by Laura Crum
So the other day I had someone ask me a question that confused me. I didn’t know what the right answer was. So I’m going to put this out to you fellow horse people—because it concerns a horse. A horse that may or may not need help.
The story goes like this. I have been volunteering as an aide at my son’s homeschool program for the past eight years. The program is through the public school system and we meet twice a week with the other kids in our group to have a school day at a small local school. This school is in the country, and next door to the kid’s playground is a small pasture with a horse. This horse has been in the pasture for the entire eight years I’ve been at the school. In fact, I’m pretty darn sure the horse has never left the pasture in these last eight years.
The horse is pretty much your cliché backyard horse. I very much doubt any one rides it. In eight years I have never seen anyone catch it or handle it. The pasture where it lives is maybe two or three acres and parceled out in several falling down sections—with tons of non-approved horse features—I won’t go into detail, but I’m sure you get the picture. Nonetheless, there is plenty of grazing in green grass season, there is a shed for shelter, and I see the horse eating hay in the shed from time to time. For many years there was a pot belly pig in this field with the horse, but I haven’t seen the pig lately. I can only suppose it died.
This horse did not look young when I first saw it, eight years ago—I suppose he (it’s a gelding) to be at least twenty by now. The homeschool teacher says the horse has been in the pasture ever since she remembers—and she’s been at the school twenty years. So this horse may be close to thirty. He looks like an Arab type—and has never been stout looking. But he moves sound, and I have never seen a cut on him, despite his circumstances. He always seems pretty settled and content. To tell the truth, I am used to him being there and though I always glance at him when I see him, as I do all horses, I sort of take him for granted. I have looked at the house he “belongs” to, when I pass it on the road—it is a ramshackle sort of place with junk everywhere—just like the pasture. Ok, then.
So the other day our homeschool teacher asked me if I had looked at this horse lately. I said no, not really, and asked what was up.
Apparently they had a teachers’ conference at the school and some teachers who had never been to the school before were at the conference. Including one teacher who had a horse. This teacher saw the backyard horse in the neighboring field and became irate. She said the horse was way too thin and she actually called the local SPCA to report it. Our homeschool teacher felt badly, and asked me if the horse was really in that bad a shape, and if we should have done something ourselves. So I walked back out in the playground to have a look at the horse. And what I saw just plain left me confused.
Because yes, this horse is a little too thin. Bearing in mine he’s a slim built sort of horse and all, and he doesn’t look all that different from how he’s looked for the past eight years. Yes, you can maybe see a shadow of ribs if you stare really hard. No, his hip bones don’t stick up or his ribs stand out. His fuzzy winter coat has some shine to it. He’s a long ways from starving. If he were mine, I would certainly want him a little plumper. But…
I have been around in the horse business for a long time. I know the conventional wisdom is to call and report a horse that is too thin. I also know that this course is as likely to do harm as it is good. Having watched this horse lead a reasonably contented life for the past eight years, I certainly would NOT have reported it to the local SPCA.
There are a number of reasons why I feel this way. First off, I have known of a good many cases like this where the owner, who never was all that invested in the horse, simply gets rid of it after the complaint. Trust me, these horses almost NEVER end up going to a better place. At best they get euthanised. At worst they end up on a truck. It’s possible that once in awhile the owner takes it as a wake-up call and buys better feed for the horse. And its possible that one in awhile the horse is re-homed to a better home. Its possible—but I haven’t seen it that often. Especially with an older horse.
And secondly, this is the time of year when pastured horses get thin (in this part of California). Having had pastured horses for many years, I know all about this. Yes, we always fed hay when the horses got a little too thin this time of year. No, we did not worry over much about it. We knew the horses would be too fat by May. If they got way TOO fat they were at risk of foundering in May. It was best to let them get a little thin in November/December, so they’d be able to use all the pounds they’d be putting on in March, April and May. These are some of the logistical problems in keeping horses on year round pasture. It is also nature’s way with wild horses—for those lovely folks who absolutely deify wild horses but would call the owner of pastured horses inhumane if those horses are allowed to get lean in the fall. Think about it.
