Rescue horse confidenti­al

As a veterinari­an I’ve seen firsthand how challengin­g and rewarding restoring a horse’s physical and mental health can be. Here’s what can go wrong and what you can do to make sure things go right.

- By Stacie G. Boswell, DVM, DACVS-LA

As a veterinari­an I’ve seen firsthand how challengin­g and rewarding restoring a horse’s physical and mental health can be. Here’s what can go wrong and what you can do to make sure things go right.

The sibilities arrival for of your a new partnershi­p horse in your stretch life is ahead always like exciting. a sunlit The road pos- waiting to be traveled together. Acquiring a rescue horse, however, is very different from buying a healthy, sound horse who has had excellent care throughout his life. A rescue horse with an unknown past may behave in surprising ways, and his health may be compromise­d in ways that can never be fully restored. An owner of a rescued horse recently put it this way, “I guess that is the hard thing about rescue. You never know what is going to happen.” The road ahead may have a few clouds along with that sun, and it may take some unexpected turns. Through my veterinary practice, I have been along for the roller coaster ride that rescue cases often become. I have experience­d the joy of nursing a horse back to health, and watching him become strong and confident. I have also watched horses die despite every person’s best efforts to save them. And, while there are no guarantees, I know rescue horses do best when owners have up-todate informatio­n and a network of support. The American Associatio­n of Equine Practition­ers (AAEP) has published and regularly updates Care Guidelines for Equine Rescue and Retirement Facilities. These guidelines provide a road map, which veterinari­ans follow as much as possible. But each rescue horse is unique. You’ll need to be ready to adapt to each horse’s needs and circumstan­ces. Taking on a rescue horse requires patience and dedication, and it can be one of the most rewarding experience­s a horseperso­n can have. Here’s my advice for how to begin.

able to estimate the horse’s age, which is one of the first questions everyone seems to have. Remember, though, that age can only be estimated, and the older the horse, the less accurate the estimate will be. The completed exam will help establish a health record as well as identify any existing or potential problems. You’ll want to have a complete picture of the challenges you may face so you can prioritize care and resources. A veterinary visit can also have important legal ramificati­ons if there is an ongoing case surroundin­g the horse’s circumstan­ces. A medical record is considered a legal document that your veterinari­an is required by law to retain for a certain number of years.

It’s smart to have any mare or filly checked for pregnancy during the initial exam and then again in 30 days. Stories of rescuers being surprised by the arrival of a foal are not uncommon (see “Sweetie’s Story,” page 55). If the horse is a colt or stallion, talk to your veterinari­an about getting him gelded as soon as his health stabilizes.

Also arrange to have your farrier come out as soon as possible. Many rescue horses have not had hoof care in a very long time. You’ll undoubtedl­y want an assessment of your horse’s feet, and your farrier can help outline a longterm plan to improve them. If it looks like the horse may have had laminitis in the past, coordinati­ng communicat­ion between your veterinari­an and farrier is a good idea. You may decide to take a series of radiograph­s to serve as a “baseline” for comparison later.

A rescue horse will most likely have an unknown history and uncertain vaccinatio­n status. To protect other horses on your property, quarantine the newcomer for two to three weeks. Previously establishe­d groups can be maintained, however. For instance, if a rescuer acquires a group of yearlings, they can---and for their emotional wellbeing, should---continue to live together.

You’ll want your own veterinari­an to get to know the horse. A one-on-one visit may also provide a more in-depth assessment than was possible by a busy rescue organizati­on.

The primary purpose of quarantine is to prevent the spread of respirator­y diseases such as equine herpesviru­s or rhinopneum­onitis, influenza and strangles (Streptococ­cus equi). Take the temperatur­e of the new horse daily, if he’s amenable to such handling, because a fever may occur before respirator­y signs appear. Quarantine will also protect your herd from non-respirator­y diseases such as salmonello­sis. Ideally, the caretakers for the quarantine­d animals will not be the same people caring for healthy horses. At a minimum, the healthy horses need to be attended to first, then any horses that may have been exposed to disease but are not ill, and finally, any sick horses.

If he’s healthy, a horse in quarantine can be vaccinated, which will give his immune system time to respond before he’s given veterinary clearance to move to general housing. The exception to this may be an extremely thin horse, whose immune system may be compromise­d. It may make sense to delay vaccinatio­ns until his condition is stable.

