The Care of an Emaciated Horse
My friend and I, both experienced horse people, have recently been involved in the rescue of two badly emaciated horses. We have learned thereby that there is more to horse rehabilitation than giving them some tender loving care and access to green grass. A modern domesticated horse which has been discarded reacts badly to neglect not only in physical condition but also mentally.
The first essential when bringing the horse back into care is to carefully inspect the animal in every respect. The vet, the farrier, the dentist and the physiotherapist all have their part to play in the assessment of what the horse will need in order to recover. It is a good idea to keep records throughout the process of rehabilitation of the condition of the animal and to take photos for reference purposes. Worming is a must as is the treatment of any sores or wounds and the horse should be vaccinated. Any emaciated horse is vulnerable to infection, so special care must be taken if the animal is to be housed with other horses.
After getting the horse home it should quickly feel safe in its new and unfamiliar environment. Routine is the key to giving security. A fearful horse can lose weight just by fretting. The animal must also be protected from the elements. According to the season some type of rug be fitted, be it thin, medium or heavy weight. It is necessary to help retain the animal’s body heat during periods of inclement weather so there is no point in feeding the animal only to lose the benefit to the natural process of the horse keeping warm.
A priority is to give the animal restricted access to fresh grass when in season but care must be taken since an abundance of fresh green grass can kill a emaciated horse either through colic or via laminitis Whenever the horse is brought in from a grassy paddock and taken to a stable then it should be provided with a hay net or a net of low calorie chaff to keep the horse‘s metabolism working over every twenty four hour period. Most healthy horses choose to eat little but often.
The horse should be groomed thoroughly but gently every day and its coat should be kept clean permanently. Care should be taken not to put the horse back out into a field with a wet coat after being washed. The use of sweat rugs made of absorbent cloth helps in reducing the time taken for the horse’s coat to dry thoroughly. What the groom should be working towards is a soft, silky, glistening coat which is a sign of good health. The mane and tail should also be combed. A side benefit is that the act of washing the animal helps to introduce it to the touch and voice of the new owner.
If after a week or so the horse’s belly starts to drop and balloon up, then this is a danger sign. It would then be advisable to cut back on the grass and to increase the chaff which has a low energy value. Giving food only will generate body fat but the horse will also need muscling up through regular exercise. Mixing mineral supplements with some hard food will help to offset any existing deficiencies induced from poor grazing. The vet will usually want to see a rib or two showing through since being over weight might present other unwanted health issues To start the rebuilding of muscles, work in hand is desirable preferably on a regular basis at the same time every day. Eventually the horse should be lunged when care must be taken not to exhaust the horse with too much effort too soon. Little but often becomes the rule. Watch out for undue sweat or tripping and the slightest hint of lameness.
Eventually, perhaps a month or two down the line the handler may consider mounting the animal but only when it is apparent that the horse’s back is in a fit condition to take the weight of the rider. The spine and hips should be covered with flesh and muscle. The saddle must match the shape of the horse’s back but nevertheless it is advisable fit a thick numbnah. Once backing is feasible then a slow but regular build up of exercise in a controlled environment can be introduced to the regime. It is important at this stage to watch out for irregularities in the horse’s action.
A constant and regular routine is imperative for the animal.. The horse must come to expect work every day. It is not just for physical exercise but to give the horse a sense of purpose. Learning to handle a horse from the ground is as much an acquired skill as riding or training it. Any horse should come to accept the fitting of the head collar and to follow the handler willingly at the shoulder on a loose lead rein.
My friend and I came to the conclusion that whilst we could repair the physical damage, the mental damage represented a far greater issue. Horses are born wary with an instinct to run rather than to stay and confront. If they are neglected for any length of time without adequate food and are given minimal attention then they can become anxious. Domesticated horses have as much in common with wild mustangs as we humans have with cavemen. We decided to put our rescued horses into individual paddocks but ones which were divided in such a way as to allow contact with other horses over the fence.
We do not have any wire fences on the premises and prefer to use broad banded electrified tape attached to wooden fence posts. Introducing a new horse into the herd is always a sensitive process. If there are signs of aggression or fear then the rescued should be separated from the aggressors but it is unwise to leave the new comers alone without companionship of their own kind.
