I’ve spent the past few weeks following a horse abuse/neglect case in Boyle County, Kentucky very closely. While this case is not particularly unique and one of probably thousands of similar incidents happening in the U.S. right now, I have personally met some of the people volunteering in the case. The case also involved several Bureau of Land Management mustangs, a passion of my husband’s, and at least two young mustangs that recently competed in Extreme Mustang Makeover competitions. My husband and I unintentionally ended up with a farm full of “rescue” equines that all came to us in various states of starvation and neglect. I’m heartbroken, devastated, and angry about the circumstances surrounding the Boyle County case, which has led me to days worth of reflection and a need to organize those thoughts.
Hard Truth #1: Not everyone should own a horse. A love of horses and/or horseback riding experience is not enough. Although it should be obvious, owning livestock (ie. horses) is not like owning a dog, cat, hamster, goldfish, etc. Not only do they require considerably larger living spaces and financial resources, the physical demands of caring for these animals is exponentially greater than almost any other animal you could own. Most people are simply not willing or able to meet the needs of these demanding animals.
Hard Truth #2: The cost of a horse is the least expensive part of horse ownership. Cheap horses are a dime a dozen, refer to my previous post regarding how expensive horses truly are. The Bureau of Land Management will currently give you $1000 to take a horse or burro off their hands, but depending on your circumstances, $1000 probably won’t cover the first three months of care for the animal. If you do not own enough property to care for a horse, expect to pay a minimum $500 per month in board.
Hard Truth #3: Horses eat A LOT, and they eat every day. Horses evolved to be continuously eating. A full size horse eats a minimum of 20 lbs of feed/hay every day and much more if they are actively in training. A single horse will drink in excess of 15 gallons of water a day. On our farm we are currently feeding a 1000 lb round bale every two weeks, and 120 lbs of hay by hand almost every day. That does not include grain and supplements. Our horses are on turnout 24/7 so they were also eating fresh grass in addition to what we actively feed.
Hard Truth #4: Keeping a horse alive is physically demanding. If a horse is eating 20 plus pounds of food a day, they are also defecating. A full size horse will generate a wheelbarrow load of waste or more every day. Someone must shovel and dispose of that excrement everyday. The needs of the animal do not change if it is 110 degrees outside or zero degrees. Horses require food and clean water every single day in rain, sleet, hail, and snow. If you can’t or won’t physically take care of the animal, then you will need to pay someone to do that for you which may or may not be included in the cost of board mentioned above.
Hard Truth #5: Horses require more maintenance and veterinary care than other animals or livestock. Horses require annual dental care and vaccinations. You will need to de-worm the animal periodically. Horses also require hoof care/farrier work every four to six weeks. That doesn’t begin to touch the host of specialists you may be required to hire, such as chiropractors.
Hard Truth #6: Horses are dangerous. Working with any 1200 lb animal that does not have a concept of its size is challenging. Accidents can and will happen. There are never any guarantees when working with other living creatures. You need experience, knowledge, and a working understanding of livestock safe handling techniques. Buying a trained riding horse is great, but if you only know how to ride at a beginner/intermediate level, there is a good chance that horse will develop issues along the way that will require the skills of a trainer to keep them safe for a beginner. Horses are not machines. You may have purchased a trained animal, but do not possess the skills to maintain safe equine behaviors.
Hard Truth #7: It’s easier to find an experienced child care professional than a knowledgeable livestock sitter. Small trips and vacation planning are exponentially more complicated when you own a horse. If you do not board at a full service barn, you will need to find someone that is willing/able to physically care for your animal while you are gone. There are a host of fairly common health issues that can kill a horse in hours. Not only do you need someone that can physically care for the animal, you need someone knowledgeable enough to recognize the symptoms of a problem before it becomes fatal.
Hard Truth #8: Horse life expectancy can reach 30 plus years. They will have the same basic needs throughout their life, but you can expect the cost of veterinary care to increase as they age. A horse can live way past their useful riding life, meaning the expense of upkeep without the ability to continue riding. Laying your horse to rest comes with unique challenges. Most people can’t simply bury a horse beside their dog, Fluffy, in the back yard. You will need a plan for transport, burial, or disposal of the remains when the time comes.
Hard Truth #10: Once you sell or give away your horse you can never be sure of their fate. Social media is littered with millions of stories of owners that sold or gave away their animals to “loving, forever homes” only to discover the animal ended up in a neglect situation or on a slaughter truck bound for Mexico. The Boyle County, KY case is a great example. The women involved in the case looked like loving responsible horse owners to the outside world. They fooled fellow trainers into believing they were caring properly for the animals by presenting fat/sleek/well-trained animals to the public through Extreme Mustang Makeover competitions while twenty plus animals were dying of starvation and neglect behind closed stable doors. Most contracts/agreements for first option to buy the animal back aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. Possession is nine tenths of the law after all.
I see so many people that “love” horses and it’s their “dream” to own a horse. Their dream can quickly become a nightmare for both owner and animal. I empathize and wish everyone could enjoy horses, but alternatively I’m very skeptical. The percentage of people expressing this wish that I think are actually capable of responsibly owning a horse is less than one percent. Most have no idea of the true commitment financially, physically, emotionally and socially they will be making. That includes people who occasionally take lessons, and are tangentially exposed to the horse world. Horse ownership is not a hobby. It’s a lifestyle choice. People that don’t own horses will not understand, and the majority of non-horsey people simply do not comprehend the demands of the lifestyle.
It is extremely easy to get in over your head when it comes to horse ownership, and usually much more difficult to get out than in. You can’t just drop a horse off at the shelter if your lifestyle suddenly changes. Bills rack up quickly in the equestrian world. The market is flooded with unwanted horses, and when a life event occurs suddenly, you are still responsible for the animal until you can find a new living situation for it. The very nature of the horse industry leaves it ripe for the tragedy and atrocities being played out right now in the Boyle County, KY case.
As the owner of multiple rescue horses and mustangs, these tragedies affect me on a personal level. With every animal we bring on the property, I make the commitment that I will not leave them to an uncertain fate, which means hard decisions occasionally. I’m often envious of the trainers I know and work with. To make a career out of training horses would be amazing. To devote every moment of my day to improving my horsemanship would be a dream come true. However, I don’t have the ability to make that lifestyle profitable, even though I fully understand the finances behind it. Seeing the animal as a business transaction isn’t an ability I possess. I’m thankful for those responsible trainers that can, not to mention require their services from time to time.
God bless the people cleaning up the mess in Kentucky right now. They are truly heroes. Most people will never know their names or even hear about the case. As I said, it is one of probably a thousand situations around the U.S., and likely will have a better ending than most due to the dedication of the people involved.