Finally, if possible, supply your veterinari­an with a manure sample from the horse during this initial visit. Not all rescued horses are “wormy,” but you’ll need to know the horse’s parasite status to begin an appropriat­e deworming regimen. Your veterinari­an can send the sample to a laboratory and help you interpret the result. Deworming the horse while he’s still in quarantine prevents “high shedders” from contaminat­ing your pastures.


The veterinary exam may reveal problems that need to be addressed immediatel­y. Assuming the horse can be handled safely (see “The Untouchabl­es,” page 53) you can develop a treatment plan and begin right away.

Some of the most common illnesses in recently rescued horses are travel related. In the past decade, a nationwide network of horse rescuers has emerged. While this network allows resources to be pooled, sometimes it results in extensive travel for rescued horses. Any horse that is transporte­d for more than four hours has an increased likelihood of developing shipping fever.

Wounds are another pressing concern. Horses that come from inappropri­ate housing are more likely to have sustained laceration­s, especially on their lower limbs. Wounds and injuries can also occur during transport.

And, of course, there may be critical weight and nutrition issues. The sad reality is that many horses aren’t fed well before they are rescued, and some are on the brink of starvation by the time help arrives. Refeeding often becomes the linchpin of restoring a rescue horse’s health. As much as your heart tells you to place a big bucket of grain in front of a brutally skinny horse, you’ll need to take a gradual, scientific approach to refeeding ---under the supervisio­n of your veterinari­an---to avoid making the situation even worse.

In the early 1980s, as part of his graduate research, Don Henneke, PhD, published a semi-quantitati­ve way of assessing and documentin­g fat or muscle coverage. This body condition score (BCS) system is a fairly objective and

If a horse has a body condition score of 3 or less, a veterinari­an needs to devise a refeeding plan because eating too many concentrat­ed calories too soon can put him at risk of respirator­y, heart and kidney failure.

useful method for monitoring weight changes. It can also help legally document that a horse has had inadequate nutrition. A BCS of 4 to 6 is considered “standard of care.” Less than 3 is considered malnourish­ed, and a BCS of 1 is a state of severe starvation. Horses that score a 7 or above are considered overweight or obese.

When a horse has a BCS of 3 or less, a veterinari­an needs to devise a refeeding plan because these horses can develop respirator­y, heart and kidney failure if allowed to eat too many concentrat­ed calories too soon. Their rations will need to be increased extremely slowly, beginning with one pound of alfalfa six times daily. Feeding grain or weight-building supplement­s too early can have serious consequenc­es, including death because organs weakened by starvation cannot handle the stress of processing and digesting nutrients (see “Cookie’s Story,” page 54).

Beyond the physical challenges, not having enough food can be a significan­t source of mental stress for the horse. He may never behave normally at mealtime (more about that later). It is also important to realize that the gut, like other tissues in the body, may not function properly after extreme starvation. This may mean that the horse always struggles to keep weight on, even after years of proper feeding.

If a horse is rescued in winter, you’ll have another weight-related challenge to contend with: An extremely thin horse will have trouble staying warm. Even with a heavy winter coat, a horse with a lower BCS has less natural insulation from the cold. As a general rule, a horse with a BCS of 3 needs a blanket when the temperatur­es dip below freezing and a horse with a BCS of 1 or 2 will need one when it’s below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Blankets need to be clean and dry and removed daily so the horse can be inspected and groomed. It may seem easier, and even kinder, to keep a thin rescue horse in a tightly closed, warm barn when the temperatur­es drop, but that can lead to respirator­y troubles in the healthiest horse. A recovering rescue horse needs be out in the fresh air, even when it’s very cold.


The health needs of a rescue horse are only half the equation. You will also, probably simultaneo­usly, have to contend with behavioral and training issues. Not only is being able to safely handle a rescue horse critical to providing him care immediatel­y after his arrival, but it will serve as a foundation for future training that will help him achieve and maintain a more secure place in the world.

An untrained horse is typically fairly straightfo­rward to teach because he is a clean slate. A rescue horse overcoming past trauma can be difficult to retrain. The memory of the bad experience can stay with him for a lifetime. An untrained horse may need 20 to 30 repetition­s to master a task, but a rescued horse may need 200 to 300 repetition­s to master the same task willingly and without fear.

