What would you do?

What would you do if you saw this horse as you scurried about your busy day? Shake your head and drive on by? Say a silent prayer? Curse his owners under your breath? Break in and remove him? Throw him some food?

We get contacted by citizens concerned about horses like this all the time. They want us to do something to save the horse. After all, we’re a horse rescue, so get in there and rescue!

A concerned resident we’ll call Jane did the right thing when she contacted us about this horse. We gave her the same advice we give everyone else: Call law enforcement in the horse’s jurisdiction. We also recommend involving the local humane society or animal rights group if you’re unable to find a rescue that can help. In this particular case, the horse was in Wagoner County where my husband is an investigator, so he started digging.

Authorities are required to investigate animal abuse and neglect. Unfortunately, whether the horse receives help depends on whether the agency has the resources, training or will to do anything about it. If an agency does not hold animal abuse and neglect as a priority, the responding officer may accept whatever story the owner offers as truth and move on without taking action and without follow-up.

Arkansas authorities called to investigate this mare and more than 20 other emaciated horses accepted the abuser’s lies and excuses, even after gross neglect led to the deaths of horses in her care. They treated victims and witnesses as nuisances and eventually stopped taking calls. The case remains open after more than two years, and the abuser continues to “rescue” horses.

In the Wagoner County case, where the investigator has seen dozens of cases involving the abuse and neglect of horses, the owner’s explanation for why the horse was so much skinnier than others on the property would have to make sense. It did.

The owner explained that year after year, the horse sheds hundreds of pounds through the winter – no matter what they do. She said she could provide records proving the horse was under a veterinarian’s care, and that she’s doing all she can to care for him, including building a special pen where he has 24/7 access to high-dollar feeds.

The horse is a horse, of course, so on the day Jane saw him wandering around a brown pasture, he’d escaped his enclosure. It’s what horses do.

A law enforcement agency that prioritizes animal rights and provides adequate training will examine the records to determine whether the owner is being truthful. If the owner’s story doesn’t add up, authorities may require her to surrender the horse to a rescue. Then, and only then, can the rescue legally step in and render aid. (Full disclosure: Swingin’ D Horse Rescue does not accept horses seized in Wagoner County due to the appearance of conflicting interests, but we will assist with resources for a horse in need.)

We kept Jane apprised of developments in the case, but it may be up to you to check in with authorities for updates. 

What you can’t do for a horse

One of the best things Jane did was not jump to conclusions. She relied on experts to find the truth before she made any judgments or started condemning the owner. In this case, the horse has an unfortunate mystery ailment that obviously has no effect on its pasture mates because they were all in good condition. Even if the horse was being bullied off of his feed, the owner tries to keep him separated so he can eat at will.

Without the owner’s cooperation, there’s very little a rescue can do to save horses that appear to be abused or neglected – no matter how badly we want to, or how badly someone needs to intervene. While we’d love to hook up our trailer and load up every emaciated horse we find (and there are plenty), we’d be spending a lot of time behind bars if we did. (Imagine what would’ve happened if we’d loaded this poor horse up and removed him from his home!)

Here are some other actions we’d love to take, but don’t:

  • Don’t enter someone else’s property to remove or feed the horse. Taking illegal action – however warranted – can get you shot or arrested. 
  • It’s not a good idea to take it upon yourself to start feeding the horse.
    • First of all, if the horse is thin because it’s sick or elderly, feeding it could cause serious problems like colic or founder. Horses have extremely delicate digestive systems, so a horse that’s been starved can have a severe reaction to suddenly being fed, and a horse that’s on a controlled diet could die on the wrong types of feed. This horse is on a controlled diet. Imagine the damage that could come from the best of intentions.
    • Not to mention, if the owner is neglecting the horse and police show up to find it eating, they may mistakenly believe it’s receiving appropriate care.
    • We’ve seen cases with an obviously starved horse, but police report back, “Well, it had access to hay and water, so there’s nothing we can do.”

What you can do for a horse

We encourage you to do exactly what Jane did:

  • Care enough to do something. Animal welfare is your business.
  • Without breaking the law or endangering yourself, take pictures of the horse in its environment, including access (or lack of access) to food and water.
    • Take photos of any other horses living with the thin horse, so investigators can determine whether all horses are starved, or just the one that caught your attention.
    • Make note of the date, time and exact location of the horse, as well as any entry points or landmarks.
  • Provide your evidence and statement to law enforcement and tell them you want to be updated on new developments.
  • Reach out to a trusted rescue or animal rights group for guidance and assistance.
  • Continue to monitor the horse to ensure its condition improves. If it doesn’t, contact law enforcement and the rescue or animal welfare group again.
  • If the horse continues to suffer and you’re unable to get law enforcement to act, call the local media. Reporters love to be the voice for helpless victims.

The most important thing you can do for a horse or any animal that’s suffering at the hands of a human is to care enough to do something. You may learn that the owners are doing everything they can to help a sick or dying horse. Maybe they just rescued the horse from someone who was abusing or neglecting it, and it’s just beginning its road to recovery. Or you may learn that you’re the horse’s last hope, and that your intervention is the lifeline it needs at exactly the right moment.

What’s a few minutes out of your day when the chance of saving a life is at least 50/50?

Kudos to Jane for using her valuable personal time to help a truly helpless creature. Humans are these animals’ only voice – and sometimes, their only hope. If you live in a jurisdiction that could better prioritize its commitment to animal rights cases, let them know the Humane Society offers training for law enforcement and prosecutors responding to animal abuse, neglect and exploitation.

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