So yes, I think this little horse is a bit too thin. No, I would not call the SPCA. I am willing to bet major money that the teacher who did call the SPCA keeps her horse in a padded stall and feeds it lots of grain and fancy supplements. It is probably sleek, shiny and blanketed this time of year. Maybe it gets out of its stall for an hour a day at best. Is it happier than the slightly thin little old gelding in his two or three acre pasture? Hard to say. I know which life I’d choose if it were me. I’d darn sure be the horse in the pasture.
And this is what I told our teacher. For all the good it will do. But I have to admit, I still feel a bit confused. I think it is likely that the folks who own this horse are not very knowledgeable. The horse is probably a little too thin because he is getting older and the hay and pasture that were enough nutrition for many years are not enough now. He probably needs some supplemental food to stay at his best weight—and it’s likely his owners don’t realize this. But, judging by their home and pasture, even if they did realize it, they might not be willing/able to afford it. So what is the best course of action here?
It’s easy to say that one ought to talk to the horse owner, but in my overall experience, this seldom works if the owner is a stranger, and can cause very bad feelings. Reporting said owner to the SPCA usually does not result in a better outcome for the horse. In this case, I do not believe the horse is suffering, but if, in a month or so, he is much thinner, something should be done. The question is what.
So how about you? Faced with this situation, what would you do?
PS—And since it is the “shopping season,” I would like to remind everyone that the first two books in my mystery series, Cutter and Hoofprints are on special as Kindle editions right now. Just 99 cents each. These books are accurate and entertaining for any horse lover who enjoys mysteries and reading on Kindle and together would make a great gift for just shy of two dollars. And my fictional horse vet actually deals with a couple of similar cases of questionable horse “abuse.” You might be surprised at her course of action. Click on the titles to order or learn more about the books.
Have to say your books are rather addictive. I've just gotten Hayburner and if it's anything like the others...I won't be putting it down till it's done. Sadly I read fast, so most I've read in a 24 hour period. Loving them all
Re the horse situation, I'd have to see the horse to determine whether I would call animal control, but I agree that horses are better a little on the thrifty side (but not with ribs clearly visible or hip bones jutting out) than overweight. Just my two cents' worth. I wouldn't do what people do to keep halter horses in show shape, either.
Camryn--Thank you! I aim for a fast-paced book that's hard to put down and take it as a compliment when people say they read them in one sitting (sometimes staying up late to finish!). I'm so glad you're enjoying the series.
TBDancer--I agree with what you've said, and think the same way. Thanks for the comment.
I'm inclined to look at the issue slantwise.
Next door to a homeschool, right? Call the owners, ask if the homeschool kids can learn about the horse-next-door--parts of the body, feed requirements, grooming protocol. While you're there, "suss the sitch" and figure out a strategy.
Make the thing legit: have the kids read "Warhorse," and compare modern practices with those of wartime England/Europe. Talk about tetanus (causes, treatments, vaccine). Have them learn the Henneke Scale and assess the horse, compare the live horse to the starving horses in the story. A learning opportunity is not an accusation, it's just a time to get more info...for everybody.
Just a thought, but you get the idea.
Thoughtful post. I had a similar situation and posted about it and everyone agreed (wisely) that no matter what you do, the horse's owner is not invested in the horse so nothing gets done, or like you said, the horse goes to a worse situation. Still there are cases of real abuse/neglect so we do need to be proactive!
People want the best for animals, the ultimate food, shelter, care, etc. And when that doesn't happen, it must be changed, must be rectified. rescues are famous for this, Must be an ideal setting, no issues, no slightly offs. And so the animals sit in rescues instead of find a forever home that may not be ideal, but has love for a lifetime. the teacher who complained should have tried to find out the story first, before calling. You are right to just keep watching. The horse could have an issue that caused someone to stop riding him very early in his life, but who refused to sell him because of that injury.
Aarene--That's an interesting approach. I DID ask the homeschool teacher if the horse's owners might be open to being approached (as their property borders the school playground, I thought that they must have interacted with the school in the past), but she said that they weren't very "responsive"). Their whole property is just littered with junk (not just the horse pasture) and the house has a sort of falling down look to it, which doesn't fill me with hope. As a sidenote, my son and I did read "Warhorse" together, at your suggestion, and both of us found it a worthwhile book.