Other horses will help with the initial socializat­ion process. Once a horse is out of quarantine and you introduce him to your herd, he will settle into his place in the hierarchy. Be aware, however, that the process isn’t always comfortabl­e to watch. The rest of the horses don’t know his history and aren’t going to treat him gently because of it. The establishe­d herd members will always chase the new horse for a period of time. The new herd member may not end up on the bottom, but the horse at the

A rescue horse overcoming past trauma can be difficult to train. The memory of bad experience­s can stay with him for a lifetime.

bottom of the current herd is often the one to chase the new one the hardest and for the longest period. This is the natural course of horse socializat­ion in a domesticat­ed environmen­t. In nearly every case, however, things will settle down after four to eight weeks.

As for building trust, your delivering food and water regularly will go a long way for a horse whose needs were not previously met. This approach is easy but can have a wrinkle: A great many rescue horses have mealtime anxiety. It’s easy to understand why--they are worried they may not see another meal, ever, and will protect this one at all costs. This can lead to aggression toward humans and horses around him as he eats. It can also cause the horse to bolt his food, leading to choke. While there are techniques for preventing choke in any horse---such as using specialize­d feeders to slow intake--the underlying anxiety also needs to be addressed.

To tackle mealtime anxiety, create an environmen­t where the horse feels secure. This might be in a quiet stall at the end of the barn, where he can see and hear other horses, but he feels safe in his own space and does not need to defend his food. It may be best to place the food in the stall and then bring the horse to it. This eliminates pawing, aggression, stall kicking and other unwanted behaviors while the horse is waiting on his meal to be served. However, he might become panicked and unruly while being led to food, particular­ly in the early days after his rescue. Every situation is different and may change; be prepared to tweak the process as the horse progresses. You will not train a horse to not be food aggressive. You merely manage the situation until he is not.

Which brings us to a word about punishment: Punishment, such as

yelling at or hitting a horse in response to unwanted behaviors, is the least effective way to train and is particular­ly destructiv­e in rescue horses. Punishment of a horse who has a history of abuse is likely to cause him to

“shut down” emotionall­y, which will leave him unable to learn. Instead, the most successful horse trainers use pressure-and-release techniques. The behavioral science term for this is negative reinforcem­ent----removing a

stimulus or pressure when the desired behavior is offered. An example is applying pressure with the right rein. When the horse turns his head right in response to that pressure the rider releases the pressure.

Current behavioral science supports positive reinforcem­ent (rubbing the horse or giving him treats) as the primary tool for training. Many

successful horsemen incorporat­e positive reinforcem­ent after a horse has responded appropriat­ely to a pressurean­d-release cue. Note: A reward is earned, while a bribe is not. Bribes may work temporaril­y, such as getting a horse into a trailer by leading him with the grain bucket, but they do not promote appropriat­e long-term behavior.

As you begin working with the horse, and as he warms up to you, be careful to not romanticiz­e your own role---you are not the only one who can, or should, work with him. A horse who only trusts only one person is at risk. If an emergency occurs and evacuation or medical care is necessary, it is important that the rescue horse be adaptable. Although it is good to establish trust and a relationsh­ip with a horse, it is also necessary to establish that others can handle the horse, too.


A rescue horse can be trained for practicall­y any job or discipline. There’s no reason a rescue can’t trot down the centerline of a dressage arena or win hundreds of thousands in prize money running down cows competitiv­ely. Don’t be afraid to dream big. Chasing those dreams, however, starts with baby steps.

I believe every horse must have three skills, regardless of his circumstan­ces: leading, allowing farriery work and accepting injections. And these are the places to begin when working with a rescue horse. If you are unsure of your ability to teach a horse any of these skills, get help from a profession­al trainer. A horse with a history of neglect and abuse isn’t going to be forgiving of training mistakes and may be extremely reactive (see “Ranger’s Story,” page 56). You could put yourself in significan­t physical danger. If you’ve successful­ly taught other horses these skills, you’ll use the same basic techniques but with modified expectatio­ns and timelines to accommodat­e the rescue horse’s circumstan­ces.

Leading: Every horse needs to learn the “go forward’ cue to follow a handler willingly, even in new and scary situations. With a rescue horse, this can be challengin­g. Some have never had a roof over their heads, so manmade shelter

is an entirely new experience. Being in a confined space also takes away the horse’s main defense: to run. Trusting you when that defense is eliminated is a big step for the horse.

