If you see a horse lying down in a field, how can you tell if it has collapsed from exhaustion, or is simply taking a rest? How can you tell if a horse is malnourished, or just a little underweight after a long winter?

According to World Horse Welfare, 1,436 welfare concerns were raised by the public in 2018, relating to around 7,500 horses. What are the tell-tale signs that a horse is being mistreated or neglected?


Why would anyone neglect a horse?

Equine neglect is a complex problem. Very few people take on a horse with the intention of mistreating it; ignorance and irresponsibility are more likely factors than deliberate cruelty.

Some horse owners breed more horses than they can easily care for, believing they can be sold on at a profit.

However, when demand is less than supply, the breeders are left with horses that require time and money to care for properly.

If horse insurance is not purchased, some owners may not be able to afford the right level of vet care to keep a horse healthy.

Other owners may experience physical or mental illness that reduces their ability to care for a horse, or may simply not understand the level of commitment and financial resources needed to keep a horse well.

In times of economic recession, owners may struggle to afford to keep their horses and it also becomes harder to sell a horse.

In the past, the deterrents against mistreating horses were not very strong.

Enforcement of animal welfare law is not prioritised by authorities facing tight budgets, so charities and voluntary groups step in, but here too limited resources make it difficult to be effective.

From October 2020, a law requires all equines (horses, donkeys and ponies) in England, Scotland and Wales to be microchipped, with the owner’s details logged on a central database.

This should reduce mistreatment of horses by increasing accountability.

A sad looking horse knelt down in a field

How can you tell if a horse is neglected?

It’s hard to know where to draw the line between a horse being a bit shabby and where mistreatment begins. If you spot any of these signs, you should contact World Horse Welfare on 08000 480180.

  • A collapsed horse - Watch a horse for a while before deciding whether it is collapsed – it might just be having a rest!
  • Being unable to put weight on one limb - If a horse cannot put one foot to the floor or put weight on a limb, this is a cause for concern. Again, watch the horse for a while. Horses often rest hind legs by holding them aloft while standing.
  • Severe laminitis - Laminitis is a common condition among horses, but if it is severe enough to make the horse have an odd walk or lean back on its heels to take weight from their hooves, action should be taken.
  • Severe injury - If you can see a wound or injury that is causing the horse serious pain and has not been treated, you should report this.
  • Being trapped - A horse who has got stuck in fencing, a ditch or a tether needs urgent help.

Of course, in many situations you will be able to use your common sense about whether a horse is being cared for appropriately.

A horse that has been dumped by the side of the road, or left in a field with hazardous objects, needs help.

Problems such as lameness, being overweight or underweight, poor grooming and skin conditions or overgrown feet are a cause for concern but might not individually require intervention – if there are multiple issues to build a fuller picture of neglect, this should prompt you to contact the authorities.

If a horse is straying onto the road, this represents a danger to both animal and the public as it could cause a road collision. The police should be contacted urgently to deal with a horse in the road.

Horse insurance is invaluable when this happens accidentally, as the costs involved can be life changing: vet bills, potentially losing a valuable horse and facing a claim from members of the public for injury or death and damage to property.

A horse knelt down looking towards the setting sun

Issues that fall short of neglect

There are plenty of grey areas where a horse’s care is less than ideal, but not bad enough to warrant a call to World Horse Welfare.

This is a bit like parenting – someone snapping at their child or feeding them lots of junk food is not great, but you shouldn’t call social services every time you see it.

Resources for enforcing horse welfare standards are tight, so avoiding unnecessary calls wherever possible is important – it leaves the professionals free to investigate the worst cases.

Unless a horse seems to be in danger or clear distress, these issues should not be reported:

  • No rug - Horses can cope with cold temperatures much better than humans. In the UK, most horses should be able to get by without a rug in the winter.
  • No shelter - It is best practice to give horses access to shelter, but there is no legal requirement to do this and owners cannot be punished for failing to do so.
  • Tethering - Unless tethering is done in a dangerous way or poses a physical threat to a horse, it doesn’t represent mistreatment. Do not assume that a tethered horse is without food and water – owners often see to this early or late in the day.
  • No food or water - In itself, this is not enough to justify reporting a horse. If the horse seems very underweight as well as there being no food or water, this might be a cause for concern.
  • No company - Horses usually enjoy company, but there is no law against keeping a horse on its own.
  • Ragwort - This yellow-flowered weed is poisonous to both humans and horses, causing liver damage when eaten. Over time, it can accumulate in the body and cause serious damage or even death. However, it’s not something you should call welfare authorities about.
  • Poor field conditions - Unless a muddy, waterlogged field is also causing an observable physical problem for the horse, you should not take action about this.


Taking good care of your horse

Horse insurance is an essential part of caring for your horse.

As well as giving your beloved pet the food, shelter and care it needs, you also need to consider how you would afford outgoings like vet costs if your horse becomes ill.

Equine insurance means you hopefully won’t be facing a bill you will struggle to pay.

Why not get a quote from Equesure today?

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