some level that their animals are suffering, but not in a position, mentally, to deal with that reality without getting defensive, possibly even violent. This type of person is especially likely to react badly to your well-meaning intervention.

But aren’t there laws? Yes, there are laws protecting horses from abuse. But every state–heck, every town–seems to follow a different set of procedures when it comes to responding to complaints about neglected horses, and charging, prosecuting, and sentencing negligent or abusive caretakers. (To find out your state’s animal-protection laws, go to

Conflicting laws can make it tough for you to know whom to call when you suspect a horse is in need of outside help. And that’s bad news for horses. Every dead-end in the horse-rescue maze adds another brick to the wall of cynicism in the mind of the person who’s trying to find help. All too often, that person gives up in frustration, and the next time she sees a neglected horse, she’s more likely to bite her lip and look the other way.

SIX COMMANDMENTS That said, there are ways you can help. The following six commandments of equine advocacy will help you to become a more effective and successful advocate for any neglected and/or abused horse you might find in your area. By following these commandments, you’ll avoid legal pitfalls that could get an otherwise solid case thrown out of court-and possibly get you in trouble.

Commandment #1: Thou shalt not trespass. Don’t climb over, through, or under anyone’s fence, or otherwise trespass onto private property for any reason-even if you’ve brought feed for a hungry horse. Trespassing puts you at risk for criminal charges, jeopardizes your credibility, and threatens to upset any case that might exist against the horse owner. You could also be attacked by a dog-or even a weapon-wielding resident. Instead, make your observations from the safety of public land.

Commandment #2: Thou shalt stick to the facts and write them down. Set your emotions aside and become an impartial observer. Start a written logbook to document every scrap of evidence you gather, and begin each entry with the date and time of day. Be sure to:

  • Describe the horse. Include his color, markings, and any other distinguishing characteristics, such as scars or a limp, that might help law-enforcement personnel identify him.
  • Describe the horse’s condition/attitude. If in your opinion the horse is undernourished, describe his condition in a language anybody can understand-not all investigators of such cases speak “horse.” For example, rather than noting that “his withers and croup are prominent,” write “the bones of his spine and hips stick out.” Also include the horse’s attitude. Is he active, alert, responsive to his surroundings? Or is he lethargic, listless, standing with his head hanging down, or lying down and apparently unable to get up?
  • Describe the horse’s environment. Include such information as how many other horses are with him, an estimated size of the stall or pasture, and whether any other horses are in similar condition. Is there any evidence of feed in the enclosure? (Buckets on the fence? Potable water to drink?) Are there any dead animals on the premises? Does the volume of manure in the enclosure seem excessive? Does the area smell? Is there an abundance of flies and mosquitoes? This information could provide a back door–such as a zoning law or public-health concern–through which officials might be able to take action if animal-neglect charges don’t stick. (Note that Al Capone was put away on tax-evasion charges!)
  • Document with photos. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say. In cases of neglect, back up your written notes with still photographs, and add them to your log, along with date taken. Use a regular camera, not a digital one. Photos taken with digital cameras are easy to doctor, therefore often aren’t allowed in courts as evidence. Develop photos at a nearby lab to eliminate the chance they’ll get lost in the mail, and keep track of the negatives, in case you need to make extra copies of the photos. (A nondigital videotape can also be useful.) But don’t rely exclusively on still photos or video footage to prove your case–your narrative description is more important, because a court might not allow even nondigital photos/videos to be used as evidence. On the other hand, your written account will eventually be included in court transcripts.
  • Note the responsible party. If you know who owns the horse, write down his/her full name, address, and telephone number. Otherwise, gather as much helpful information as you can, such as a street address, and names/numbers on nearby mailboxes.Commandment #3: Thou shalt follow a logical chain of command to report your findings. Now it’s time to alert the authorities. In the blue pages of your local telephone directory, look under city or county government, depending on the horse’s location, and call any government offices with names that include the word “animal” (for example, “Animal Control”). Some animal-control offices deal only with stray dogs and cats, but the person answering the phone should be able to refer you to the appropriate party. If your reporting fails to elicit appropriate action, here’s what to do:
    If the horse resides within city limits, call the municipal police.

    If the horse lives outside city limits, call the sheriff.

    If the horse lives west of the Rocky Mountains, call your state brand inspector.

    If you still come up empty-handed, see Commandment #6.
    Commandment #4: Thou shalt keep an open mind. Remind yourself frequently that you don’t know the whole story, and this might not be a case of willful neglect. It’s possible the horse is ill and under a veterinarian’s care. Or, the owner might be ill and unable to care for his animals. And, like humans, some horses age less gracefully than others. There’s a world of difference between animal cruelty and different animal-husbandry practices. A neighbor who keeps her horses “on the ribby side” but otherwise hale and hearty might actually get higher marks in equine management than another neighbor whose horses are on the far side of “show shape” and at risk for obesity-related health problems, such as founder.Commandment #5: Thou shalt be persistent. If an animal-protection officer indicates she’ll investigate your charges on, say, Tuesday, politely ask if you may call him or her on Thursday for an update, then be sure to do so. Demonstrate that you’re seriously concerned, so he or she will take your complaints seriously.Commandment #6: Thou shalt remember your friends in high places. If you’re sure you’ve got a good case and have followed all the commandments, but it seems you keep running into brick walls of inertia, contact a higher authority, such as an equine-welfare organization. (Check your local Yellow Pages under “Animal Shelters” and “Humane Societies.”) Although these agencies usually don’t have authority to seize an animal or enforce anti-cruelty ordinances, they might have state-given authority to investigate animal-neglect charges, then can return with the appropriate enforcement official, if action is deemed necessary. A national equine-welfare organization might also be able to help prosecutors procure expert witnesses to bolster your case, and/or help officials bring a lawsuit against a convicted offender. (For example, to recover the costs of seizing, transporting, and caring for impounded horses.) Another valuable resource is the American Association for Horsemanship Safety. Founded by Bob Dawson, a horseman/attorney/professor at the University of Texas law school, this group augments its safety-oriented causes with attention to horse-advocacy activities, such as maintaining a growing database of horse-cruelty cases that attorneys in your area might find helpful.Final tip: If, after 30 days, no investigation has been made by law officials and you’re sure it’s a clear-cut case, alert the local media. Sometimes the rumblings of negative publicity will prompt instant action.Karen Hayes is an Idaho-based equine practitioner. She’s testified as an expert witness for the prosecution in animal-neglect cases and has provided foster care for horses in need. “If you think you’ve found a case of animal neglect or abuse, get help,” she advises. “Trust me–it’s out there, even in out-of-the-way rural areas. You may think you’re alone, but you’re not.”The editors thank Larry Hayhurst, Idaho State Brand Inspector; Paul Linn, director of the Virginia chapter of Re-Run (a rescue organization for neglected, abused, or retired racehorses); and Robin Lohnes of the American Horse Protection Association for their help with the compilation of this article.




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