The Right Way to Take Care of a Rescue Horse
Right this minute horses are being neglected and abused somewhere. Slaughter is also a possibility. Most of these neglected horses end up at auctions. All states have them; you probably have horse auctions close to where you live. In some places, the auctions take place once a week, monthly, or even daily.
These auctions are a good place to find horses that need rescue. Please consider going to auctions if you are in the market for a horse. Horses don't necessarily need to be registered with a perfect pedigree and lineage to make a good pet!
You may be saving the horse from ending up in a slaughterhouse and, consequently, on somebody's table in Belgium for dinner.
There are more and more equine rescues in the United States, but most have limited funds and resources for buying and taking care of rescue horses. Because of this many are unable to rescue all the horses that need help.
You can help by attending an auction and taking a horse (or several, if you have the room and resources) home with you!
Typical rescue horse problems include overgrown hooves, founder, and malnutrition.
How Rescue Horses Are Different
Rescue horses often do not function the same way as horses who have been taken care of properly. They may have gone without proper diet and health care for a long time, which can affect their metabolic and digestive systems.
Coat and Hoofs
Also, they may have diseases or be infested with parasites. Most often, they have not had any proper hoof care, and are subject to founder and other hoof problems. Almost always, their teeth need floating or other attention, especially in the case of senior horses.
They may have skin conditions that need tending to. Fungal infections are quite common. They need the prompt assessment of a competent veterinarian, and special care to ease them back into health without shocking their systems.
Feeding a Rescue Horse
The first thing you will think you should do is "feed the horse up." Wrong! That is the worst thing you can do! The most essential thing to keep in mind is that any adjustments should be made gradually and in tiny increments.
If you are keeping the horse in a stall or dry lot, keep fresh clean grass hay (grass, not alfalfa), and water in front of them at all times. These two diet staples they can have unlimited access to.
But as to graining, only feed the horse one very small handful of a complete pelleted food 3-5 times per day. If you give them more, you could colic the horse. A 10-11% protein mix is adequate.
After about a week or so, if the horse shows no sign of distress, increase the amount of grain to 1/2 lb. three times daily, until you reach the amount specified by your vet as a normal daily intake for the particular horse.
If the horse continues to tolerate the diet change, you should be able to increase the daily total ration by one pound every ten days. If your rescued horse is a senior horse, it should receive senior pellets instead of regular feed, as regular feed is too hard on their digestive systems.
It takes horses a long time to recover from being undernourished. Don't be discouraged. It may take up to a year for the horse to achieve good health. Usually, though, you will be able to see a marked difference for the better after a week or two. After that, progress is slow. Remember, it took the horse a long time to get that way!
Health and Quarantine
A newly rescued horse should always be quarantined. If they are harboring diseases or parasites, you won't want them infecting any other horses you may have. Generally, quarantine should last for at least 2 weeks.
Strangles (Streptococcus equi) requires 10 days of incubation before the horse begins to show signs of infection. Also, it is better for the rescued horse to be kept apart from other horses during its recuperation to reduce stress due to fighting for food, herd dominance, etc.
The horse should have a Coggins test done and you should wait and make sure the results are negative. It may take a few days to get the results back. At the auctions, there is supposed to be a veterinarian there who certifies that the horses are Coggins Negative. You should ask to see a negative Coggins on the horse before taking it home with you. Being on the safe side is always best.
Keep the horse as clean, dry, and comfortable as possible. And make sure the first thing you do is call your vet out to look at the horse to determine what health concerns the horse may have. The vet's advice is the main advice you should defer to and follow!
Hooves and Parasites
The other important thing you need to do is call your farrier right away, and get him to look at your rescued horse's hooves. Especially if the hooves are overgrown or look foundered. Hoof care is extremely important in a horse's life!
In the photo above is an example of what shape a rescued horse's hooves might be in. This is Sugar Candy, a pony I rescued from a local auction. When they brought her out into the sale ring, everyone laughed at her and called her "Snowshoes" - of course she had to come home with me!
Her hooves were actually much worse than what they look like in this photo. About 6 inches more of the hooves were buried in soft dirt that you can't see here.
It took about a year and monthly farrier visits to get her hooves halfway normal. Her bones had grown into an abnormal position, and she was foundered, which was very painful and made it difficult for her to walk.
There are different opinions about parasite removal in rescue horses. As a general rule of thumb, the rescue horse should be fed pyrantel tartrate (daily wormer) for 2 - 4 weeks, then at 4 weeks, should be given ivermectin according to the horse's weight, then 6 - 8 weeks later, wormed with fenbendazole, and then continue with a regular worming rotation program.
It is not a good idea to give Quest/moxidectin while feeding horses the pyrantel tartrate daily wormer medicine. Consult your veterinarian about your horse's worming needs.
Social Issues and My Experience
Rescue horses have other issues, too. Either they have been abused, or they have been stuck in a pasture or a dry lot somewhere and no one paid any attention to them at all. You will find that your rescue horse may be headshy, may bite or kick, or may have other bad habits that you will have to work on.
The horse may not be used to being near people. Remember here, again, that it took the horse a long time to get this way, and it will take time and patience to get the horse to trust you and learn to do what you want him to do. Horses require attention and care every day, day after day. Be patient with the horse, and you will be rewarded.
The photo at the beginning of the article is of Shonac about two weeks after I brought him home from a local horse auction. He has muddy legs from wading in the pond. He probably doesn't look very good to you, but to me he looked wonderful considering what he looked like when I found him.
His hipbones stuck out at least a foot on either side, head all gouged and bleeding, rain rot all over his head and in his eyes. That's what the pink area around his eyes is. He was really a mess. In this picture he had filled out considerably and was up to 1/2 lb of senior pellets 3 times a day, plus all the grass and water he could eat.
He couldn't get enough of grazing! He had been kept in a dry lot with no food or water! The vet said he was about 20 yrs. old. He was so malnourished he could barely stand up or walk when I first brought him home.
Shonac was an Appaloosa who did the "Indian Shuffle." Underneath the white, his skin had black spots all over like a Dalmation. Everyone said, "he is so ugly!", but he was a very gentle horse, and anyone could do anything with him—little kids could walk around under his belly and pull on his tail and he didn't mind a bit. Shonac is an Indian name which means something like "he who survives great hardship, but achieves great fortune at the end." I thought it fit him perfectly.
Shonac lived for 2 1/2 yrs. after being rescued. His last days were spent on a 21 acre farm, eating good Kentucky grass in the company of 14 other horses. Shonac was really the beginning of rescue for me. Sadly, he has crossed the Rainbow Bridge. I miss my friend.
More Information About Rescue Horse Care, Health, and Training
The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has developed a new resource guide titled "Care Guidelines for Equine Rescue and Retirement Facilities." The guide is designed to help the non-veterinary caregiver successfully provide care to a rescued horse or a horse in need of rehabilitation.
Subjects addressed in the guide include basic health management and nutrition, refeeding the starved horse, caring for the geriatric horse and determining when euthanization is necessary for humane reasons.
"Care Guidelines for Equine Rescue and Retirement Facilities" is available free of charge from the AAEP office. To request a copy, call 800-443-0177 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.