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.