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.

EQUUS - - Contents - 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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