For The Rider


"Ironically, the most commonly neglected area of the horse is the area that most often goes unreported and unnoticed. I am speaking of the hoof."

Horse Neglect and Abuse in America: Fact and Fiction

"For all intents and purposes," says Kimball, "the neglected horse is the forgotten horse."

Observations by one of the nation's leading equine neglect and abuse investigators

By Kimball Lewis

Eohippus, Dawn Horse. 5 Million years BC, a tiny swamp dwelling creature that was to survive and evolve into the modern day horse. Equine, noble, spirited, symbol of freedom, catalyst of revolution and change. A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.

The horse changed the face of many nations, carried men to battle, waged wars and acted as the primary vector to the industrial revolution. Travel within ten minutes or less from most urban and suburban environments and you will find this magnificent symbol of freedom in pastures, farms and fields dotting the countryside. These are the symbols of independence, the west, our heritage and status. But as we travel these country roads and see the horse grazing lazily in the lush fields of prosperity there is another story sequestered, most often, from public view. Things, as we know, are rarely what they seem and the pasture ornament horse adorning the front lawns of America’s prosperous is certainly no exception.

During the twentieth century, great advances were made where protection and advocacy for equine animals is concerned. Now, as we leap into the twenty first century, horse protection groups dot the landscape almost as prolific as the horse itself. But as is often the case, reality and public perception are two very different things and while the horse enjoys a renewed or even elevated status by many, there is another chapter in the book of the horse that remains widely unread.

During my career, horses have been the area of animal protection in which I have concentrated the most. I have earned the respect and hate of many people and have come to accept the moniker or label of hero and troublemaker, depending on whom you are talking to. But no amount of gossip can change the facts. Let me take you behind the scenes if only for a few paragraphs into the fact and fiction, plight and plunder of the animal we know as the horse.

The misconception that the common ranch horse is abused, overworked and underfed is just that, a gross misconception. In fact, most real ranch outfits take better care of their horses than they do themselves. Horses eat first; the cowboy eats second. This is the cornerstone philosophy of any legitimate ranch. You would never, ever see a buckaroo, wrangler, cowboy or other ranch-related laborer enter the bunkhouse or mess hall before the horses were fed and well taken care of. Certain animal rights groups would paint a picture of drunken cowboys lying in their bunks and horses starving in the corral. Not so. In fact, 99.9% of the horse neglect and abuse cases I ever responded to were plain and simply the backyard horse.

The backyard horse is just what it sounds like. A giant, hay burning lawn ornament that is either grossly overweight or grossly underweight but rarely in the shape he should be. Ironically, the most commonly neglected area of the horse is the area that most often goes unreported and unnoticed. I am speaking of the hoof.

Rarely if ever has a citizen called and complained about a horse being neglected via the hoof. This is because when you drive by a pasture and look at a horse, you aren’t looking at the feet; you are looking at the body. The calls we get are generally the same. Thin horses, their ribs are showing etc. In fact, the foundation of any equine animal is his feet, not his gut. The pump that circulates blood through the leg is located in the feet, not the stomach and so, it is fair to say that most real horse neglect goes altogether unreported. Horses that are used regularly are far less likely to be neglected for two reasons. One, because the owners have their hands on the horse and can more readily spot a potential problem as it develops and two, because of the fact that the person who uses the horse needs the horse and so, it would be self defeating not to keep the horse in the best condition possible. With few exceptions, it is the backyard horse that is most often neglected. There are a number of reasons as to why and this can get a little complex, but for all intents and purposes, the neglected horse is the forgotten horse.

When Suzy was 10, she bothered, begged and pleaded for a horse until her parents caved in. They bought her a horse and Suzy was content until she was 15 and discovered boys. Now the horse is relegated to the pasture or back yard corral. Will this horse have his hooves trimmed every eight weeks as recommended? Will this horse receive an average of ten fresh gallons of water each day or at least 1 gallon of fresh water per every one hundreds pounds of body weight per day as recommended? Will this horse receive the supplements and foodstuffs they need as winter approaches? Statistically speaking the answer is no. Owner ignorance and the backyard horse go hand in hand. Throw in a dose of apathy and you have a recipe for neglect.

Yes, there are abuse and neglect cases that occur in surroundings other than the typical backyard horse scenario but the fact remains that the backyard horse or pasture ornament accounts for the majority of these cases.

The fact is that horses like to have a job to do. These are intelligent animals with a purpose, and that purpose is only altered when we buy them and stick them in the backyard without continuing care and stimulation. The horse needs several things. Adequate feed, hoof care, shelter and health maintenance are the obvious ones. Stimulation, work and attention, as well as socialization with other equine animals are equally as important.

