Stronger horse care laws are needed to protect horses at some trail outfitters. Photo by Napat/Shutterstock
I’ve been privileged to provide vet care for many horseback outfitters, guest ranches and dude ranches throughout the course of my 22-year career, and I can attest that the majority take excellent care of their animals. They provide high-quality feed, stay on top of preventive care for each horse, and have the vet out promptly when an animal is sick or hurt. These horsemen and horsewomen develop a strong bond and partnership with their horses and mules. They’ll always put the needs of their working animals first, and I am proud to be their veterinarian.
But there are some businesses out there that represent the dark side of the horse industry. These places spend little to nothing on their horses’ care. They ignore injuries and ailments, overwork their animals, underfeed the herd, and send visibly lame and sick horses on long trail rides. The property is usually filthy and run-down, and the staff are unkempt and unfriendly.
In the staff’s defense, they’re not treated much better than the horses. They’re also overworked, grossly underpaid, and depend mainly on tips from the guests to pay their bills.
There’s always an owner somewhere making a darn good living off their shoddy business. They usually live in a different state, own multiple dude outfits or horse-leasing businesses, and if they’re ever on-site (which is rare), you’ll recognize them by their fancy new diesel trucks, expensive clothing, and complete disregard for the law.
Although there are cruelty laws in place, they’re often vaguely worded and leave large, clumsy loopholes for owners like these to take advantage of when it comes to horse care. There’s occasionally a day of reckoning for some of these outfits, but it’s the horses who ultimately pay the price. And there’s always a very long line of complicit people who help the owners by remaining silent when they should be reporting the situation.
One day, I was visiting such a place at the request of a law enforcement officer who had received complaints from the public, and it was not a happy visit. The horses were overcrowded and packed into small pens. The few feeders that contained hay were populated by the stronger, healthier animals while the weaker and lower-ranked horses eyed the sparse hay from a safe distance.
Judging by the protruding ribs and bleeding injuries on the horses who weren’t at the feeders, it was sadly obvious who was getting the lion’s share of the calories and who was not. And horses are not kind to one another when competing for resources.
As I walked through the herd of horses with the police officer, more and more injuries became apparent. There were bleeding legs, infected cuts and scrapes, and dozens of horses had horribly overgrown hooves and limped painfully around the pens. Ancient, skeletal horses with bulging, arthritic joints stood quietly in the background.
They closed their eyes and lowered their heads for a face rub when I walked over to examine them. When the horses still trust us after humans have utterly failed them, it kills my soul in ways that I cannot explain.
I could see something odd on one horse’s back. As we got closer, I realized that I was looking at a cantaloupe-sized and partially ruptured abscess where a saddle had rubbed deeply into his flesh. Another nearby horse had an eye that was swollen shut, his face soaked with tears and discharge from the untreated injury.
I gestured to the officer, and we haltered the two horses after taking some pictures and video. The horse winced as I gently probed the enormous abscess on his back and thick pus flowed freely down his side. He was shaking in fear, probably expecting to be saddled and ridden despite his condition.
I ran a hand over his neck and murmured to him, then reached for my medical bag and drew up some pain medication for him and for the horse with the eye injury. I knew I wouldn’t get reimbursed for the medications, but I didn’t care.
“You’re going to file charges, aren’t you?” I asked the officer.
He shrugged. “Oh, we absolutely will, but I can already tell you that nothing will happen. The DA claims that we can’t prove that this owner knows anything about the neglect, and he’s already blaming his staff for everything. They’re filing charges against the staff members, so the owner just drives off in his fancy truck while they take the heat. As usual.”
I exhaled in frustration. “So, nothing changes for the horses? Does he get any sort of follow-up from the department to make sure he cares for these injuries?”
The officer looked sadly at me. “The horses are his property. If the DA won’t charge him with anything, our hands are tied. Yet our department faces the wrath of the public who don’t understand why he gets to keep the horses. They blast us on social media and send us hate mail. And he goes and opens another dude outfit somewhere else, and it begins all over again.”
I looked again at the sad herd standing quietly in their filthy pens and had to fight back tears. I knew that the officer felt the same way.
“How do you keep going?” I asked him. He patted my hand sadly but didn’t answer me.
That night I stayed up until the wee hours looking up every cruelty law and reading every statute related to horse businesses that I could find. By 2 a.m., I’d given up.
Until someone with the know-how and the power to enact a change gets involved, this will indeed happen again and again. Owners need to be held fully responsible for the well-being and care of their animals, and there need to be much higher standards for animal care in operations like these. The laws for horse care need to be crystal clear, and unfortunately they aren’t.
Maybe you’re the one who can help close these loopholes and change the law.
This article about the need for stronger laws to ensure good care of outfitters’ horses appeared in the May 2022 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. This is an edition of Vet Adventures, which appears in each issue. Click here to subscribe!
Courtney S. Diehl, DVM, has been an equine veterinarian since 2000. She is the author of Horse Vet: Chronicles of a Mobile Veterinarian and Stories of Eric the Fox, first place winner of the CIPA EVVY award. She is currently working on her third book.
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