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Rachel Kosmal McCart is a lifelong horsewoman and the founder of Equine Legal Solutions, PC, an equine law firm based in the Portland, Oregon area. Rachel is a member of the New York, California, Oregon and Washington State bars and is admitted to practice before the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon and the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Rachel currently competes in three-day eventing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Wrong is Wrong: Speaking Up about Horse Neglect

Every week, I read posts on social media in which someone is asking what to do about a thin horse they have seen.  Sometimes, they even post a picture of the horse.   Every such photo I've seen shows an emaciated horse, not even vaguely a close call.  But no matter how awful the horse looks, there are always plenty of folks who chime in and advise doing nothing, commenting that the horse "doesn't look that thin," or speculating that the horse might be thin because he's old, or maybe he was just "rescued," etc.

How have we arrived at this point, where we don't help a horse in need because we might offend someone?  Really, what's the worst that could happen if you report an emaciated horse to the authorities and it turns out not to be neglected?  The owner will probably be mad because they have to explain why the horse is not neglected.  That's all.  If it's a close call, the owner might be more diligent about feeding and caring for the horse.  On the other hand, if you don't speak up when you see an emaciated horse, it very well may die. 

My friends, who live nearby, feed their horses poor quality hay, and not enough of it, and as a result, their horses are often noticeably underweight.  My friends are not ignorant - one of them is a riding instructor, and the other is a nurse.  Over the years, I've had dozens of conversations with them about their horses being thin, and they always had plans for putting more weight on them.  I even had regular conversations with them about downsizing their herd to make their situation more affordable. But the result was always the same - if the horses gained weight, they always got thin again, sometimes dangerously so, and they never found any new homes for the horses.  In fact, they even acquired an additional horse.  I didn't press the issue further because I knew my friends would be offended.  I just kept hoping my friends would come to their senses and step up.  They didn't.

On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, my friends called to ask for help.  One of their horses died, and  they needed help moving its body out of the pasture so the rendering truck could pick it up.  When my husband and I arrived, we were horrified to see the condition of the body - it was just hide stretched over bone, not an ounce of flesh left.  One of his eyes was missing, and rigor mortis had already passed.  The body was starting to smell, despite the temperature being in the mid-50s. The horse had clearly been dead for a while.  The other horses in the field were very thin.  There was no grass in the field, and some of the wooden fence posts had been chewed almost in half.

For the past few weeks, I've been ruminating about the horse's death, unable to process the fact that my friends, whom I know as otherwise kind and generous people, had let this horrible thing happen.  But when I heard they had just purchased some rabbits to raise for meat and sale, I couldn't stay silent any longer.  I told them I was very uncomfortable with how their horse died and that they were now acquiring more animals.  They had lots of explanations - the horse was older than they thought he was, it was "his time," they had been thinking about putting him down but hadn't gotten around to it, the teenager that was supposed to be feeding the horses last winter didn't do it, they were spending a lot of money on feed and the horse wasn't able to digest it, etc.  But I know what really happened, and I said so: This poor horse died of neglect.  If he really wasn't able to digest his food, he deserved to be humanely euthanized, not dying of starvation in a field.  

Would it have done any good if I'd spoken up more vehemently about their horses' condition a long time ago?  Maybe, maybe not, but I wish I had.  This poor horse suffered, and died.  And I didn't do everything I could have done to prevent it.


2horseygirls said...

Did you end up making a report about the remaining horses? I hope so.

As an equine humane investigator who went out on these calls for six years, I can confirm that a percentage were unfounded. I got to meet the Standardbred of the Year from back in the mid 80s, because someone called in a concern when he was rocking back and forth to get up from sunning himself. I hope I'm that mobile when I'm his age ;)

But more often than not, the horses were in desperate need of intervention. Yes, I lost some, and they will stay with me forever. But I know that I did my best, and worked well with irate owners to come up with a solution. There were only two that were just evil, that never had that "light bulb"moment -- every other owner had that moment, even if it was too themselves, where I could see them admit they were over their heads, in need of assistance or education, etc.

If you'd like to chat about a follow-up to this article, let me know.

Michael Heggen said...

I've been in the other end of this when my Percheron was in what turned out to be end-stage lymphoma. He grew very thin in his last few weeks, and someone called in a complaint. I was briefly grumpy about it, but the investigating officer was great—especially once he learned Boulder was under a veterinarian's care.

I'll take the concerned-but-objective professionalism of a trained investigator over the emotions of the court of public opinion any day—no matter which side of the complaint I am on.

Sara Mariani said...

I have some questions in regard to what "technically" qualifies as neglect? If a horse is being fed and is not emaciated, but never leaves its stall/paddock/turnout etc. and is standing in wet mud/urine/feces for an inestimable amount of time. When is it technically neglect? What about if a horse has never been shod? Or has been shod but not reset for months and months on end. Or has matted dreadlocks in mane/tail ..where the tail is literally just a big giant knot and is likely very uncomfortable for that horse. Giving a horse 0 attention and handling is this a crime? If not, when would it be a crime? It's shameful to see horses living this way. So bored out of their minds they start neurotically and obsessively doing a habitual behavior simply to pass the time. It breaks my heart bc they technically are being housed and fed in a manner that is "acceptable" and lawful (at least I think so), but every other quality of their lives are miserable. The greatest gift I try to give every horse is a voice and as a trainer and instructor - teaching my students to recognize when they're trying to communicate and instead of dominating that horse and punishing them for attempting to speak that we give them the space and support to do just that.

Rachel McCart, Equine Legal Solutions said...

Sara, I'd suggest contacting your local Humane Society to make inquiries about whether the horses' particular situation constitutes criminal neglect. Even if it doesn't, the HS may have an outreach program that could offer some relief for the horses.