Are You an Advocate for Horses?

RRHR's Keira and my friend, Amelia.

RRHR’s Keira and my friend, Amelia.

Neglected horses are everywhere in the news lately. By the time you make sense of the images, it’s too late to look away. You might be keeping an sad eye on some thin horses in your local area. Maybe you remember Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue’s Vinnie, who was here for evaluation and training for a few months, and Keira after him.

I took a vacation this summer, the first one in a decade. I sat in a court room with no windows for a week, with concerned citizens and fellow board members of Horse Advocates of Colorado, listening to testimony in an animal cruelty case. In a different neglect trial, I was a witness. I’ve always known the rescue side, but this year I came to understand some of the challenges for law enforcement and I’ve been both inspired and demoralized by our American court system.

This year I’ve been name-called and lost dear friends. I’ve seen the stress of fighting the good fight take its toll on good-hearted people, and I have seen callous people, with no concern for life, behave despicably with no acknowledgement or apology. It isn’t like I was remotely new to equine neglect and abuse; we win some and lose some, but this year has been an special education.

The first question people ask is how can someone let this happen to their horses? Simple, it usually all begins with a change in the usual routine. Colorado has had its fair share of floods and fires recently. Sometimes a horse owner has a health challenge or loses their job or has a death in the family. Sadly, at any given time, we are all vulnerable. There, but for the grace of God, go any of us.

The real question is what happens next? Some of us will move quickly to sell or re-home our horses, hoping to keep them safe. Or mitigate the costs by finding someone to part-lease him. But sometimes the issues keep coming and time gets away as we struggle to keep up. By then our horses are thin and perhaps failing. Now what? We’re too embarrassed to call the vet, if we even have the money. And afraid that someone will report us to the sheriff the rest of the time. As a last resort, would you take him to an auction? Let him die in the pasture and hope no one sees? How desperate will it get?

And yes, a percentage of humans just don’t care. They see animals as personal property–theirs to do use and dispose of as they like. For sake of pride, they spend thousands on attorneys and court fees, rather than do the right thing for animals in the first place.

But, you say, someone would be crazy to leave them to starve. Well, yes. Exactly. Mental illness usually plays a common part in animal neglect and abuse. Some humans are sick enough to choose blood and money; to be malicious without remorse.

The thing all these scenarios have in common is that no one asked for help. Humans don’t like being seen as weak or failing. Most horse people pride themselves on being independent and resourceful. And then, if asking for help wasn’t hard enough, it can be hard to accept the help offered. Humans are complicated.

Once we ask, things can start to move. Family and neighbors step up. There are community resources like hay banks that offer help. Even deputies will lend a hand. I have such respect for people who humble themselves in deference to their animal’s welfare. It shows character.

The second most common opinion heard from the public, usually extremely hostile, is that the court’s punishment is too light. People often suggest starving and torturing the animal abusers. Trust me, I understand the sentiment. It’s easy to have a hard-line of disdain for anyone with a thin horse, because it gives us a way to distance ourselves from our own vulnerability. After all, I have two hard keepers in my own barn. But threatening violence makes us guilty of the thing we are fighting against. Could we rant in the closet and then elevate the public conversation to a more helpful level?

There’s gray area; the difference between the crazy abusers and the disadvantaged owners is important to understand. Some deserve our compassion and help. And some deserve all the punishment that the law will allow. If you think the sentencing is too lenient, then it’s obvious–stop complaining and get involved.

Here’s one new light: The FBI Makes Horse Abuse a Felony in January, 2016. Not just a felony, but a Class-A Felony. That puts horse abuse on par with assault, homicide and arson. It’s been a long time coming, this acknowledgment that animal abuse is closely tied with violence against women, children, elders, and indeed, our whole society. Take heart–change happens.

Warning: The following opinion is just mine. It gets me in trouble but it’s a free country.

The other common statement that I hear is that someone just can’t be involved in helping because they love horses too much to look at the pictures; that hearing about it would just hurt them too much. Like somehow their love is just too pure to hear this kind of ugliness. Could you possibly think that those of us sitting in court are there because we love horses less than you do?

