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.