Horse Rescue: The Psychological Aspect of Physical Abuse.

The girls (640x546)I boarded the first horse I owned as an adult. It gave me something I hadn’t had in the past: a barn family. It was a private facility with around 15 boarders, and maybe 50 horses in various pens, pastures, and runs. We rode together in lessons, took picnic trail rides to celebrate birthdays, and when it was foaling season, we stood at the rail for hours, marveling at the miracle foals frolicking. The barn felt more like home than where I lived.

I arrived one morning to find that a mare had died unexpectedly in her run. The horse’s owner crumpled in sadness as the barn manager prepared to remove the mare’s body from the run. The first step was to get her neighbor-horses to turn out, and each of these well-trained riding horses were tense, flying like kites on their lead lines.

I gave the owner my condolences, we shared a tear for her good horse, and then I pulled my gelding out for a ride. But he was spooky, disoriented, so mentally scattered that he was almost dangerous. Just like all the horses. His stall was about 10 stalls away where the mare died, but the horses in the other barn on the facility all knew about the death, too. I was embarrassed in my grief, that I hadn’t immediately seen that all the horses mourned a death in their family, as well. I gave my gelding the day off, just grooming and grazing and showing respect for his loss.

A month or so later, the news ran a report of an extreme neglect case. The majority of the herd was dead in their pen, but the few horses that were still on their feet were rescued. The photos were gut wrenching: not just starved, but living among the bodies of their family.  It would have been a superficial figure of speech to say, “I can’t imagine the state of those survivors!” Because we all could imagine it and it haunted us. My barn family chipped in and sent several tons of hay to the rescue that took in these neglected horses. It didn’t take a vet degree to recognize stress.

Fast-forward 30 years, to the recent news report about the Black Forest Horses. It’s a neglect/abuse case here in Colorado involving 10 horses and 4 llamas in various conditions of poor health, locked in a barn with 14-17 decomposed bodies. Let me say it another way: More horses dead than alive, with the survivors standing among the remains every day, month after month.

I’m concerned about these horses, but even more than that, I’m concerned about the criteria used by the sheriff’s department, and the veterinarians they hire, to assess horses in alleged cases of abuse. Horses are evaluated using the Henneke Body Scoring System (read here) which is a standardized (and still somewhat subjective) way of quantifying the physical condition of the horse. Extenuating conditions may be taken into consideration, such as the condition of the facility. In the Black Forest case manure was 5 or 6 feet deep in places.

Nowhere in this assessment is there any mention of the horse’s psychological condition. I’m not being ironic, but that’s crazy! It’s like ignoring everyone in a mental health facility that is a healthy weight. Is the emotional state of a horse hard to assess? Good trainers and riders do it every day, the signs are easy to see.

In this case authorities decided that since not all of the horses were horribly thin and none were in immediate danger of death, the horses could remain with their neglectful owner. The local horse community cried out in disbelief from Friday to Monday, until the sheriff eventually called in a vet to evaluate the situation and the horses moved to rescue that day.

These horses deserve our compassion, and the system of assessing cruel treatment for horses deserves our outrage. Scream, rant about it to other horse people, but then let’s find a way to change these methods to include the emotional condition of the horses as an important part of the physical condition.

Refer to The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness signed in 2012 by a prestigious group of international scientists. There are some very big words explaining that with the advent of better technology, scientific evidence is increasingly showing that animals are sentient. Scientists have proven that most animals have conscious states similar to humans.

Yes, it’s scientists affirming what horse people have known forever; that horses are capable of feeling emotions. This declaration matters because now we have scientific data proving that just like humans, emotional abuse is as damaging as physical abuse. It’s evidence in the effort to change animal abuse laws.

If we really want to help horses, the method of evaluating horses must change to include a larger, more holistic approach than counting ribs. Horses are social creatures; their family bonds are tight. Just like us, their well-being involves more than external appearances.