Do horses a favor; instead of loving them too much, love them just enough. Enough to offer help to a neighbor in need or enough to make the call to the authorities if necessary. Enough to be part of the solution. If you can’t take time off from work, then write letters to the media. Donate money, but if you don’t have a dime to spare, sign petitions, join groups, be informed. Love horses enough to bear witness. Love them enough to make positive change.

We formed Horse Advocates of Colorado, over a thousand members strong (join here), to give a voice to horses in our county.  It’s our first anniversary. We’re celebrating by going to an invitational horse welfare meeting at the sheriff’s office this morning. Don’t think for a minute that you can’t make a difference for horses.

And to everyone who has lifted their voice above the din of ranting and criticism–you are a hero to horses and to us. Thank you.

Anna Blake for Horse Advocates of Colorado.

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Feeding Skinny Old Horses.

CHRNHe’s old. Some kind women from the Colorado Horse Rescue Network saw him at the Calhan auction. Do you think he should be euthanized? There was almost nothing left to him. The weight tape says 890 pounds and he is about 15.1 HH. Does he look like he can survive? We can guess at how old he is–probably 20-25. At the same time, his face was bright. This is Captain.

There is a false assumption that old horses get skinny by virtue of being old. It just isn’t true. Old horses, whether they are loved or abandoned, simply change as they age. Their muscles may be smaller; he may move around less because of arthritis, but getting thin is not any more normal for a horse than it is for a human. How is your waist doing?

A horse’s teeth are usually the problem. Sometimes they have grown so unevenly that hooks on the edges can cause ulcers that make it painful to eat. Sometimes the teeth are worn down too far to chew or if they lose one or two, the rest become unstable. They may munch on hay but spit it out. Others may chew hay, swallow it and still lose weight because if the hay isn’t well masticated, it is harder for the horse to absorb the nutrients. Meaning a horse can appear to be eating fine and beginning to starve at the same time.

But it isn’t a crime to get old. 

Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue stepped up and welcomed Captain in from the auction and the January cold for a refeeding program. In the beginning he had six feedings a day, including a 2:00 a.m. serving. He’s eating a combination of beet pulp, alfalfa pellets, bermuda grass pellets and a bit of senior feed soaked into a glorious mush. It’s a little different from buying hay, but not necessarily more expensive. And when his head went into the bucket and the smacking began, he didn’t come up for a breath until it was gone.

After a week or two, Captain was getting stronger. He transitioned to eating five times a day, smaller portions, but his tummy still wasn’t empty for longer than about four hours–except for the 6-hour layover at night. Horses are designed to graze most of the day so the mush meals had to come more frequently as well. He had some catching up to do.

Captain3mosHandsome, isn’t he? Here’s Captain after 3 months of refeeding. He is eating four times a day now and he will get his teeth floated on May 6. They’re hoping he can start to chew hay just a bit better, maybe enjoy some spring greens. Still, his teeth are expiring and he will need soaked, or at least pelleted feed, for the rest of his life.

Captain is a very friendly sort who readily follows humans around, probably in search of more food and treats. It isn’t the worst way to pass an afternoon. He’s a grateful horse with a different sort of beauty at this age. He still deserves our respect.

He would like to remind us that elders need a bit of help as years pass. They aren’t that different from us.

Captain is available for adoption but he will need a special home. One that appreciates second chances and has little extra time and love because his heart is extra big and sweet. But then the rewards for helping a Grandfather like Captain are much greater too. These are golden days–he is safe now.

What is the value of another summer in a sweet pasture? It might be time to pay some kindness forward. (You aren’t getting any younger yourself.) Consider donating your local rescue in their work for horses. Click here Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue to help Captain and others just as deserving.

Please remember Captain when you see a thin horse. It’s quite possible that his owners just don’t know. Kindly remind them that older horses need their teeth checked a bit more often. That as years go by, supplementing hay and pasture with soaked pelleted feed may be necessary. Refeeding information is available from any vet or local  horse rescue.

Most of all–keep an open heart. Captain did.

Anna Blake for Horse Advocates.