Equine Rescue and Rehabilitation
There is something heart warming about the successful rehabilitation of a horse that has fallen on hard times and with the love and dedication of a caring and patient horse lover, found its hooves again. Horses are tough creatures, even when having gone through what can only be described as awful neglect and long term suffering they have an amazing will to live in the face of adversity.
What do the terms "rescue" and "rehabilitate" actually mean?
"Rescue" - implies freeing from imminent danger by prompt or vigorous action.
"Rehabilitate" – means restoring or bringing to a condition of health or useful and constructive activity.
From a horse welfare perspective, "rescue" may mean assisting a horse below a body condition score of two on the Huntington Body Condition Score chart (refer Agnote "Condition Scoring and Weight Estimation of Horses"). From a concerned horse lover's point of view it can mean taking on a horse that no one wants, or a horse that no one is looking after on an ongoing basis. Most of the time it is the horse that someone is giving away because they can no longer afford to keep it, it has outlived its usefulness, it is has grown old or the owner has simply lost interest.
Rescuing a horse from the saleyard or knackery
Some would argue that buying a horse from the saleyard or knackery is rescuing it, especially if they stop the "meat men" buying and killing it. However, frequently, horses sent to the sales or knackeries are sent there for a good reason. Issues such as old age, poor teeth, recurring injury and behavioural problems etc. can not be fully identified within the saleyard/knackery environment. It is not until the new owner gets the horse home and undertakes the rehabilitation process that many of these issues come to light. If these problems arise down the track, there is a risk that a horse "rescued" from the saleyards or knackery for rehabilitation will end up at the saleyards again. While the thought of a horse at the saleyards being bought for destruction is unpleasant, the horse has a humane ending in sight, rather than being recycled through the saleyards and numerous owners, potentially being neglected, before finally being destroyed anyway.
What to consider
Before you even consider taking on the task of rehabilitating a horse you need to look at your experience, resources and more importantly your motivations for doing so. You need to be fully aware that the various outcomes of rehabilitating a horse may not match the expectations you have. It can be heart breaking when situations arise that you have not anticipated. For example, you may plan to ride the horse once it has been rehabilitated. However a recurring injury or behavioural problems may surface during or after rehabilitation that prevent this. Have you considered what you will do after spending all that time and money? What if during the course of rehabilitation the horse becomes ill and you have ongoing veterinary expenses that you can not afford? Generally as horses get older they require more care and attention than younger ones, particularly if they have been neglected at some stage in their life. A plan for unforseen circumstances, including euthanasia, should be in place before you acquire the horse for rehabilitation.
Requirements for rehabilitating a neglected horse
Once you have addressed the issues raised above you will need to have a good understanding of what is actually required to rehabilitate a neglected horse. As neglect can present in varying degrees, the requirements for each horse may be different and as such each situation needs to be treated as an individual case. Below are some requirements to consider:
1. Is a horse that has been neglected fit to travel?
The Code of Practice for the Land Transport of Horses (Victoria) outlines requirements regarding the condition of horses able to be transported that you need to be familiar with. Main areas for consideration include body condition, injury and illness.
2. Do you have appropriate facilities to begin the rehabilitation process?
You will need to have a small yard or small paddock where the horse can be kept on its own for the first few weeks. This yard will need to have a shelter that the horse can walk in and out of as it chooses. You will need to ensure that you can monitor the horse several times a day and have access to good quality pasture hay and clean water. Your veterinarian can advise you should the horse need any medical treatment.
3. Do you understand a horses feeding and health management requirements?
Outlined below is an example of a general feed and care program. Veterinarian advice and guidance for any feeding and health management program is strongly recommended.
The horse should be fed as much good quality grass hay as they can eat. Avoid feeding round rolls of hay because it is difficult to monitor and manage the intake of hay. Avoid feeding lucerne hay or rich green grass at this early stage because it is too rich for the horse's gut and may cause scouring or colic. The horse's water intake must be monitored closely to ensure it is drinking normally and a mineral lick will need to be available in its yard or paddock. Fresh clean water must be available at all times. If you think the horse may have a worm burden have a faecal egg count done (your vet can advise you on how to take the sample) rather than risk a stomach upset or colic by giving a worm paste, to a horse with a poor body condition score (below 2.0). If the test comes back with a high egg count your vet can advise you on best way to manage this, given the horses condition.