On the whole the system worked well but we found that when a companion horse had been moved out of sight for exercising, the rescued horse often went into panic mode. One of the rescued horses at first showed signs of severe stress whenever left on its own. It would stand fretting at the gate for hours. Gradually this very obvious sign of distress began to ease up but it quickly became obvious that we had to be careful not to take this mentally damaged creature out of its comfort zone. Eventually under a carefully balanced diet and regular work in the training arena, the horse gradually came back into condition indeed she looked pretty good. She seemed happy enough in her new surroundings and slowly she became used to the lifestyle but any change for whatever reason in either routine or rider had to be approached with care.
One horse wanted desperately to belong to our family but our plan had always been to pass her on when she was ready. The job had been to rescue it and to bring it back to health but not necessarily to provide a long term home for it. Finding the right owner proved to be difficult but eventually a suitable woman came along who fell for this pretty creature and finally it went off to a new home ready to rejoin the outside world. We knew there was a lot of horsey expertise at the livery yard where it was to be kept and all appeared to go well in the transfer. Our spending too much time at the new home with the horse after the changeover would have been unsettling.
A domesticated horse which has been starved and left out on barren ground unattended for any length of time will undoubtedly become distressed. No two horses react the same to deprivation but it would be foolish not to take into consideration the possible impact on a horse‘s temperament. Some riders have a natural rapport with horses than others but even empathy does not replace knowledge and experience. Nowadays many new riders are looking for horses with a calm disposition but a frightened and skittish horse does not fulfill that role. Horses have long memories. The probability is that a ’project’ horse will often appear to be cheap to acquire but it can be expensive to maintain over the long term. Overcoming innate fear in any horse calls for patience and understanding but as such these are qualities which the novice rider may not have yet acquired.
For me, watching the skinny bag of bones horse regain its health and happiness was undoubtedly a rewarding experience but handing the horse over to the care of a third party proved to be a soul searching exercise. I suppose it must always be a sensitive time when sending a protege out into the big wide world. I have deliberately kept my distance from the horse and her new owner but I would have been told if the little horse is not being well looked after.
Let us hope it is.
Good job on healing the broken horse. I bet it was hard to let her go to the new home but just remember that letting her go to the new home makes room for you to save another one. ; )
One thing I would highly recommend when you bring home a a very bad off horse. Call animal control or the sheriffs dept. Let them know you JUST got him, take some pictures on day one. You can save yourself a whole bunch of headaches if someone reports you and you get blamed for the condition,
Yeh, you can rob a liquor and have all kinds of due process going for you, but abuse cases tend to always be guilty until proven innocent. It shouldnt be that way but it is. One phone call, a photo holding a newspaper in the shot with the horse, or a dated bill of sale, or something that can cover you if you are falsley accused can save you a bunch of headaches.
My area's sherrifs dept and animal control are a bit gun shy over the issue after being embarrassed nationally over refusing to act on the Vick dog abuse issues, and then again on refusing to act on a private socalled rescue that had dead horses laying in the field until the News traffic helicopter did a fly over and put the pictures on TV.
Thank you for caring for these horses. We don't have enough good horseman out there right now to do this for all those that need it. I am the founder and acting president of our local rescue network, SVERN and we hope to educate more to do the right thing by these animals. Keep up the good work.
I've never tried to care for a genuinely abused horse. However, both of the horses I have now had some rough treatment prior to arriving, and I didn't understand at the time how much TIME it would take for them to recover mentally.
Mia had been used for some endurance racing, then not ridden for a year, then given to a charity, and sold as a horse for a 12 year old girl. She is a very dominant mare, and she was placed in a pasture with a bunch of other horses, including a few that weighed 1500+ lbs to her 900 lbs. She wouldn't give in, so she was beat up regularly by the herd. She also had no desire to be ridden by a 12 year old, and a few months later she was returned to the charity with bite marks and 150 lbs lighter. And she was sold to me, a newbie, as a good horse for a beginner rider!
We already had a horse, and she had been Mia's corral mate for 2 years prior to being donated - odd chance, but we figured it would all be hugs and kisses right off. Lilly thought so too. She was dancing around before we got Mia out of the trailer. So we turned Mia loose...and she darn near tried to kill Lilly!