In the last few weeks, I’ve taken an informal survey among horse people, asking about the emotional response they have noticed in their herds after losing a member. Everyone had a story but the one that sticks out the most to me was told by a rider who takes loving care of her horses. When one of her horses died of old age, she had him buried out in her pasture. The next morning her younger horse was out by the new grave where he had pawed the dirt for some time, trying to get to his herd mate. His behavior communicates volumes about his loss.

It’s up to us to help law enforcement and the courts update their methods of evaluating abuse. I understand the legal challenge of assessing horse condition in cruelty cases. And I believe in a situation where live horses co-habit with corpses, body scoring becomes almost irrelevant.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Horse Rescue: The Psychological Aspect of Physical Abuse.”

  1. My story: Our two seniors died 10 months apart and were buried side by side on a wooded piece of our property that the other horses can’t reach and that we don’t use. Fast forward four years and we’ve built a new barn on “that” side of our property. We hemmed and hawed about including our burial spot in the horse’s new paddock. Finally, we decided to leave that small stand of woods intact and include it in our fenced area. Every single night our three horses gather directly over the spot where the two horses were buried. They rest there during the day and lay down and sleep there every night. Coincidence? Maybe. But I’m going to let myself think otherwise.

  2. Well said, Anna. When my 35 year old Standardbred passed away in the barn with his “mate.” When I found him in the morning, she bolted from the barn. Once we got him out and buried, I brought her back in. She first went to his food dish, typical Haflinger, then sniffed where the fluids still were; on her way back out of the barn, she buried her head in my neck and as she did a tear fell. Yep, they mourn.

  3. Being a now retired veterinarian, it has fallen to me the honor of euthanizing all of the horses that have had conditions requiring this passage (usually old age, one horse will very poor chance of surviving surgery of colic). One other of our 25 year old mares died and our 35 year old pony was found dead. This was all over a period of 40 years. In every single case, we have been fortunate to be able to bury our horses on our property. Every death is emotional for all of us, horses and humans. One of our traditions is to lead every horse on the farm as close to the body as the horse is comfortable. They all do get close enough to sniff their dead companion. The most amazing instance was when our two year old filly was brought to her 25 year old mother who had crippling arthritis and her quality of life could not be managed anymore. The filly, Echo, went up to her mom and held mom’s ear in her mouth gently for at least five minutes. It was heartbreaking, but at the end of this, Echo’s final tribute was to whiny not in a “where are you?” manner, but a what I can only call a triumphant and honoring type whinny. She was then ready to join her friends in our small herd of about 7 horses. This occurred about 20 years ago, and now Echo has joined her mother. You can’t tell me horses are not all and more emotionally filled with knowledge, reasoning and compassion. Even more sophisticated than humans – after all they are more often required to cross the inter species language barrier than my fellow humans are. That day reinforced my long held view that ALL animals in a household or barnyard need to be able to see their companion’s dead body and grieve for their friend in their own way. We humans still have a lot to learn.

    • Humans are arrogant to think otherwise. Thank you for this heartfelt comment, thank you for your compassion in your career as well.

  4. When my 31 year old mare died, my 5 year old gelding, who had bonded to her in the 10 months they lived together, did not eat for 3 days and laid in her remaining manure piles where her scent lingered. It was heartbreaking. I sat with him and we cried together. Now he is 26. When he colicked a couple of weeks ago, our other gelding stood with him until he recovered. Anyone who has had the honor of being accepted into a herd knows the depth of horse emotions.

    • I so agree, being a herd member changes everything. And that is why I worry that law enforcement might not get it right, unless they have the horse experience too.

  5. In 12 years of enforcement of Anti-Cruelty law I ALWAYS considered attitude and behavior to assess neglect and/or abuse. A horse’s eye can tell you very much, as can a horse’s posture.

  6. My 8 yr old evening TB ended up with me after going through 8 different owners. Being new to horses, I had no idea that was a red flag. Turns out I purchased a very unhappy fellow who had thrown all his previous owners then bucked me off numerous times. So I gave him a year off on pasture and let him be a horse. When we went back into work for competitions I found a barn with a gelding pasture. He became best friends with a buckskin quarter horse named Ranger. They were good buddies for 3 years until Ranger was suddenly sold. Every evening after that when my TB was brought into the barn he would run into his Ranger’s stall and wait. I would always have to move him to his stall. He did this for about a month. Horses have deep feelings.