When you go out to put a halter on your horse does he run away and is he hard to catch? If your horse is treated with love and care and is given the appropriate amount of stimulation he or she will come running when you go out to gather them up. Trail rides, working cows, horse camping and other physically challenging activities are not only good for you horse, they are important to his or her mental well-being. Historically, there have been abuses in the show ring and at events where there is money and status to be gained. From the Tennessee Walker of the East to the Western Pleasure Arena, abuses inherent with these competitions are born out of man's greed. This does not negate the fact that the horse enjoys these activities when they are conducted properly and without the use of chemical and physical devices that inflict pain and supposedly enhance the horses’ ability.

For the reader who likes numbers, here are some hard statistics taken from an average year during my career as an equine abuse and neglect investigator.

The place is Oregon and the year is 1997: During this typical year, I handled 678 reports of horse neglect or abuse. It is important that you understand the difference between neglect and abuse. The legal classification of neglect is when someone fails to provide adequate care, shelter, food etc. In most states, there are varying levels of neglect. In Oregon, Second Degree neglect is when someone has failed to provide one of the above for his or her horse to the extent that it constitutes neglect. First degree neglect simply means that the act resulted in serious injury or death. Animal Abuse on the other hand is different from neglect. Abuse in almost every state means that someone intentionally committed some physical act against his or her animal. Typically, we are speaking of beating, torturing, lighting on fire, stabbing etc. and I have handled all of the above many times. Now that you understand the difference between neglect and abuse, let's go back and look at our statistics for 1997.

Out of 678 reported horse complaints, only 305 of them were legitimate. In other words, more than half of them were unfounded. This can happen when neighbor turns in neighbor as part of a larger ongoing or unrelated dispute. Also, we have family turning in estranged family and then there is the passer by that thinks what they are seeing is neglect when it is not. Out of the 305 legitimate cases of neglect or abuse, only two were abuse. The other 303 were neglect. Of those 303, 300 of them were resolved by providing education to the owner and in some cases, emergency relief such as hay, COB (corn, oats and barley), veterinary care etc. These neglect cases are often the result of owner ignorance or apathy but in some cases, divorce, family illness or physical injury, financial setback such as unemployment and other aggravated family troubles, have trickled down to impact the horses in an adverse way. In these cases, helping the family is a win-win situation.

Finally, we have the three cases of neglect and two cases of abuse that could not be resolved through advice, aid and so on. One of these cases involved 111 horses and occurred in Malhuer County on March 17, 1997. This was the largest horse neglect case in Oregon history. In the Malhuer County Case, there were already nine dead horses on the ground when I arrived. The other two neglect cases involved people who basically said, “Hey, they’re my horses and if I want to starve them, they are mine to starve." Both parties no longer have animals. Of the two abuse cases, one involved a trainer who would tie horses and throw them down and then urinate on them. The other case involved a man who found his estranged wife dancing with another man and so he stabbed all of her horses to death in their stalls using a common butcher knife.

These statistics speak for themselves and affirm my earlier observations. Horse neglect and abuse is, as a rule, not taking place at the ranch. These are cases that with rare exceptions can be resolved when neighbor helps neighbor and when the horse owner, in over his head, is able and willing to ask for help.

There is another part to this equation but it is a lot less black and white than the typical abuse and neglect case. I am speaking to the show ring and event arena. Equine sports, as with any other professional athletic event, are going to have an element of fraud and neglect. Whenever there are egos combined with financial incentives, you are going to have certain abuses. Fortunately, the professional world of equine related events has done a tremendous job during recent years of self-policing and imposing guidelines that prohibit and limit many of the old abuses. Improvements are still needed but a lot of ground has been covered. In the final analysis, if you are looking for a neglected horse, you will most often find them in the back yard.

Solutions and answers: How you can help

Believe me, the circumstances surrounding these neglect or abuse episodes that I have handled and the people involved are as different as the cases themselves.

As I mentioned earlier the vast majority of these cases involve basic neglect usually via the hoof, stomach or inadequate shelter leading to one or both of these. People who own horses that are neglected may be involved in (and I list these in order of occurrence) ignorance about the horse itself, financial hardships, marriage difficulties, and even mental illness. There is one other scenario that is widely overlooked yet is now playing an increasingly common role in animal abuse and neglect, and at an alarming rate: Chemical dependency and particularly methamphetamine use. In this case, you will simply need to involve the authorities. With 'meth' aside, how many of us have found ourselves on hard times financially or perhaps in a difficult relationship? I would guess that most of us have had one of the above difficulties visited upon us. My point then is this: Regardless of whether you are witnessing or suspecting neglect (remember, more than half of my cases turn out to be unfounded) or you yourself are the one finding your own horses neglected due to circumstances beyond your grasp, you can make a difference. Here are some sound solutions when reporting, or finding yourself in any of these situations.

