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What is Horse Abuse? Critical Information You Need to Know

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Our friend told us of a horse he recently saw that looked neglected, he knows the owners and believes they are good people, so he is understandably confused about the condition of the horse. We decided to take some steps to find out if the horse is being abused.

Horse abuse is the cause of suffering or harm upon a horse for any reason other than self-defense. There are federal and state laws that address animal abuse and cruelty. Ignorance is the most common cause of horse abuse.

Some horses get sick and look to an outsider as a victims of abuse, however, its better to err on the side of caution and takes steps to ensure an animal isn’t mistreated.

Cruelty to animals can land a person in jail.

The enforcement and enactment of animal protection laws typically fall to the state and local agencies. Louisiana has anti-cruelty regulations following most other state laws in the United States and provides a good point of reference for addressing horse abuse.

In Louisiana, “cruel” means “every act or failure to act whereby unjustifiable physical pain or suffering is caused or permitted.  The statute divides the crime of cruelty into two categories: simple cruelty or aggravated cruelty. You can see the entire statute here,

A conviction for either simple or aggravated cruelty to an animal can land the abuser in jail. Also, a first-time offender may be ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation or anger management treatment, for a subsequent offense of the crime of simple cruelty to an animal, the court shall order a psychological evaluation or anger management treatment.

A person charged with violating Louisiana’s laws against animal cruelty may have their animals seized. Most animal cruelty laws have similar provisions to Louisiana’s.

Every state has a felony animal cruelty charge.

Currently, all 50 states have a felony charge for cruelty to animals, although they do not have a uniform criminal definition or penalty. The most restrictive laws pertain to companion animals.

Companion animals typically include dogs and cats and often birds and horses. The state of Florida has also included marine animals in the protected class.

The companion laws can regulate the length of time a shelter can keep an animal or the frequency of vaccinations and breeding practices. “Hot Car laws” have become popular, shielding rescuers from civil liability for removing a pet from a vehicle in sweltering conditions.

Anti-tethering laws place a limit on how long an animal can be tied up in extreme weather. Local animal protection laws are at the forefront of protecting animals.

Although they may not have the scope of state and federal laws, they do offer protection to the animals in their communities. Often these transition from local law into state laws.

Ignorance is the most common cause of horse abuse.

Horses were initially used as a working farm animal or used for sport. Historically people who owned horses were typically raised with their animals and knew how to care for them properly.

picture of horse abuse,

As time evolved, horses became more of a companion; this often led to animals kept in households without any person with knowledge of basic horse care. (It is estimated that 5.1 million horses are kept as pets).

An owner that doesn’t know how to properly care for a horse translates into adverse health conditions for many horses. Animals that don’t receive necessary treatment, are susceptible to contract serious illnesses or injuries. Many new owners lack even basic horse care knowledge.

Many first-time horse owners don’t understand what is right, wrong, and/or cruel. A lot of horse abuse is due to ignorance more than intentional abuse.

Ignorance is the most common problem related to horse abuse. Horse owners, for the most part, want to provide properly for their animals but lack adequate equine education.

To prevent horse abuse, knowledge of basic horse care must be conveyed to this class of owner, as well as education on the signs of horse abuse, and neglect.

Horse abuse is the infliction of harm or suffering.

Let’s start by defining abuse: Abuse is to use or treat so as to injure or damage: as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary. Animal abuse is defined in Wikipedia as the infliction of suffering or harm upon animals, other than humans, for purposes other than self-defense.

More narrowly, it can be harmful for specific gains, such as killing animals for fur. Diverging viewpoints are held by jurisdictions throughout the world.

It’s critical to understand basic horse health.

Now that we have a definition of abuse, the next step will be to start with a baseline to determine how a healthy horse should look. The three most essential elements of health in a horse are temperature, pulse, and respiration.

A healthy horses temperature is between 99 to 101.5

The most common and easiest method used to check body temperature is with a rectal thermometer. Note that horses in hotter climates tend to have a higher body temperature.

If your horse has a temperature over 102 degrees, this is a sign of fever and indicates some disease. Bacterial infections, which may be related to respiratory colds or infected cuts, can be a cause of higher body temperature as well.

An average body temperature of a healthy horse ranges between 99 to 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Healthy horses resting horse rate should be less than 60 bpm.

