Horse Welfare: Hope or Hopeless

Fall 2009
Experience as Evidence Essays

Article 1 of 12

On a cold day this past January I was working at my veterinarian's office and I saw the most pitiful sight I have ever seen. I had been aware of neglect, one of my own horses was a rescue, but I only saw the cases where the horse survived. I saw the difference between a horse that lived out his years with a caring master and one who was forgotten and forsaken by his owner.

I was outside with Dr. Jacobson testing out his new X-ray machine, when a man ran into the barn calling frantically. He told us that he went into the barn to feed his horse, and his horse had collapsed during the night. We drove down the icy one-lane roads to a rundown red barn. The gate into the small barnyard led to an open aisle with three stalls on one side. The aisle was run-in style, allowing the horses a free access to the shelter and bedded down with straw to protect them from the concrete floor. An old black horse lay on his side just inside the front door of the barn with his sides heaving with his failed attempts to get up. His owner stood helplessly by him, worry carved into his face. Dr. Jacobson knelt in the soiled bedding to take the helpless creature's vital signs. The horse was dehydrated, breathing hard, and had a severe heart murmur. In other words, instead of the clear bump of a healthy heartbeat, his heart swished and squelched, and his valves leaked. This murmur, Dr. Jacobson deduced, was probably responsible for a stroke that the horse had suffered through the middle of the night, causing him to fall over while sleeping standing up.

The first thing we had to do was flip him on to his other side, so we tied lead ropes around the front and back legs and pulled. The poor old guy rolled over with a grunt and a wheeze. Getting him to his feet was going to be far more difficult. We removed the leg ropes and put the longest lead on his halter. On the count of three, we pulled back on the rope while Dr. Jacobson whooped, hollered, and smacked the horse's rump. The horse, energized by the commotion, struggled into a seated position, and with a final tug from us, a smack and a push from Dr. Jacobson, lurched to his feet. He stood shakily as a newborn foal, breathing heavily from the exertion. After so many hours lying flat out on the floor and fighting to get to his feet on his own, his muscles were exhausted. His left eye was swollen from flailing his head around in an attempt to get up, and was infected from opening it in the dirty straw. Now that he was on his feet, it was clear that his left knee was very arthritic after a lifetime of carriage work and was most likely the reason why he couldn't manage to regain his footing on his own. He moved unsteadily to the water trough to get the first water that he had in about 8 to 12 hours. Under a very fuzzy winter coat you could see the beginnings of ribs and his hips jutted out too far for being at a healthy weight. His owner hovered over him, guiding him to the water and had a steadying hand on his withers. After looking at the horse's well-used teeth, Dr Jacobson estimated the black beauty was in his late twenties. His quality of life was deteriorating, and it looked as if he would have to move on to a better place before he suffered further. He was one of the saddest sights I had ever seen; that was until I saw his pasture mate.

A chestnut horse hobbled out into the sunlit barnyard to go nibble on a hay pile. His hooves were boat shaped and grown beyond recognition. He had suffered from severe laminitis in his left foot, so that the bone in his hoof had sunk through the bottom of his foot and rested on the ground. His right hoof also had laminitis that in any other creature would have been extremely severe, but in his case was not as bad as the left. The owner of the black horse told us that his owner hasn't been to see him in a few years, and that he had tried to get farriers out to the farm to work on him, but since the chestnut couldn't stand on three legs, there was little they could do with a case that severe. The only way for a horse to founder so badly was neglect. He was very skinny with his ribs showing though his patchy, coarse winter coat. As we watched him hobble in short painful steps around the yard, I could see what a great horse this creature must have been. Even through his pain, his ears pricked and swiveled after his pasture mate, and he watched his elderly buddy through kind eyes. Dr. Jacobson asked for the chestnut's owner's number and the black horse's owner called her up. He told the neglectful lady that the chestnut was in severe pain and should have been put out of his misery long ago; apparently she was all for putting him down. I was astounded that anyone would neglect their horse and leave them in that condition until someone else called them up to tell them that it was time for the animal to be disposed of. We weren't even called to the farm to look at the horse that had foundered, just for the elderly pasture mate that was loved and cared for by his owner.

Dr. Jacobson said that he would euthanize them both now but the ground might be too frozen to dig a big enough hole for them and it was expensive to get them taken away. Both of these horses are still suffering, at least until the ground thaws. I asked Dr. Jacobson if putting a horse down was difficult for him; he told me that in cases like this it was the best thing that could be done for the horse.

This situation made me wonder how many other horses were left to fend for themselves once they were worn out or became disabled, not even having an owner that cared enough to shell out one last time to end their suffering. How many horses were suffering still, hidden by ignorance and surviving by selfishness?

Horses have been always been teetering on the line between a pet and a livestock animal. Very recently, horses have seemed to fall on the pet side of that line, which may not be to their benefit. Most people who buy a horse as pet don't realize that they need a lot of hard work and attention until it is too late. Livestock, on the other hand, are seen as well looked after creatures that draw a profit. But even though most livestock is sent to slaughter, the people who raise them can still love and care for them. Before the outlaw of horse slaughter, as unpleasant as it was, neglect cases were down, because it was a humane, useful outlet for unwanted horses. Now horse rescues, animal shelters, even therapeutic riding barns are overflowing with abandoned, neglected, or undesired horses. Horses are expensive creatures and a luxury that some, either in ignorance or financial difficulty, can no longer afford to keep, or in some cases, even to kill. Is ignorance or selfishness causing widespread neglect? Is the labor and cost necessary for proper horse care also to blame? Can a humane, cost-effective solution be found to lessen the growing problem of neglect or is horse slaughter the only option for a better quality of life for these animals?