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Should I rescue this horse?

From: Andrea

I went to see a Connemara x gelding 9 yrs old today. He had been beaten by the last owner and was nervous - also was underweight. The woman had been giving him build up feeds. He then was very loving once he knew we wouldn't hurt him.

When we looked at his feet we noticed underneath that the frog was almost level with the surrounding area, and the shape of the top of the foot was dished. He hasn't been shod ever and he had been made to ride on hard surfaces without proper foot care from a farrier. He had had an all over clip as his fur was a mess.

To add to the problem we noticed as the lady went to get his tack that he was very lame on his back near leg when we asked him to walk... he was very reluctant to put weight on it, it seemed to be in his foot and it was hot. As he walked more the limp lessened but didn't go away. He didn't have any Laminitis ridges. Also at the top of that leg the muscle was very pronounced like it had worked hard. We refused to ride him in this state.

The woman didn't seem fussed when I told her this boy needed a vet with some painkillers, she said he just needed a farrier.

I adore him and would love to take him on and rehabilitate him as we could afford it... do you think this is possible?

Many thanks for getting this far.

Hi Andrea!

I sympathize - it's always terribly tempting to step in and rescue an animal that isn't being treated well by its current owners. When the animal is a horse, the temptation can be enormous - and so can the fallout if you "rescue" him only to discover that you've taken on a project that's too much for you in terms of your knowledge and expertise, your time, your emotions, and your finances.

Whether you can take on this horse and try to rehabilitate him will depend on your answers to the following questions.

1. Do you want to save him because he's already been in two bad situations and you feel sorry for him, or are you hoping that you will be able to ride him some day?

If, deep in your heart, the answer is "I want to ride him", then I would have to say "NO". All you know right now is that he is lame, and that he has been lame long enough to have uneven muscling in his hindquarters. There is obviously much more going on than just the lack of a recent visit from the farrier. There may be structural damage that will not allow this horse to be ridden, EVER - at least, not by anyone who dislikes the idea of riding a lame, sore horse. His current owner doesn't seem to have a problem with that idea, but I'll bet that YOU would. Also, there is a reason that his current owner couldn't be bothered to have the farrier out before advertising the horse for sale. That reason could be simple ignorance, or it could be something else entirely.

2. Is maintaining this horse going to create a financial hardship for you?

It is very stressful, financially speaking, to try to do the right thing for a horse that needs a great deal of regular vet care and therapy. It is even more stressful, emotionally speaking, to know that your horse needs care and therapy that you can't afford to provide. And - be very honest with yourself here - can you afford to keep TWO horses? Because if you do rescue this one and he isn't able to be a riding horse, you will still want something to ride... after all, you didn't go to see this horse because`you were told he was thin and lame and nervous, you went to see him because you were looking for a horse to RIDE, not a horse to hand-walk or to watch in the field.

3. Do you have suitable facilities for a horse that can't be ridden - and may never be rideable?

Rescue and rehabilitation are big jobs, and taking on a horse for life is not a trivial task. This horse is only 9 - what if he lives into his 30s and can become "pasture sound" at best - but never be ridden? Are you prepared - not just inspired, but PREPARED - to maintain him in comfort and in a good, healthy environment - that is, turned out in a safe field with companions, and given regular vet, farrier, and dental care?

4. If this horse cannot be made sufficiently comfortable to become "pasture sound", and thus will not be able to enjoy his life even under seemingly idyllic pasture conditions, are you mentally and emotionally prepared to have him euthanized?

It's very sad to see a horse that is in chronic pain and can't be made comfortable, and needs to be put down. It's even sadder to see a horse in this condition when the owner cannot bring him or herself to put the horse down - the horse remains alive, but lives a life of constant suffering. In horse rescue, I've seen both these scenarios far too often.