Pulse is the count of the arterial palpations of the heart and is the same as measuring the heart rate. The heart rate can be measured by listening to the heartbeat by using a stethoscope or by the use of trained fingers placed on certain areas of the body.

See Wikipedia for a more detailed explanation of Pulse. In a horse, the pulse can be detected under the jaw, beneath the tail at the bone, or from the side of the horse’s hoof.

The average heart rate of a horse at rest is 28-40 beats per minute. Maximum heart rates can exceed 180 beats per minute, but a resting rate above 60 is a reason for concern.

A healthy horse should take 8-10 breaths a minute at rest.

Respiration– Horses use their lungs to inhale (breathing in) and exhale (breathing out) air. A healthy horse spends the same amount of time inhaling and exhaling.

To check your animal for proper respiration count his respirations. You can do this by watching his body near the end of the rib cage or watching his nostrils. He should take roughly 8-10 breaths a minute when at rest.

picture of a horse that looks starving and abused.

A high respiratory rate is a pain indicator, a sign of excitement, elevated temperature, and a wide range of possible infections. Thick mucus in the windpipe from a head cold will increase respiration and make it harder for a horse to inhale. Allergies and heaves make it hard for horses to breathe out.

A healthy horse’s gums should be pink.

Mucous Membranes in the mouth can be used to help determine the horse’s health. Mucous membranes can be checked easily by raising the lip and looking at the color of the horse’s gums.

They should be pink, if not and you notice they are very pale or very red, “muddy” in appearance, this is an indicator of a problem. You will need to press gently on the gum and count the seconds it takes for the blood to return.

This is capillary refill time. In a healthy horse, it should only take about 1-2 seconds, any longer refill is a sign of a problem that needs veterinary attention.

Signs Of An Abused Horse.

The most common form of abuse is simple neglect. There are many reasons that someone may neglect their animal: laziness, apathy, physical limitations, economic hardship, and ignorance are some of the more common.

Signs of abuse:

  • Too many horses for the area they are being kept;
  • The area they are housed in is unsanitary;
  • The facility they are being kept is unsafe, deteriorating, broken fences, etc.;
  • The horses are extremely thin, have no energy, and are not socialized;
  • The owner isolates himself and his animals from the community; and
  • He insists his animals are well taken care of and happy when it’s obvious this is untrue.

Some people try to help horses, they can sometimes cause more harm, they are called a “rescue hoarder.” Some signs of abuse they might commit:

  • Refuse to allow visitors to their site;
  • Refuse to disclose how many animals are on the property;
  • Constantly bringing more horses in without being able to properly care for the horses they have;
  • Failure to try and adopt horse out to others; and
  • Lack of staff or volunteers for the number of animals on site.

Also, one must be aware of the signs of intentional abuse in horses. These can include:

  • Blunt Force trauma or trauma caused by a sharp object;
  • Gunshot wound to the horse;
  • Asphyxiation or suffocation of the horse; and
  • Poisoning.

When you are determining if a horse is in an abusive situation, consider two categories, pasture kept horses and stall kept horses. If the horse is field kept, there are five things to consider: a food source, water source, fencing, terrain, and shelter.

When looking at a horse kept in a stall, also consider bedding, stall sanitation, and housing safety. Click here to read about horseflies and how they can transmit disease.

Contact the Sheriff’s office if you suspect animal abuse.

So what do you do if you suspect equine abuse? You should contact the appropriate authorities-animal control, humane law enforcement, police department, or sheriff’s office.

picture of a horse penned up in an unsafe environment,

Different jurisdictions appoint agencies responsible for taking in information about animal abuse reports. In most areas, you can make your report anonymously. Click here to check the laws in your state. You can also notify the humane society here for assistance.

Share the photos you have with authorities.

You need to provide all the information you have. If you were able to take photographs, they should be handed over to the authorities. (But do not risk your safety to take photos).

Do not share photos with anyone else; this has the potential to jeopardize a case. It is now in the hands of the authorities, and they should handle the situation appropriately. It is not up to you to determine the guilt of the alleged abuser.

An owner of an abused animal can be arrested.

Abuse of a Horse is a crime. After you have given the information to an officer, he will start an investigation and visit the property. If he determines there is evidence of neglect or abuse he can obtain a warrant to remove the horse and arrest the owner.

