Horse rescue and rehabilitation

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.

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 Condition score chart for 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 refers to a 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
  • the owner has simply lost interest.

Rescuing a horse from a saleyard or knackery

Some would argue that buying a horse from the saleyard or knackery is rescuing it. However, horses are often sent to the sales or knackeries for a good reason. Sometimes issues cannot be fully identified within the saleyard or knackery environment, including:

  • old age
  • poor teeth
  • health problems
  • recurring injury
  • behavioural problems.

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 will end up there again.

While the thought of a horse at the saleyards is unpleasant, the horse has a humane ending in sight. Otherwise, the horse may be recycled through the saleyards, numerous owners and potentially face neglect, before finally ending up back at the knackery 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.

Be fully aware that the various outcomes of rehabilitating a horse may not match your own expectations.

Situations can arise that you may not have anticipated. For example, you may plan to ride the horse once it has been rehabilitated. However, this may be prevented by a recurring injury or behavioural problem may surface during or after rehabilitation.

Have you considered what you will do after spending so much time and money? During the course of rehabilitation the horse could become ill and need ongoing veterinary care. Can you afford this?

Generally, as horses get older they require more care and attention than younger horses, particularly if they have been neglected at some stage in their life.

A plan for unforeseen circumstances, including euthanasia, should be in place before you acquire a horse for rehabilitation.

Once you have addressed these issues, you will need to have a good understanding of what is actually required to rehabilitate a neglected horse.

Requirements for rehabilitating a neglected horse

Neglect can present in varying degrees, and the requirements for each horse may be different. Each situation needs to be treated as an individual case. These are some requirements to consider:

  1. Is a horse that has been neglected fit to travel?
    You need to be familiar with the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Land Transport of Livestock. These standards are mandatory in Victoria under the Livestock Management Act 2010. They set requirements for the transport of horses, including body condition, age, health and lameness rating of horses able to be transported.
  2. Do you have appropriate facilities to begin the rehabilitation process?
    You need a small yard or small paddock where the horse can be kept on its own for the first few weeks. This yard will need a shelter that the horse can walk in and out of as it chooses. Ensure you can monitor the horse several times a day.
  3. Do you understand a horse's feeding and health management requirements?
    The horse needs access to good quality pasture hay and clean water. It is important to ensure that at all stages the majority (80 per cent or more) of the horse's diet is roughage (hay and/or chaff) for healthy gut function.Veterinarian advice and guidance for any feeding and health management program is strongly recommended.

Example general feed and care program

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. The example below is a general guide, and veterinary advice must take precedence.

Week 1

  • 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 horse's condition.

Week 2

  • 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, with advice from your vet..
  • 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.

Weeks 3 to 6

  • 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 5 and the pellet ration can be gradually increased in week 6, along with the rations of grass and lucerne hay.
  • The horse should be able to have its teeth done by week 4.


  • Make sure you pick up manure in the yard or paddock at least once a day.
  • The end of the 6 week stage is not the end of their rehabilitation, however you should be seeing an improvement (providing you have had no major setbacks).
  • 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 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 their own twice a day.
  • During this time you should observe the horse's behaviour.
  • 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 horse's 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 the rehabilitation process has been completed, you need to decide if you are going to keep the horse or rehouse it. If the horse has met your expectations and will suit your purpose, a loving and caring home with you for the remainder of the horse's life might be the best decision.

If you rehabilitate the horse with the intention of rehousing 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.

Before rehousing a rehabilitated horse, thorough training and assessment (including veterinary assessment) after rehabilitation is imperative. This is to ensure the horse is appropriate for rehousing.

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. Are its behavioural problems considered dangerous?
  3. 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, euthanasia must be considered. This will ensure the horse does not suffer unnecessarily and end up back in the situation you found it in. This is particularly important if you obtained the horse from the sales or knackery, as it is was most likely there for a reason.

It is much kinder to have a horse humanely euthanised (preferably at home) than to risk it suffering in the wrong home.


Project Hope Horse Welfare Victoria (Inc.)

Page last updated: 03 Jun 2024