We hastily build a new pen for Mia, and let them get reacquainted - first with a 5 foot gap between corrals, and then over a common fence. A month later, they were pals again. And Mia gained her weight back quickly. But for 4 months, she would break into a heavy sweat just standing still. She had multiple bouts of colic eating the same feed regime her original owners used (she had papers, and we had the name of the original owners from that. They were shocked when we emailed them pictures.)
Meanwhile, in my ignorance, I started riding - a brand new rider with very limited experience followed by a 30 year gap without touching a horse. And I rode English. Until she bolted during a dismount, and I landed back first on some rocks. 3.5 years later, my back still hurts 4-5 times a week.
It took at least 6 months for her to get over most of her anxiety. Maybe a year to get back to feeling fairly confident. The problems I have with her now are caused by my lack of riding skill, but I've been working that issue hard for close to a year. In Nov she will get a month of training by a professional who has helped my family enormously, and by Dec I hope my riding skill and her mental worry level will match well enough to resume riding after a 9 month break. If so, then only 4 years of work and riding will have gone into it...
Trooper was bought from a ranch in Utah owned by an old friend. However, it took 6 months for us to get a place ready & arrange transport for Trooper, and he was loaned to a ranch in Colorado that promised my friend to feed him and ride him regularly.
Well, they did. They also spurred holes about 2" diameter in both sides, wore a hole in his withers with a bad fitting saddle, used him for cutting although that was the only restriction my friend had made on his use (at 800 lbs, he's a bit small for it), and our farrier is certain he was roped and thrown for shoeing - for no reason. My friend offered to cancel the sale, but we went ahead.
And yes, when his sides healed, we rode him. Which was OK as long as he didn't think he had done something wrong. If he thought he did something wrong, he would panic and try his best to dump his rider.
Eventually, I gave up and stopped riding him. I started looking to see if anyone would be interested in taking him on. Both our trainer and farrier thought he was potentially the best horse we owned, and we would have given him away to a good home, but no one wanted him. He went 8 months without being ridden - just lots of handling, or sitting on the fence and talking to him.
Since no one wanted him, we sent him to 5 weeks at the trainer's place. She started him over at the beginning, treating him like an unbroke horse. It was 4 weeks before she mounted him. One week later, he was ready to come back.
He was still nervous, so he went on the "You can do no wrong" program. Lots of short rides. He could trot as much as he wanted - that being his way of being nervous. At first, most rides started with 15 minutes of trotting. Then 10. Then 5. Eventually we did walks followed by trots. My youngest daughter started taking lessons on him.
A year later, he is an outstanding horse. He's in the process of teaching my daughter-in-law and I how to canter without bouncing. His goal in life is to understand his rider, and do what his rider wants. My youngest daughter rode him last week, supposedly because she wanted to try cantering. Trooper refused to canter, although he loves it. When I asked my daughter later, she confessed she got nervous and didn't REALLY want to try cantering. So Trooper cantered with me, refused to for her, then cantered with my daughter-in-law during 3 sequential, 20 minutes each rides. He picked up on what my daughter REALLY felt, and behaved accordingly.
As I look back on it all, I've decided that if I ever buy a horse again, I'll start by giving the horse a vacation to get used to his surroundings and the other horses. Maybe a month, maybe much longer.
If he had been genuinely abused, maybe 6-12 months with nothing more from me than handling, and maybe some easy round penning near the end. A horse that has been treated badly takes FAR longer to get over it than I had imagined. But they CAN recover. With time. LOTS of time.
BTW - the previous owner of Mia & Lilly had taken Lilly in from abuse as a one year old. She said Lilly was afraid of humans, so she just spent time talking to her and handling her. For 5 years. They had other horses for riding. When we got Lilly, she was a super sweet, eager to please Arabian mare - ready for training. In the time I spent riding her, she never tried to buck, didn't bolt, and gave every sign of enjoying the time with a human.
Well done with the persistence. Persistence and patience pays.
We give horses credit for having long memories, then we forget sometimes just how long it might take for the neglected horse to forget earlier memories of the bad times. It seems to me that the clever horses are always the more difficult to rehabilitate.
You are lucky you didn't have to deal with organ failure which can be a problem in emaciated animals.
Thanks for the sticky. We just took in two rescue horses who are i bad shape and there are days when we hope we can help them regain their health again. Such a story gives us hope there is light at the end of the tunnel.
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