  7. Anna, I love your blog and I have been reading it for a few months. I assisted my vet when he needed to put down an older pony that had given birth to a foal. I’ll never forget how that foal acted after it’s Mom had died. My vet had said to leave them together for a few hours, so the foal could learn to accept her death. It was heart wrenching for me and others at the barn. I know that foal never forgot because years later my daughter and I helped to break it and teach it to be a nice riding pony. But I’m pretty certain that pony never forgot that I was there to help his Mom die. You may want to spell check Psychological.

    • I had the experience of the opposite, being with a mare when her foal was euthanized. It was torture, but by the time the humans made the decision, I think she knew. Heartwrenching, but glad your foal turned out. It’s harder on them for sure. And thanks for the spell check. You’d think it would work in the title, wouldn’t you. 🙂

  8. My big Paint gelding had a special bond with a big grey Warmblood mare that lived two paddocks down from him..the outdoor arena where she trained daily was across from his paddock where he could watch her…she finally had to be put down for bad untreatable cancer…he stood as close to the fence as he could, not throwing a fit or anything.. just standing…watching as they carried her body away…and every time we walk past her paddock he looks for her.. and it has been over a year…my other gelding couldn’t care less..

    • What a sweet boy. It’s odd isn’t it? We lost our boss mare here and you would have thought none of us knew each other at all for a while. It is so important that this criteria changes. Thanks for the comment, and scratch that good boy for me.

  9. I had two geldings that were best friends for 25 years. One was in poor health for about a year, lost a lot of weight then died. His buddy never left him and was deeply depressed afterwards. He died 2 months later. I always knew that would happen. They were buried outside the pasture next to one another but what I noticed were the other horses would stand by the fence as close to the grave site as possible. They did that for a couple months.

    Several years later I had to euthanize a young mare. While waiting for the vet, her half brother was pounding on the gate wanting inside and when I would look at him, he would stop banging on the fence and just lock eyes with me. He had such a concerned look. After she died, he could not go to her and instead ran around the pasture once screaming. Then after she was buried he stood over her grave for 3 months and only left to eat and drink. He went through the entire grieving process that humans go through. At one point he was so angry that I felt being around him was dangerous so all I could do was feed him and close the stall door. He would glare at me while he ate then go back to stand on the grave. He now has another pasture buddy but he has yet to regain the spark he used to have.

    • Strong family! It is heartbreaking. Through this abuse case this has been the hardest part for me, certainly as hard as knowing these horses weren’t getting the care they needed. Good luck to your gelding. I have a horse that got lost after a death as well.

  10. I can say from personal experience, horses are family/herd oriented, and I wish I could attach a picture. My mare gave birth to a beautiful dun filly, I named Zeva. On the filly’s 3rd day of life, she broke her neck in a freak accident and died. Respectfully, I left the filly lay for 3 days. My mare stood over her with her head hung down all 3 days. I had to carry food and water out to her. On the 4rh day, I carried the filly, wrapped in a blanket, to the fence line, and burried her. (the only place was inside the pasture.) For a week, my mare slept on the gras in front of Zeva’s grave. It broke my heart too. My resolve was to put the yearling back in with the mare. My mare calmed down. Eventually, I sold the yearling. Later, when I tried to load my mare in a trailer, to move her to a new boarding place, she raised all kinds of hell, refused to load and tried to get to the spot where her filly was buried. Broke my heart all over again, and it has taken both of us a long time to heal. (it took me over a year to notify AQHA, because I couldn’t put it in writing). In short, when you love your horse, you will suffer when they do. Although I gave her greiving time, I can’t imagine leaving her in a pile of manure and standing over herd mates. . those horses must suffer horrible mental and emotional symptoms. I wonder how long it will take them to heal?

