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.