Alison--Yes, this is just the problem. Sometimes we do harm by interfering, and yet there are cases where it IS necessary to interfere. The hard part is finding where that line lies.
Pattie--I agree that many less than ideal situations may be the very best situation that a given horse is likely to find. I will do a follow up post on this, I think. Thank you for the comment.
Hi Laura! The living quarters obviously aren't the best for a horse, but if he has been okay for 20 years or more, he must be healthy. I would not have called the SPCA. This is not an adoptable horse. If that teacher who called is that concerned and has a horse of her own, maybe she could adopt this one! I feel sorry for horses when I see them alone, even if their conditions are ideal, because they are herd animals. But having had 2 horses, I know the costs involved. I always like to see a goat or something in with them. Sounds like this horse did have a buddy at one time. :(
This sort of thing perplexes me on a lot of levels.
I have seen horses that are 1's and 2's on the Henneke scale and nobody does a damn thing... even though they are on main roads where hundreds of people pass them daily.
I DID call the SPCA on one such pony last year. There was no grass, no shelter, and no hay in his dirt paddock and I could see his hips from the road... while driving by at 65mph with a hedge in the way. The SPCA 'couldn't' do anything and told me 'he's just old'. I'm sorry, but a horse that is a 2 on the Henneke scale 'due to medical issues' needs to be put down.
Meanwhile, people are so quick to jump on a horse who is slightly thin. This horse sounds like he doesn't live the ideal life, but it could certainly be much, much worse. I'm willing to bet he's mostly 'thin' because he lacks a topline from age and lack of work.
My hope is that the SPCA takes a look, rolls their eyes, and walks away without ever bothering the owner, and that the horse lives his years out in his less than perfect paddock, free to roam and munch and sleep in his shed.
As for your point about padded stalls and no turn out... I think there are many ways in which we compromise our animals' well being. Who's to say which is worse? People who judge and get involved when it's NOT a case of true endangerment better really step back and evaluate their own animals' well being.
I've had several people comment that Herbie is 'a bit thin'. She's actually right where she should be, but their own animals are obese, and they fail to see how THAT'S a problem.
/ramble (this post got my blood boiling)
Judy O--Yes, the horse lived with a pig for many years, but I have not seen the pig lately. Thanks for your comment--I totally agree with what you said.
Dom--Yeah, I was a bit upset, too. I have/had all the same thoughts. The thing is, I kept a pasture of retired/rescued horses for years. It can be really hard to know the right choices. Last fall we put two old horses down. They were not suffering, and they still seemed to enjoy life. But we were struggling to keep weight on them, even while pouring LOTS of supplemental equine senior feed to them (feed that had kept them slick and shiny for years). Both horses had been very hard keepers all their lives but we had kept them looking pretty good. Despite our efforts, last year they looked ribby going into winter. And we made the decision to euthanise (one was 31, the other 25). We did not have the facilities/capacity to pen them up and feed more, and we felt that the winter would be too hard on them. AND we were aware that some well meaning observer might see these horses and think they were "abused." It is hard to face such an accusation when you have done all that you realistically can to give an old horse (that was never your personal riding horse--a horse that you took on to save him from the killers) a decent life. So I am careful to think before I jump on someone else.
That said, I have seen horses starving because the owner wouldn't bother to buy feed, or hobbling around for months (literally) because an owner would not treat a sole abscess. Now that is abuse...and should be reported. Its tough to find the line.
Hmm, difficult one. I suppose I'd be mostly inclined to see if I could do a little outreach, but like you say, that can be difficult, and sometimes people really don't want to know and / or don't have the resources to do better. And, I can see it from their perspective: the horse has been just fine so far hasn't he?
But then, I know how fast an old horse can go downhill, and how horrid that can get. But again, that's borrowing trouble, some horses just keep ticking over till they keel over.
Since you say they've fed hay in the past, they must have some concern for him, (even if their care standards are a little below optimum) so I'd wait and see and in the meantime, make enquiries, see if I can find out a little more about who owns him and their situation.