In addition to the grass hay, small quantities of dry feed that are high in roughage, low in starch and contain vitamins and minerals can be introduced.(there are some commercial feeds that are suitable, ask your vet for options). This feed can be mixed with a small amount of oaten chaff to aid digestion and provide extra fibre. Feeds need to be introduced slowly, kept small to reduce the risk of colic and other stomach upsets; fed morning and night, and dampened with water only. Hooves can be trimmed if needed and a full course of tetanus and strangles vaccinations is recommended. A full tetanus and strangles vaccination course consists of an initial vaccination of tetanus and strangles (2-in-1 vaccinations are commercially available), followed two weeks later by a single strangles dose, and two weeks later another tetanus and strangles dose together. If the weather permits and the horse is quiet and well handled, you may wish to bath the horse with a mild shampoo and a rinse with an antibacterial horse wash. The horse will need to be kept warm by rugging if it is cold. If the horse is bony beware of heavy rugs rubbing on angular parts of the body such as withers, shoulders and hips. Keep in mind you don't know this horse and what experiences it has had before, remember to take care with tying up, rugging, washing, picking up feet and other handling procedures.
Weeks Three – Six
Over the next four weeks, grass hay and oaten chaff should continue to be fed, with the very gradual addition of a small amount of Lucerne chaff in week 3 to provide additional energy and protein. A commercially prepared pellet can be very gradually introduced in small amounts in week 4 to provide extra fat. Look for one that is a high fat, stabilized rice bran product that is heat processed. These rations should be kept very small at this stage to minimise the risk of colic or scouring. The Lucerne can be gradually increased in week five and the pellet ration can be gradually increased in week 6, along with the rations of grass and Lucerne hay. It is important to ensure that at all stages the majority (80% or more) of the horse's diet is roughage (hay and/or chaff) for healthy gut function.
The horse should be able to have its teeth done by week four. If vaccination course commenced in week two, the next vaccination dose should be provided in week four, and the final vaccination should be provided in week six.
Make sure you pick up manure in the yard or paddock at least once a day. The end of the six week stage is not the end of their rehabilitation, however you should be seeing an improvement (providing you have had no major set backs). The horse should have had all the necessary worming and vaccination program with feet and teeth attended to and are on a balanced diet. This partly rehabilitated horse can now go out into a bigger paddock, but will still need to be fed on his own twice a day. During this time you should observe the horses' behaviour. If by the sixth week the horse's body condition has not improved and the horse is not brighter you need to arrange a veterinary inspection as there may be underlying problems. The rehabilitation process for a starved horse may take up to six months, before the horse is in good body condition and is bright and healthy. You need to monitor the horse as it begins to feel good in itself, as this is when behavioural problems can surface. A good way to monitor the horses progress and your hard work is to take photos from various angles and use a weight tape on weekly basis.
Post Rehabilitation: The next step
Once you have completed the rehabilitation process you will have to decide what you are going to do with the horse. If it has met your expectations and will suit your purpose it would be preferred that it will have a loving and caring home with you for the remainder of its life.
If you rehabilitate the horse with the intention of re-housing it, it is best to lease the horse to the new home with a "no questions asked" return policy. This enables you to properly ensure that the new home is suitable and to keep track of the horse to ensure that it does not become neglected again. Thorough training and assessment, including veterinary assessment after rehabilitation is complete, is imperative prior to re-housing a rehabilitated horse to ensure that it is appropriate for re-housing.
If, after rehabilitation, the horse did not meet your expectations and you can no longer keep it you will have to consider your options. Remember, the horse's welfare must be a priority. If it has major behavioural issues or ongoing health problems you need to be realistic about its future.
Some points to consider are:
- Will someone pay to feed and care for an aged horse that they can't ride? Most often these horses become neglected as the owner loses interest in the horse.
- Are its behavioural problems considered dangerous?
- Does it need special care that a new owner might find difficult to continue?
If the horse is only useful as a companion and you want to rehouse it, make sure you can guarantee the home it is going to. A lease arrangement is ideal in this situation. If you can't guarantee a suitable home then euthanasia must be considered to ensure the horse does not suffer unnecessarily and end up back in the state you found it in. This is particularly important if you obtained the horse from the sales or knackery, as it is likely it was there for a reason. It is much kinder to have a horse humanely euthansied preferably at home than to risk it suffering in the wrong home.
Rehabilitating a rescued horse can be a very rewarding experience. However it can be a long and difficult process that may not achieve the results you wanted, therefore careful informed planning is imperative to ensure the horse's welfare for the rest of its life.
- Project Hope Horse Welfare Victoria (Inc.)
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Website: http://www.phhwv.org.au/