Imagine that you are a young girl (or boy, for that matter) walking along a field of grazing horses on a hot summer’s day. The horses do look a bit thin – and coming to think of it, you can’t see any water troughs. You pause for a closer look and notice that some of them have small scrapes and cuts. One or two could use a hoof trim. With sinking heart you realize that these horses may be victims of neglect with no access to water and not being looked after properly. What do you do?
If you’re an average phone-wielding teenage girl you snap a number of pictures and post them to the Facebook groups about horses you’re a member of, asking if anyone else thinks these horses look neglected or even abused. And that’s when the manure hits the fan.
No horse owner is going to appreciate being hung out to dry on the social media as an abusive or neglectful caretaker. A bazillion horse owners are going to point out that at any given time, this photo could have been of their horse and they’d like to skin you alive for suggesting that they’re hurting their beloved animals. Unless the horses in questions are victims of very visible abuse or neglect (read: rail thin with extreme hooves and large open wounds) you’re going to be end up branded as a nosy brat who should mind her own god-dang business.
Make sure there is a problem to begin with
Address the issues you’re seeing one step at a time. Do the horses have access to water? Just because you can’t see a trough from where you’re standing does not mean that there isn’t one. Walk along the fence and look for troughs, barrels, old bath tubs, etc. Do not jump the fence – in most countries this will be considered trespassing. Unless the fence is ginormous you should be able to spot a water source from outside anyway. Keep in mind that a brook or other natural water source is also fresh water; there may not be a need for a trough in the first place.
Do the horses look thin? Depending on a horse’s age and its fitness level a horse can look thin without being underweight, and similarly, it can look tubby while being in poor health. Older horses often have problems maintaining weight and may show visible ribs and hip bones in spite of getting everything they need.
Are the horses badly in need of a farrier? If they have hooves that look like Aladdin’s curly-toe shoes, then yes, they definitely have a problem. But what if their hooves are a tad long, a bit cracked and rough at the edges, and look a little flaky? There is no way you can tell whether the farrier is scheduled to come by tomorrow.
Talk to the owner about it
Your first stop when worried about the horses should not be the internet. Try to find out who is responsible for the horses and talk to that person instead. Most horse owners are happy to talk about their horses and will explain the facts to you. Most will appreciate that you care enough for their horses’ welfare to ask in the first place.
Let me use my own horse, Pilar, as an example here. When Pilar came to our barn two months back, she was about 100 kilos underweight according to her vetenarian check. She had long toes that flaked and cracked at the drop of a pin. She had bald spots from scratching against things. On her first night in the barn she got kicked by another horse, leaving a nasty cut on her thigh. She had various smaller scrapes and scratches on the chest and rump area in particular. She was a perfect candidate for a tearful facebook post about a poor, abused horse.
Pilar had not been starved; she lacked exercise. She had spent eight months in a perfectly flat field with no real reason to move or develop muscle tissue, with no work. This is neglect, – and I salute her previous owner for facing the facts that she did not have the required time to own a horse and selling her to somebody who does, i.e. me. She is still thin and undermuscled, but she has gained about half of what she needs to gain and we are in the process of building her muscles up.
Her toes were longish and cracked at the edges. She has a tad flat feet, and the previous owner made us aware that she had had trouble with her hooves cracking. Currently she has her hooves trimmed by a barefoot trimmer every four weeks, and it is helping – but it is going to take time to rectify this problem. The new hoof ceratin has to grow out before the old can be removed, and hooves grow slow.
The bald spots turned out to be a relatively easy fix: Many Friesians have trouble with mite infestations, and a shot against parasites was required, along with a Frontline treatment. Killing the mites is easy, but fur needs time to grow back in, and even after two months she still has a bit of skin trouble in places where her skin was particularly damaged.
The kick on the inner thigh she received on her first night with us was quite severe, removing hair and skin and bleeding a fair bit. It was, however, not very deep. We kept it clean, applied honey and disinfectant, and let nature take its course while keeping a firm eye on it, but recovery takes time: The last scab fell off this week. That means that for more than a month you could take a look at her leg and see a sizeable cut that looked deceptively untreated.
Finally, Pilar still has nip marks on her chest and rump areas. Why? Because she’s a Friesian with a Friesian’s understanding of personal space. Whenever the horses are fed in the field, hay is distributed in several slow feeders, allowing ample space for each horse to eat regardless of its place in the hierarchy. I have watched Pilar rush to get the best spot at the first feeder filled for two months now – and every time she gets put back in her place by the more senior horses who aren’t tolerating her sense of entitlement. Horses are like that; none of the other horses are particularly aggressive but everyone in the herd needs to know and accept their place – and a six year old mare who doesn’t get it is going to get nipped until the penny drops or she eventually rises to the top of the hierarchy.
When in doubt, try to find the responsible person and talk to them. There is often a perfectly valid explanation for things that may seem wrong at first glance. A horse may be in the middle of a medical treatment – vetenarians do not have magic wands that make everything all right at a moment’s notice. It may be old. It may have other problems that are in the process of being dealt with. Don’t assume the worst because people generally do care for their horses, very much so.
A kid is telling me I’m abusing my horse!
We animal people usually encourage our kids to not accept cruelty towards animals. We are furious when presented with abuse or neglect and we often get into fiery arguments even with each other when we disagree upon proper treatment and care. We want our kids to care. We want them to pipe up when they see something unacceptable, instead of looking away or pretending not to notice.
There’s a backdraw to this: It means that we also have to accept that sometimes, the kids are going to question us. And when they do, we need to chill, to not go on the defensive, but to explain to the kids what is going on and why we are doing what we are doing. I am proud of every kid that asked me about Pilar – why does she have that cut? Doesn’t she need a farrier? You do realize she’s rather thin? Every time I had to explain her medical issues and what I am doing about them is a time a kid stood up for the horse and asked the right questions.
The kids were not trying to make me look or feel bad – they were trying to do what is right for the horse that I also care so much about.
What to actually do?
If you think that horses are being neglected and or abused, try to find the responsible caretaker. Ask them about the issues. Make sure to say that you’re not accusing them of anything – you’re asking because you care about the horses and you want to know that they’re being looked after well.
Some horse owners will tell you to buzz off and mind your own damn business. When this happens, try to find more experienced horse people that you trust, and ask them to come look at the horses with you. In most places you’re not allowed to enter the field, but you can likely get a good look from the legal side of the fence. Ask a teacher at your riding school or the barn owner or someone else whose experience you trust to help you out.
If you still think the horses are victims of abuse or neglect, contact the proper authorities. This is likely the police, but you can also go to an organisation that looks out for mistreated horses and animals. You can likely find one easily on the internet. Call them and ask them to help, and if they cannot, ask them for help finding the right place to call. This may turn out to be the police, or another organisation closer by.
It is very tempting to dash to the social media with a picture of abused horses but remember that if you are wrong, you are hurting the person who cares for the horse for no reason. Don’t do it unless you’ve exhausted other options for finding help – but if you have no other options, remember that it is better to post on facebook asking for the opinions and advice of other horse owners than to turn your back on horses who are suffering.
Similarly, we horse owners need to get better at recognising the concerns of particularly younger horse people and not leap right to defending ourselves. We teach our kids to care and speak up for animals: We don’t have the right to tell them to shut the hell up when they do.