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Helping the Neglected Horse

Rehabilitating a neglected horse require critical care

With the numbers of neglected, abandoned, or mistreated horses steadily rising and cresting at 100,000 annually, even healthy equines without disability or behavioral problems may end up on the ‘unwanted list. Those fortunate enough to be shielded from future harm present a host of challenges for emergency facilities like the Santa Fe Horse Shelter, nonetheless.

Signs of neglect

Open or untended wounds and cracked and curling hooves indeed indicate some form of neglect, but evidence of sustained hunger in a horse is hard to deny. In cases of a severely malnourished or starving horse, its skeletal ribs or hip bones protrude unnaturally. Listless ears and a nearly motionless frame tell a devastating story of a horse's efforts to conserve any energy left in its emaciated body.

The process of starvation in a horse mirrors that of humans suffering from anorexia or cancer. Suppose the body fails to ingest sufficient nutrients for brain performance and organ function. In that case, it consumes stores of fat and carbohydrates to supply the energy needed to maintain its internal systems. A regularly fed horse replaces these nutrients from food. A starved body, once fat and carbohydrate stores wane to nothing, raids its tissues for protein - the only other source available for its survival.

Protein is a component of every tissue in the body, though no stockpiles exist, unlike fat and carbohydrates. Consequently, a starving horse attacks any source of protein available, including vital organs such as the heart and its compromised gastrointestinal system. In essence, a starving horse turns on its own body and consumes itself to survive.

Guidelines for the care of rescue horses

Noting the need for consistent and measured strategies to address the epidemic of neglected horses, in 2004, the American Association of Equine Practitioners released a comprehensive set of guidelines for rescue facilities that play a vital role in the safety and rehabilitation of unwanted animals.

Protocols outlined by both the AAEP and the New Mexico Livestock Board serve as a starting point of care administered by the Santa Fe Horse Shelter. To be accepted by the shelter, each horse must arrive with a travel permit or a bill of sale and a negative Coggins test. Once the shelter agrees with an intake, individual horses are quarantined from one to thirty days to contain any disease, illness, or parasite. Any evidence of a reportable disease is conveyed to the livestock board.

After a veterinary evaluation and exam, the name, age, and gender of each horse, as well as a description of any issues detected, is recorded. Upon its arrival, the status of a horse determines when to begin a series of vaccinations and a deworming program, as well as dental and farrier care. Stallions are castrated.

Critical first ten days

Providing food to an impoverished animal is an instinct for many, but according to Michele Wolford, ranch manager and volunteer coordinator at the Santa Fe Horse Shelter, transitioning a horse from the starved stage to one of health is often mired by the best of intentions. “Your heart says give the horse as much as he wants to eat, but the reality is you can kill it with kindness,” cautions Wolford.

Refeeding syndrome develops when a horse is given concentrated calories too quickly, first disrupting the metabolic system before leading to heart, respiratory, or kidney failure. Researchers at the University of California – Davis designed a nutritional program to minimize the effects of refeeding syndrome, focusing on slowly stabilizing a horse's weight.

In line with the program recommended by UC-Davis, the Santa Fe Horse Shelter’s nutritional regimen begins by feeding affected horses frequently, small amounts of high-quality alfalfa to reintroduce the protein and electrolytes necessary for normal metabolism. An emaciated shelter horse receives one pound or a 1/6 of a flake of hay every four hours for the first three days. During days four through seven, the amount of grass given at each feeding inversely shifts with daily feedings. Ideally, by day six, a horse consumes four pounds of hay every eight hours. By increasing the amount of grass given per feeding and reducing the number of times a horse is fed, its systems can recover safely. Ready and continual access to clean and fresh water throughout the program is a must.

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