When a rescue horse is unwilling to follow you, de-escalate the situation immediatel­y by giving him a moment to consider his options, explore his environmen­t and think about what you are asking. If he’s licking, sniffing, inspecting the ground or pawing, be patient and reward him for his bravery with a scratch on the withers. Remember, you don’t know his whole story or what previous bad experience­s he has had. Be patient---incredibly patient---and be prepared for him to advance on his own

I believe every horse must have three skills, regardless of his circumstan­ces: leading, allowing farriery work and accepting injections. These are the places to begin when working with a rescue horse.

schedule. If, during the thinking process of going forward into the stocks, trailer or building, a horse is pushed too hard or too fast to go forward, it may accidently “justify” his fears, making it about 1,000 times less likely that he will respond positively to you.

Hoof handling: Many horses who come from a background of neglect have not had proper hoof care. This can be due to financial constraint­s or bad behavior. A thin and weak horse may not be able to balance and support himself for very long when picking up a foot. Whatever the reason for his

hoof-handling aversion, gradual work is critical to overcoming it. Always touch a horse on his body and work your way down. If you suddenly touch the lower leg, an automatic nerve reaction can result in sudden movement. This reaction is hardwired into the horse.

When the horse accepts touch, asking him to shift his weight away from the foot you are touching is the next step. Make sure you recognize and reward this when it happens with praise. When you can pick up a foot, do so only for a split second and set it back down before he pulls away.

Front feet may be easier to work with than hind feet and you need to always work with your own safety in mind.

In the hind limb, staying in a safe position is particular­ly critical. Here’s how I proceed when I am not sure of how a horse will react:

1. I have a helper hold the horse’s halter and stand on the same side as the foot I am picking up (in this example, the left hind).

2. Standing by the barrel of the horse, I place my left hand on his hip. On a very wary horse, I may start by touching the withers with my left hand and gradually work my way to the hip.

3. Keeping my left hand on the hip, I place my right hand next it then slowly but firmly run it down the leg. If the horse doesn’t pick up his foot from this cue, I can use my left hand (still at the hip, or as near as I can get it while bending over) to shift his weight off the leg. With this hand I can also feel any muscle tightening signalling an adverse reaction.

Remember that this training is for a lifetime. It is more important to go slow and achieve consistenc­y than to achieve a lot in one training session.

Injections: This may not seem like a traditiona­l “training” issue, but many rescue horses have not had routine vaccinatio­ns, so they find injections upsetting or even terrifying. This can be a significan­t problem. Not only are annual vaccinatio­ns difficult and dangerous, but if the horse is ever ill, seriously injured or needs sedation, the situation is made that much more difficult. These horses can be difficult to retrain, but it is possible.

Most veterinari­ans have a system they prefer for handling injection-shy horses. The first step in mine is to ensure that the horse accepts being touched on the muscular region of the neck where injections are

administer­ed. It is even better if he will accept mildly unpleasant stimuli, such as a poke of a finger or a pinch. It works like this: rub, rub, rub, pet, pet, pet, poke, treat, treat, rub, rub, pet, pet, pinch, treat, treat. When a horse allows that, I’ll hold the syringe in my hand and do the rub/pet/poke routine, immediatel­y followed by the injection, and then repeat the rub/pet/poke routine again. Afterward, it’s critical to reward the horse with positive reinforcem­ent.

Sometimes, that first injection is a sedative that will also blunt sensation. That allows me to administer the necessary vaccines or draw blood for testing while the horse is more relaxed. It is not ideal to use this for the lifetime of a horse, but I also want to make the experience as positive as possible. I intend to give that horse vaccines and draw blood for Coggins’ testing annually for the rest of his life. I am setting him up for 20 more years of either success or stress and fear. A long-term thought process is important for everything that is done with horses.

Eventually, you’ll probably want to put the rescued horse into more serious training for a specific activity or sport. Whether it’s safe to do so will depend on a few factors. For instance, a horse will need to be in good enough condition to wear a saddle and carry a rider. He also needs to be comfortabl­e socially; a horse with a history of abuse may need more time to “come out of his shell” before he begins training. When you think it’s time, have your veterinari­an come recheck the horse for soundness and physical suitabilit­y for work. Once you’ve been given that go ahead, take a moment to appreciate how far the horse has come and marvel at the possibilit­ies that lie on the road ahead.

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