Before you make a decision about purchasing this horse, here are a few thoughts to ponder:

The horse is already 9 years old and has had some hard times. His X-rays will be bound to show SOME changes - at the least, minor arthritic changes that may not matter, but possibly other problems such as ringbone, sidebone, damaged hocks, bone chips in fetlocks or knees... Do invest in some radiographs before you buy him, because (a) they will help you understand the scope of the problems you're thinking of taking on, and (b) if you choose not to have radiographs taken BEFORE you purchase the horse, your vet will be taking those radiographs ANYWAY as soon as you bring the horse home, so that he can offer you some sort of diagnosis and prognosis. It is always preferable to invest in a thorough PRE-purchase exam than to pay the same amount - or more - for a POST-purchase exam.

Pain affects personality. So does starvation. A nervous, underweight horse may be a sweet and biddable horse when he's at a proper weight - or he may be a head-tossing, bucking, rearing, bolting maniac. It's not at all uncommon to make an energetic, fizzy horse calm by starving it. Even a horse with a severely damaged back, neck, and hocks can plod along carrying a saddle and rider if it has been starved into a state of no energy... but allow it enough feed to make it stronger and more able to express its physical pain, and it may become an entirely different animal.

Painkillers aren't always a good thing. I get the impression that you haven't had much experience rehabilitating horses - and possibly not much experience with horses (forgive me if I'm wrong about this). A vet with painkillers is NOT what this horse needs. A vet with a good portable x-ray unit and many years of experience in diagnosing lameness - that's what the horse needs. It's important to find out what is wrong with the horse, and whether there is a chance (and, if so, how much of a chance) that whatever is wrong could be put right. Painkillers don't actually have any therapeutic value, and may even be dangerous. Pain has a purpose - it's nature's way of warning a horse (or a human) not to use or overuse the injured part. Taking away the pain without taking away the injury just encourages the horse to do things that his body shouldn't be doing.

It certainly does sound as though he needs a farrier, but at this point he needs a vet more. The heat in the foot might be due to any number of causes - the only thing you can know for certain is that it's not a good thing. The uneven muscling in his hindquarters shows you that whatever is wrong has been going on for some time - or, at least, that SOMETHING wrong has been going on for some time. It's possible that the obvious problems - the heat in the foot, the lameness, the misshapen hoof, and the uneven muscling - are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, and that there are other problems that aren't obvious just at the moment, or aren't obvious to you (but might be to a vet).

Andrea, I understand why you would want to save this horse - you obviously have a good heart. But what this poor animal needs is veterinary care, a good farrier, and probably various forms of therapy. From your description, I'd say that he sounds like an "iffy" rehabilitation project at best, and I would hesitate to suggest that anyone take him on UNLESS that person has the money, space, time, and know-how to make a good try at rehabilitation - whilst remaining aware that all efforts may be in vain, and that all efforts on the horse's behalf may simply be postponing the inevitable.

If this would be your first horse or your only horse, don't buy him - and don't accept him as a gift. (There is no such thing as a free horse.) If you don't have proper facilities at home, and would be planning to board him somewhere, don't get this horse.

If your vet (or your riding instructor's vet - do NOT use the seller's vet) examines the horse, takes x-rays, draws blood, etc., inspects the horse from stem to stern, and believes that it can be rescued AND rehabilitated, and if you have a suitable place to keep the horse, AND if your instructor believes that you can do the work, and likes the horse well enough to help you with it, AND if you're ready to keep him and maintain him without riding him if he can't become a sound riding horse, and if you're ready to give him a good, dignified death if that eventually proves to be the best decision for him... THEN the attempt may be worthwhile.

The sad fact is that there are many more horses than there are good homes for horses, thus there are always horses in need of homes. Some of those horses are sound, young, healthy, and can be ridden - if you want to rescue a horse, but you also want a horse that you can ride, perhaps it would be a better idea to purchase or rescue one of those.

I can tell you one thing: Whatever you decide to do, now or later, with this horse or another one, SOME horse is going to be lucky to have you for an owner. ;-)


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