    • As a trainer who has worked with horses that are recuperating from bad experience, I am always humbled by the try most of these horses have. Such amazing animals. In the end, I think they are like human survivors: it never goes away but becomes part of them.

  11. Pingback: Family Ties | CurTales
  12. I operate a horse rescue. Over 16 years we have had several horses pass naturally or have had to make the decision to let them go. In each instance we allow the horses to visit the deceased. The first to spend time with the horse that has left this world are the ones that they had a bond with. But we also allow the other horses to visit. Some are nervous, some are loving and will snuffle the body, some act as guardians and some appear to be aloof.

    We are not able to bury our friends on our land. When the truck comes to remove the body all the horses watch. Each time, as the truck drives off, the horses begin to call. We call it the final salute as they all seem to be bugling a farewell. The first time this happened I was astonished and it will still deeply move me.

    • I would love to think that the horses living among the corpses were this peaceful about it. What do you think? Were they okay?

      • Anna, I am sure they were deeply affected. They are also quite accepting. I know they have feelings and remember more than we give them credit for.

  13. I have 2 rescues and I truly believe this article is true…it has taken me 2/yrs for them to trust me and we are still working on things. 1 especially.. I couldn’t go near her face, only in the last 6/months have I been able to put my hand on her head (I have had her 4yrs). She had a bad injury a few months ago and had to be stalled 24hrs a day without her herd..and she was psych. I know there is defiantly truth in this article. They remember and they feel!!!

  14. *big sigh*

    If you will indulge me, I will tell this story about my pony and my mom’s gelding, mates for 24 years:

    (By the way, what a well-written and articulated post! We are so more than just bodies or minds, aren’t we?! And horses are so incredible, too.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s stories in the comments. Beautiful. And eye-opening.)

    There have been two horses that have been a part of our family for years. April was my childhood pony mare (I was nine when my mom traded a green broke filly for her – April was 7) that we had for 31 years. She was 38 years old when she died. Spencer, my mom’s gelding, is 27 years old now and has been my mother’s horse since he was a weanling, if not before.

    In Nov. of 2009 my mom shipped these two to me here in NC to “retire” to greener pastures. They had been boarded most of their lives and lived in nice places, but still a 24′ x 24′ doesn’t offer much compared to a couple of acres and living out the rest of their lives with a family member. 🙂

    At first, they thrived, and a couple years later, April began to decline. She tested positive for Cushings disease and was having a hard time finishing her food (she had very few teeth left and ate a diet accordingly). She was also losing her hearing and sight. We did all we could reasonably do for her and in December of 2012 she lay down on an unusually warm afternoon for a sunbath, and could not get up. She hurt herself trying.

    When I found her laying there, at feeding time, lip bleeding and her tired from just the few times she tried to get up, I knew. I knew that it was time to say goodbye.

    I called my mom in CA, then I called the vet. I went to the house and put on a pot of tea and brought blankets to where she lay near the barn. I let Spencer out (he had been standing in the pasture near the gate where she lay nearby) and he stood by us (less than 5′ away) and just cocked his hind foot and relaxed. They had, at that point, been together for 24 years.

    April vacillated between laying flat on her side and sort of sitting up and because she could not see or hear well, she relaxed only if I was actually touching her. I lay the quilt under her and bundled in my jacket and hat I sat there with her, my hot tea in hand and I told her stories about how we used to ride all over the hills of Woodcrest, an area of Riverside, CA just she and I, bareback mostly and sometimes my Newfoundland Elkhound, Tito, would follow.

    One time, I thought it would be really cool to use my grandfathers show bridle, with all of its silver bling, and so I took it without permission. We got pretty far out into the hills of dirt roads, riding like Black and Alec from the movie “The Black Stallion” when suddenly she bolted and I snatched the reins, only to have them snap in half, me falling off ass-over-teacup while she and my dog Tito ran all the way home. Without me.

