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.