Animal cruelty reports are usually responded to quickly; however, the investigation and prosecution will move slow. So it will require you to be patient.

In some states, animal abuse is considered a civil matter.

If the horse owner is determined to be guilty of abuse, he may be fined, ordered to pay restitution for the care of the animal, or even jailed. In some states, abuse is considered a civil matter and an abuser cannot be sentenced to jail.

In instances of the imminent death of a horse, some states give the right of individuals to rescue the animals. If you do not feel comfortable calling law enforcement, then call a local horse rescue team. These rescue teams know the correct procedure to take to protect the horse.

When you Call to Make a Complaint Follow these Steps:

Provide the location of the horse

If you are unable to provide an address give a detailed description of the location of the animal.

Record the conditions

From a public road take photos or videos, do not trespass to get evidence;

Write detailed notes

Describe the horses, including markings and the number of horses along with their condition. Log the times and dates you observed the horses and their physical condition. Also, note their surroundings, did they have access to water, grass, and shade;

If it’s a critical situation

If you consider the situation to be life or death, tell the authorities when you call and meet them at the location of the horse;


If you are worried a case isn’t being handled properly, you can follow-up and speak with a supervisor.

Things to Avoid Doing When Trying to Help in a Horse Abuse Case:

Don’t trespass

Do not trespass; you can get arrested. The focus will now be on your trespass and not the abused animal.

Don’t provide aid

Do not provide aid to the horse before the officer arrives. If the officer sees a horse with access to food and water, it will make it harder to prove a case against the owner. Further, a horse may negatively react to the food you provide. Even though he may look in need, you do not know his history.

Don’t remove the horse

Do not remove the horse; theft and charges could be brought against you. An exception is if the horse is roaming freely and you can catch him safely and keep him restrained until authorities arrive;

Don’t post information on social media

Stay off social media with the information; it can cause problems for the investigation and could expose you to a libel suit.

Your Abuse Report Has Been Made, Now What?

Law enforcement agencies will have a certain protocol to address horse abuse complaints. They will differ slightly, but most will follow a general path as outlined below.

After filing the initial complaint, it’s assigned to a case officer. Depending on the size and location of the agency, they may have agents specifically for investigating animal abuse cases. Usually, smaller forces do not have agents assigned specifically for animal abuse complaints.

The assigned officer starts his investigation, by interviewing the animal’s owner and viewing the horse. He observes the horse’s physical condition and takes pictures or videos.

He also checks for the availability of clean water and food if necessary a second opinion from a professional horseman or veterinarian will be requested.

Horse abuse investigators examine the animal.

The Henneke Body Condition Scoring System(BCS) is a commonly used test by law enforcement to determine the health status of a horse and whether or not the animal is abused or neglected. The BCS uses the Henneke Chart to apply standard scoring to objective factors.

The Henneke Body Condition Scoring System requires an evaluation of six parts of a horse—the neck, withers, shoulder, ribs, loin, and tailhead. The evaluator must apply a firm press to each body part listed.

When testing the ribs, the examination must be able to determine the amount of fat covering the bones to determine the fat content over the bones.

The investigation officer assigns a number to each area tested on the horse. After numbers are assigned to each region, he totals the numbers and divides by six.

This number is the animals Henneke Body Scoring Condition. The scoring is based on a ranking of 1-9. 1 is considered to be emaciated, no body fat, and nine is obese.

An acceptable score falls between 4-7, with five being ideal. The BCS can be applied to any breed of horse to determine their ideal weight. (You can read more about the Henneke Body Scoring Condition here)

The animals’ vet is typically contacted.

If the horse is currently ill or has sustained an injury, the officer will inquire about veterinary care. If the owner indicates that the animal is under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Contact with the veterinarian should be made by the officer to confirm the horse is under his care. A follow-up should be scheduled to ensure the horse is healing correctly.

Educating the owner may be the best result.

If the abuse is a result of ignorance, the officer will educate the owner about proper care and give him a timeline to get his animals and place up to acceptable standards.

The directions could require vet and farrier visits or general upkeep of the horse’s living area. In these types of situations, the officer will make a return visit to evaluate the progress of the horse’s condition and environment.

When does horse abuse lead to the seizure of the animal?

The authorities can’t just rush in and take someone’s animals from them, there are steps they must follow.