First: Before you “turn someone in”, ask yourself; Can I help them? Are they a neighbor or relative in need? Can I give them the knowledge, advice, or even feed? Being a good neighbor begins with you. The courts are full and often, humane investigators are undereducated about horse issues or even too eager to seize animals. I suggest the grassroots neighbor-to-neighbor approach first and above all. I also recognize that there will be times when this is not safe or advisable. You use your own judgement there. As I mentioned, I have personally seen a sharp increase in neglect due to chemical use and particularly methamphetamines. In this case, you’ll need to leave it to law enforcement. 'Meth' use is seeping into small town America right now as we speak, and people who use it generally stop caring about daily tasks such as feeding animals or even their own children. I have seen this many times. If you have a neighbor who has taken good care of their animals but suddenly starts letting things go such as the lawn, the horses, the kids and so on, it may be a sign of chemical addiction.

Second: If you are the person who finds yourself in a position where you cannot feed your own animals, don’t let yourself slide deeper into trouble. I am amazed at how many people are too proud to ask for help, or unaware that help is available. If your local humane society or horse protection group are as good as they should be, they will have a program where they can help you with feed, veterinary care and even temporary shelter. So called horse protection groups or animal welfare organizations whose only response is to take your animals or make idol threats are worthless and have no place in the community. There are people out there who will help. Pick up the phone and arrange a meeting with your humane investigator, animal control person or sheriff, and tell them your trouble. Explain to them that you want to stay within the law but that you are facing one of the problems we listed above and that you need help. You might be surprised at how much they can do for you. If they refuse to help and it surfaces in court later that you went to them for assistance first, their case will be tossed out on its ear.

Third: If you are reporting abuse, be detail oriented and knowledgeable. Don’t be fueled by rumors; get the facts. I once sat in my office and took down directions to what sounded like a terrible case of neglect. The caller was articulate and said that this mean abuser was killing his horses. As I neared completion of the directions it became obvious that she was telling me how to get to my own place! Had she paid any attention, she would have noticed that this horse had only been there for three days and there was a sign in front of my pasture that clearly read, "Neglected Horses Being Rehabilitated in this Pasture." I put the sign there for obvious reasons.

Fourth: If times are so tough that you cannot afford horses, consider selling them or fostering them, leasing them out etc. I am baffled by how many people will starve a good horse to death trying to hang on rather then give her a better life elsewhere.

Fifth: There is a wealth of information out there and it is all free. As I said, most cases are owner ignorance related. Put your pride on the shelf. If you don’t know about something, ask someone that does. Log onto the internet, ask the fellow down at the local feed supply store, call a vet, and attend one of the many horse care clinics being offered now. If you have neglected your horses to the point where they must be seized you have no other person to blame but yourself.

One more note: If someone is going to stab, hang, burn, drag or otherwise physically abuse a horse, all bets are off and if you see this type of activity, you need to call 911 the same as you would to report domestic violence.

If you are the victim of domestic violence and your abuser is using your horse as a leverage mechanism in the ongoing cycle of violence, there is also help for you. In 1997, I created what is now known as DVAP, the Domestic Violence Assistance Program. Under DVAP, we will house animals belonging to any woman in crisis as a result of family violence. The housing and feed are free and your animals will be cared for until you are back on your feet. We use a confidential network of foster care providers who have volunteered their homes, kennels and barns for women like you. If your local humane society doesn’t have a DVAP Program or is unable to help, email or log onto our web site and we will actively locate a DVAP Provider in your community.

By spreading knowledge and gaining support we can educate and assist people in caring for their horses… perhaps we can even turn abuse and neglect from fact into fiction.

For more information:

Kimball Lewis accepts email questions regarding horse care and shelter at

He also travels the country speaking on equine and other animal abuse and neglect; visit

About the author:

Kimball Lewis is a lecturer, author, Cowboy Poet, Management Consultant, and host of two popular radio talk shows. He was featured in the Western Horseman in the July 1997 issue. He is considered one of the nation's leading authorities on equine abuse and neglect. Today, Lewis travels the US speaking on horse and other animal neglect and abuse issues as well as the link between animal abuse and violence against people. It is estimated that during his career as an equine abuse and neglect investigator, he has responded to more than 10,000 horse neglect and abuse complaints. Lewis currently lives in Eastern Oregon.