Acquiring a rescue horse is very different than buying a healthy, sound horse with a history of excellent care. This article addresses management issues and medical care that often accompany the heart-wrenching situation of a horse in need. Past trauma may make the rescue horse difficult to handle, and it is possible that full health may never be restored. An owner of a rescued horse recently put it this way: “I guess that is the hard thing about rescue—you never know what is going to happen.”
What is a “rescue”?
By the dictionary, rescue is “to free or deliver from confinement, violence, danger, or evil.” Horses may be rescued by an official 501(3)c non-profit organization, a non-recognized group, or by an individual. For the purposes of this article, any horse that has been in a bad situation but is now receiving appropriate care is a rescued horse.
Why are there so many horses in need?
The six largest equine breed registries of North America reported declines from 2000-2015. The average life expectancy of a horse is about 25-30 years, so many horses were born before this recent decline began.
In 2007 the US economy entered a severe recession and the Federal Government halted domestic horse slaughter. The juxtaposition of these two factors contributed to an increase in neglected and abandoned horses.
In the last 2-3 years the horse market has improved and transfer registries have recorded small increases. Rescue groups are more organized and financial resources for these groups has picked up (or at least leveled out) along with the economy. Fewer horses have been born in the last 10-15 years, which has begun to relieve the burden on rescue groups.
How can good health be restored?
The first priority is documentation of legal ownership. Freeze branding and/or microchipping is recommended.
Quarantine should be established and maintained for 3-4 weeks, mainly to prevent contagious diseases from affecting other horses. The most common diseases include Equine Herpes Virus (Rhinopneumonitis), Influenza, and strangles (Streptococcus equi). The new horse should have his temperature monitored daily as a high temperature can occur before respiratory signs are noted.
A fecal evaluation should be performed so that appropriate deworming strategy can be adopted. Malnourished horses are more likely to ingest bedding, so sand in their gut is a special consideration that should be identified and eliminated as well.
Female horses with an unknown history should have a pregnancy check upon intake and again at 30 days. Pregnant mares can therefore be managed properly, or the decision to hormonally eliminate an early fetus can be made.
Males should be gelded as soon as possible. However, they should not undergo anesthesia until they are near a healthy weight, have completed their quarantine period, and are current on vaccines.
Feeding the emaciated horse can be quite an undertaking. The rescuer should be familiar with the Henneke Body Condition Score (BCS), a standardized assessment of fat and muscle coverage. It is semi-objective and useful for monitoring weight, and has legal precedents established. A horse should be between a BCS of 4-6. Less than 3 is malnourished, and 1 is starvation. Animals that experience starvation may mentally change forever. Ask your veterinarian about the various strategies to reduce meal-time anxiety.
A metabolic disease known as Refeeding Syndrome may occur in a horse with a BCS of 1-3 that has an acute increase in nutrition. Respiratory, heart, and kidney failure develops three to five days after the nutritional increase. Your veterinarian should be consulted for a feeding program. Slowly, these horses are re-fed beginning with 1 pound of alfalfa 6 times daily. Feeding grain or weight-building supplements too early can have very serious consequences, including death.
Although horses are cold-adapted and put on a heavy hair coat, thin horses struggle with cold. If used, blankets should always be clean and dry. They should be removed and the horse inspected and groomed at least once weekly. A heavy hair coat or blanket can mask weight changes.
Vaccines are important, but a body suffering from malnutrition has a compromised immune system. A horse with a BCS of 1-2 cannot be expected to mount an appropriate response to vaccines.
When is the horse healthy enough for training?
Daily food and water goes a long way for establishing trust. Set your horse up for success by doing things and making new requests with the lowest stress possible. Consistency and kindness is key. Always stay safe and aware as a rescued horse may react unpredictably.
Training should be undertaken only when a horse has no active signs of illness. The horse should accept haltering and handling of feet and legs. If you cannot touch a horse, getting him to accept any later medical treatment is impossible. Training is as critical for these horses’ future as their health.
A horse with a BCS less than 3 should not be asked to do any forced exercise, such as round-penning or riding. As a horse is gaining weight, turnout and hand-walking is appropriate for helping the horse re-build muscle and develop respect and trust for humans.
A horse with a BCS less than 4, especially if unfit and lacking muscle, cannot comfortably wear a saddle and carry a rider. Before riding, a horse should be at his new foster or rescue home for at least 6-8 weeks so that he is settled in socially and has the chance to develop trust for his caretakers. He should also have any lameness or foot problems addressed.
Are you ready to commit?
Obtaining a rescue horse results in a significant investment in time and money. Nursing care and re-training is an intensive process. Each horse and rescue situation is unique. The end result can be extremely rewarding, but the commitment is not to be taken lightly.
About the Author
Stacie G. Boswell, DVM, DACVS-LA is an equine veterinarian boarded in large animal surgery. She is currently on staff at Western Trails Veterinary Hospital in Edgewood, New Mexico.