Certain conditions dictate the seizure of a horse from its owner:

  • When an owner has not taken any actions to improve the horse’s condition after repeated request and the situation is getting worse;
  • An owner is unwilling or unable to take action necessary to improve the horse’s health;
  • There is an imminent danger of the horse dying.

Before removing a horse an officer has to have a plan.

  • A place to house the horse;
  • A means to transport the horse, truck, and trailer;
  • Experienced help with the horses to load and unload the animals;
  • A veterinarian to evaluate the animals;
  • Government personnel to obtain the seizure warrant and any other necessary legal documents;

Once everything is in place, the officer can now legally remove the horses from its owner. Upon arrival, they serve the owner with the warrant and catch the horses.

The horses and the conditions they are living are photographed. A complete vet check of the animals is performed, not only for their well being but also to document their status if the vet is needed to testify in court.

Rescuing horses is not an easy business, and it can at times be quite dangerous. But it can also be tremendously rewarding, after you’ve worked with the appropriate officials and followed the established laws, to see suffering horses get the help they need and deserve.

The rewards are even greater when you get to watch these horses settle happily into new and loving homes. 

Abuse occurs in horse training.

Trainers are under pressure to win, some at any cost and will abuse their horses to reach their goal. The following are training methods that are unacceptable:

picture of a horse tied and waiting for training,
  • Hang-tying- This is a training method designed to promote a lower head carriage.
  • Extensive Riding or lunging;
  • Spurring, to the point of bleeding or causing indentations ;
  • Jerking on the reins especially with a severe bit causing injury to the mouth and tongue;
  • Forceful pulling and jerking on the lead shank;
  • Whipping or beating, the horse either from the saddle or the ground,
  • Hitting the horse around the head, with a solid weapon.
  • Tying a horse in a bent position for hours;
  • Restricting food or water to teach submissiveness.

Animal abuse happens in the horseracing industry.

Racehorses can be mistreated, through the abuse of drugs, injuries, and overtraining. Some trainers and owners put purse money over the health of their horses. Some examples of abusive practices include:

  • Racehorses started on the track too young leading to injury;
  • Drug use to keep horses running through pain and injury;
  • Selling ex-racehorses to slaughterhouses;

Horse Abuse Statistics.

The four most commonly abused animals are dogs, cats, livestock, and horses. It is difficult to get accurate statistics on the number of horse abuse cases in the United States because there is not a general reporting mechanism in place. However, below is some interesting statistics:

  • Men under 30 are most likely to intentionally injure horses;
  • Women over 60 are most likely to injure horses through abuse and neglect related to hoarding;
  • Four states do not have a felony charge for first-time animal abuse.
  • Seven states do not have a zero-tolerance policy law relating to animal abuse;
  • Many states laws do not address issues of neglect but are only designed to punish severe animal cruelty;
  • Some states animal cruelty laws do not include coverage for livestock;
  • Domestic horse slaughter was banned in 2006, before this it generated over $65 million;
  • Horse slaughter has dropped by 50% since 1989;
  • 70% of horse rescue operations are operating a full capacity;
  • 40% of horses brought to rescues are not because of a lack of space.
  • Horse abandonment has risen over 60% in some states;

Helpful Links to report Horse Abuse.

To check the laws in your state you can click here and follow the links

To report Horse Abuse click this link for the Humane Society.

To report Animal Abuse in Louisiana click here or here

To report Animal Abuse to the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s office click here

The animal defense fund provides a ranking of each state’s animal protection laws.

The importance of reporting animal abusers expressed by Rachel Touroo, DVM, is informative: “Crimes against animals affect more than just animals,” she said. “There is a strong and established link between human violence and animal cruelty. Crimes against animals can be a warning sign of future violent acts, and individuals who witness animal cruelty can become desensitized to violence. Animal abuse may also occur in conjunction with other crimes such as domestic violence and the illegal sales of drugs and guns.”

Related articles:

  • To find out if it’s legal to ride your horse on the road click here.
  • Are racehorses mistreated, click here to find out.
  • For information on how long racehorses live to click here
  • Click here to learn about the proper weight for your horse.
  • Why are racehorses so young, click here to find out.

Although Sonja Bradley is an attorney the information provided in this article is not legal advice. Sonja Bradley is an attorney licensed in the State of Louisiana, click here to visit her website.