University of Vermont AAHS


To Rescue a Starving Horse


Robert O. Dawson

Professor of Law

University of Texas School of Law

Secretary/Treasurer, AAHS

[reproduced from Caution: Horses, Vol. 3, No. 4, Winter 1998]

 You are driving to work one morning, sipping your coffee, when you spy what appears to be a sick animal in a lot near the highway.  You slow down to get a better view and discover a thin, weak, sorrel horse in a small lot.  You can literally count the poor animal’s ribs.  You stop for an even closer look.  The horse has a dull look in its eyes and its feet show signs of neglect by their ragged appearance.  There is no grass in the lot, nor any hay.  There appears to be no water available to the poor animal.  There also is no shelter from the sun or the elements, not even a tree.  The horse seems to you as though it will die if someone doesn’t rescue it immediately.

 Your Choices.  What should you do?  What are your moral duties to rescue the horse?  What are your potential legal liabilities if you do so?  Can you just decide that the matter is an emergency and remove the horse from the lot?  Can you bring some feed or hay for the horse?  Some water?  Call a vet to look at the horse at your expense?  Call the sheriff?  Call the SPCA or Humane Society?  What is your best course of action?

 What can or should be done to or for the owner of such an unfortunate horse?  Can he or she be criminally prosecuted for cruelty to animals?  Should he or she be prosecuted?  Can the law take the horse away from the neglectful owner?  Can the law prohibit the owner from acquiring any new animals to neglect in the future?

 The Nature of Horse Neglect.  Cases of horse neglect are sadly all too common.  Weekly in the Horses in the News section of the AAHS web site there are newspaper stories that begin much like the beginning of this article.  These are not the sick cases of deliberate horse abuse in which a stranger lures a trusting animal to the edge of the pasture and then shoots, stabs or mutilates the poor beast.  Although such things do happen with too great frequency, cases of “benign neglect” are far more common.
 The great irony of such cases is that most of the owners really do love their animals.  Sometimes, they are “collectors” who simply acquire more animals than they can take care of.  Some collectors will have 20, 30 or even more horses they are neglecting.  Sometimes, they have come upon economic misfortune, cannot feed and care for their horses but their pride will not permit them to dispose of them or to ask for assistance in caring for them.  Sometimes, the owners have just become sick or old and cannot care for their beloved animals.  Sometimes, the horse is so sick that it should be put down, but the owner cannot bear to make that decision.  But, sometimes, unfortunately, the owner is simply cold and uncaring toward the animal who is dependent upon him for humane treatment.

 Basic Legal Rules.  There are some basic legal rules about horse rescue.  First, you cannot simply climb over the fence to get a closer look at the animal, to bring hay, feed or water to it, or to lead the animal to a waiting trailer or van.  Laws in most states make such conduct criminal--going onto fenced agricultural lands even for a worthy purpose is not permitted without the consent of the owner or other legal authority.  You could be arrested and prosecuted for criminal trespass.  Second, you can approach the owner about the problem in a non-confrontational, non-accusatorial fashion.  Often, however, that will yield only denials or hostile responses.

 Laws in many states designate the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or the state Humane Society to seize horses and conduct investigations of animal abuse or neglect.  Agents of these private organizations are empowered by state law to seek and execute search warrants to look for and seize neglected horses or other animals.  Armed with a warrant, they can go onto private land without the consent of the owner to perform their duties.

 Call the Police.  The place for you to begin is with the local law enforcement agency, which will be a municipal police department if the horse is kept within city limits or the county sheriff’s department if the horse is in the country.  But, before you call, be sure to get your facts straight and organized.  Remain calm, so you do not appear to the law enforcement officer taking your complaint to be an hysterical do-gooder.  Simply relate your facts in a calm, detailed, careful fashion.

 Law enforcement will want the following information from you:  Your name and phone number, description of the horse and the horse’s condition, location of the horse with enough detail to permit the horse to be located, and the name, if known, of the owner or “caretaker” of the horse.

 Do not demand immediate action or be surprised if you do not get it.  Police may have more important demands on their resources at that particular time and may not be able to respond to your complaint right away.  Police may not accept your complaint but instead refer you to a local animal control office, or the Humane Society, or Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  In doing so, the police are not ignoring your complaint but only directing you to the appropriate animal neglect enforcement unit in your community.

 Can you get into trouble by just calling the police?  What if you are wrong?  What if the horse is sick but is being cared for properly by its owner?  Can you be sued?  So long as you honestly and with good reason believe that the horse is being neglected so that its life or health are jeopardized, then you are protected.  Even if it turns out that you were wrong, you are protected by the law.  However, if you have a pre-existing grudge against the owner of the horse, or have not carefully considered the matter and are calling law enforcement on a whim, you may not be protected.  Calling in a report of a neglected horse is a serious matter that should not be taken lightly.

 Subsequent Legal Proceedings.  What happens if you are correct and law enforcement, the animal control officer, the SPCA, or the Humane Society seize the horse?  Legal authorities can proceed down the civil road, the criminal road, or both roads.  The civil road involves a hearing in a court within a few days after seizure of the horse in which the question is whether the horse should be kept or returned to the owner.  You may be required to testify as a witness in that hearing.  If the court decides not to return the horse to the owner because they are probably neglected, then they will be cared for by the county or a private organization.  Later, there may be another hearing in which the question of neglect will be finally determined by a court.

 If the court determines in the second hearing that there actually was neglect, then the court can terminate the ownership rights of the owner and give ownership to the county or the private organization caring for the horse.  This may be accompanied by a court order requiring the owner to reimburse the country or the private organization for the costs of care.  Also, the caretaker (and new owner) may choose to sell rehabilitated horse to responsible owners to recoup care expenses.

 On the criminal route, laws in all states make cruelty to animals, including neglect of a horse, a criminal offense.  Ordinarily the offense is a misdemeanor, carrying a punishment of from a few weeks to a year in jail, probation, and a fine.  If a conviction is obtained, the court may in a case of extreme or repeated neglect sentence the owner to jail.  More likely, the criminal court judge will order the payment of a fine and that the owner be placed on probation supervision.  A condition of probation prohibiting future ownership of horses may be imposed.  In addition, the owner may be ordered to reimburse the county or private organization for the costs of caring for the neglected horse.

 For More Information.  There is more information about cases of horse neglect and related laws on the AAHS web  Almost every installment of “Horses in the News” on the web site has several stories about cases of horse neglect or trials raising horse neglect issues.  Also on the web site, “Themes from Horses in the News” has a segment, titled “Horse Neglect/Abuse by Owners” which collects 16 months of stories from “Horses in the News” about horse neglect cases.

 In addition, you can read the law in your state about reporting cases of horse neglect and laws relating to horse neglect in the AAHS web site segment titled “Cruelty to Animals Statutes” in “Statutes for Horsemen.”  Finally, some law cases on horse neglect are in the web site segment titled “Cruelty to Horses” in “Law Cases for Horsemen.”

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