    I talked nonstop to her. About everything. About how ridiculous and stubborn she could be, all the while stroking her soft fur, telling her it was okay to let go. At one point, she shuddered, and jerked, her entire body moving in an unnatural way. She did have a heart murmur. My husband and I looked at each other, is this it?! Could she be going to die even before the vet arrives? My heart broke at the thought of it either way. By “natural” death or euthanasia. I wanted to keep her forever and ever. I was the one having a hard time letting go, and she told me as much. I’m pretty sure she had a seizure just then, because a minute later, she sat up, a little dazed, but completely at peace. She sighed a big sigh. She was telling me to let go. She was done with this time on earth.

    Spencer moved over to where I sat, at April’s head, and he put his muzzle on the top of my head. It felt like an eternity – what was he saying? He rested his soft, warm nose on my head for a good minute before he too took a big breath and sighed silently, and licked his lips, chewing as if to say, “It is done. All is well.”

    He stayed there, close by, for a good 15 minutes, and then wandered about 15′ away, nibbling on some winter grass.

    When the vet arrived, I asked for her opinion, as I knew it was time, but I wanted to make sure that I was being rational and not just emotional, and whether or not she thought there was something else that could be done for her. She agreed with me, that it was time to say goodbye.

    Doctor Amy explained the process, that she was going to give some sedation first, and then the euthanasia solution. April would get drowsy with the sedation and with the euth. sol’n. she would take two deep breaths and be gone.

    It happened exactly like that. I sobbed over her for probably 20 minutes while my husband called a favor upon a friend for a backhoe. He would have her buried that night, next to the paddock. She was laid in the grave with the red stitched quilt, red being her best color, and of course I could not watch the moving of her body from where she lay to the grave (only about 15′) and so I went to Spencer near the back of the barn and hugged his neck.

    Spencer did not visibly grieve for the first six months. He seemed unaffected by the loss of April but after summer was about halfway through, he began to decline. He was eating and drinking and up to date on all regular and preventive care, but he was moping in the shed all day instead of out grazing and wandering around. He was really missing his girl.

    Then, a strange thing began to happen. He began to “mirror” me. In this sense, I mean that when I was doing well – taking care of myself, eating right, getting most things balanced in life, he would thrive. When I would not be doing well, stressed, overeating, angry, and unable to cope with most things beyond my control, he would lose weight and look terrible.

    This summer, I became terribly ill. I had daily fevers, flu-like symptoms, and it was discovered that my liver enzymes were extremely elevated. It was possible that a virus was attacking my liver and possible that my own immune system was mistaking my liver for the virus, attacking its own self! Spencer began to decline. Losing weight. Looking poorly. Depressed.

    Once I began to get better, he began to get better. I can’t prove it but we’re like brother and sister – in more ways than one. We share the same mom but we share the same loss of our beloved April, too.

    Since March of this year, when I brought my new gelding, Deets, home – Spencer has had a buddy. They are bonded in a different way than Spencer and April were bonded.

    One of the cute things I have seen is that they will “watch over” one another in the pasture in the daytime or at night. One lays down and the other one stands guard. And they take turns. I’ve never seen Spencer do this.

    Horses are my heart!

    Thanks for letting me share 🙂

  15. Donkeys also Grieve loss. I had one passed away. And his Buddy stood at his grave for hours. She rolled on top of it as well. Very sad! She Grieved as much as I did! 🙁

  16. Your mention of “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” brought to mind the 2006 book “We’ve Got Feelings Too: Presenting the Sentient Property Solution” by Carolyn B. Matlack, JD, which presents a practical legal solution for treating animals fairly in court cases. (See for more information.) A ticketed misdemeanor seems inadequate for the level of neglect reported in this case.

  17. I know horses have emotions as well. I had to put down my older arthritic mare and the vet had pulled up out front of the barn where my other 3 horses were in their runs. I could not witness her passing but my husband told me later that all 3 horses turned away and went into their stalls so they did not have to see my mare being put down. I so hope this Black Forest woman gets all she deserves and then so—there is no excuse as any good horse people would have lent her a hand!!!!

    • Horse people are a tough crowd, we take pride in being strong, but you are right, sometimes we all need a hand, and the strong thing is to put animals first and ask for help… Thank you, wonderful comment.


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