I used to pay for yearly floating for a pair of ponies living in the last bit of private land near my parents. Never know who owned them, As a kid I'd walk up and watch them and then as an adult I stopped by out of nostalgia, and noticed they were a bit thin and one was quidding quite badly.
I asked a passerby and she said they belonged to an elderly gent who came by every day at precisely 3pm. So I waited and introduced myself and I guess with the brass neck of youth, asked if he knew the quidding was a problem. Turned out they'd been his wife's and since she died, he'd been faithfully doing what he remembered her doing. He was on a fixed income, so I offered to pay for the float and did so every year thereafter till they died.
I have called the RSPCA once, although it's always the very last resort. But that was pretty extreme and horrible.
FD, I hear you. That is always my inclination, too. Offer to buy some feed, or help in some way. But I have learned that even this can sometimes offend and do harm rather than good. And I have offered to take a horse off someone else's hands too many times. I ended up with seven that were not "mine" to care for. I then realized I could NOT afford this. I took good care of the rescued horses and found homes for a couple, but I knew I could not do this any more. So now I'm leary of sticking my neck out, since the only answer I found in many cases was to agree to take the horse. And I just can't take on any more. Its so frustrating. I would like to help them all.
It's always a fine line. For all anyone knows, he's a child's beloved first horse, and they are trying to do their best by him despite poor financial circumstances. Or they just might not care. It's impossible to tell without more information.
I like AareneX's idea. See if you can figure out what's going on and maybe offer some assistance in the guise of teaching the kiddos. I actually had a situation like this just down the street - I noticed the horses were getting a smidge ribby, so I called the owner and asked if she was having a hard time getting hay (this was during last year's drought, and I'd just procured a rather large supply). She said the hay she was able to get was awful, and her horses were getting thin, and did I know of any place she could get better hay? So without "reporting" her we were able to solve her hay problem, and the horses were fat again within a few weeks.
Best of luck - I hope that there will be a positive update soon!
jenj--I asked the homeschool teacher the other day if we could find out more about the situation. She said that she had heard that the SPCA folks had contacted the horse's owners and asked for a "vet certificate." This, I assume, is to insure that a vet has a look at the horse and decrees whether or not the animal is doing OK. I haven't heard more, but I'll ask again.
I will admit that after twice being told that a person could no longer afford to feed a horse (that I thought was too thin) and would I take it (I took both these horses and one I still care for--the other was euthanised last fall at 31 years), I am a little wary. It is SO hard for me to say no once I get involved. And I currently care for seven horses--two of which are rescues. I just can't do more right now. But I'll keep checking on the little horse by the school.
I understand that some horses do need intervention when they are not being cared for properly, but what you described is kind of my own personal nightmare. Harley is a hardkeeper and in past years has had trouble reaching the middle score of 5 on the body condition scale. He has always been lean and burns (expensive) feed like it is nobody's business. I used to fear that a well-meaning animal lover would call the ASPCA. I even bumped into another teacher at work one time who announced that her friend (a self-proclaimed horse expert) had seen my horse in passing and told her that "he is too thin." This put a knot in my stomach instantly.
I guess what I am trying to say is that waiting and observing sounds like a good starting point, especially if the horse has been okay for years. I do wish he had a buddy, though.
I just finished Roughstock last night, and bought the next 2 books on Amazon. I'm hooked, too :)
Val--I understand only too well. As I said in response to Dom's comment, I struggled to keep weight on a couple of old horses (feeding them tons of expensive supplemental food, along with free choice pasture and hay), before finally deciding to euthanise them (at 25 and 31 years old). And I, too, worried about being accused of neglect. This little horse by the school has looked fairly content, always. And I know you take excellent care of Harley. Some horses are hard keepers and it can be frustrating.
Promise--Thank you! I am so tickled that my older titles are available again and I'm really happy that you are enjoying them. They were written mainly for folks who love horses...and are meant to be fast, entertaining reads. Thanks so much for your comment--if you are ever moved to put up a review on Amazon, I would be very appreciative. (I know its a fussy sort of chore and I don't expect it of anyone, so no worries if its not your type of thing.)
I'd be happy to write some reviews for you :)
Thank you, Promise! I really appreciate it.
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