Not all state animal welfare codes require rental stables to be monitored through regular inspection. Vacationing horseback riders can aid in monitoring, knowing when and how to report suspected neglect or abuse.
If you’re like most horse lovers, you like to trail ride when you go on vacation. Rental stables, called “dude strings” in the West, rent horses by the hour and are easy to find in most tourist spots.
Because rental stables are not regulated at the federal level, it’s impossible to determine how many may be operating in the US. What does this lack of regulation mean for the welfare of rental horses? They depend on us, riders on vacation, to monitor the quality of care they’re provided and to quickly report violations when we suspect them.
RENTAL HORSE WELFARE LAW 101
State animal welfare codes, at a minimum, make it illegal to overwork or deprive certain classes of animals adequate food, water, or shelter. Under these laws, sheriffs and animal control officers, and sometimes welfare organizations, can investigate reports of rental horse abuse or neglect.
At the state level, only Maryland, Georgia, and Massachusetts license and inspect horse rental outfits, making sure they are meeting standards of care particular to horses for hire. Local variations of these standards may require that horses not be tied at the bit, that they be properly groomed (with special attention given to areas that come into contact with tack), and that daily records reflect the number of hours they have worked.
Beverly Raymond, who has been a stable inspector with the Maryland Department of Agriculture since the late 1970s, says when she first started inspecting stables she would see “outfits that had purchased horses at auctions, provided sustenance food only ... skinny horses with running saddle sores, standing in the sun with no shelter.” She says today this is no longer the case; Maryland’s stable licensing and inspection program has been able to improve the lot for rental horses in the state by monitoring and educating owners.
Unfortunately, in this floundering economy, it's unlikely more states will start monitoring rental stables any time soon. In fact, Michigan recently shut down its 35-year-old licensing and inspection program because of funding shortages.
For the time being, in most places you might rent a horse, think of yourself as your rented horse’s advocate. Ride not only with eyes and ears open to the beauty and sounds of nature but also to any sign of equine neglect or abuse.
IDENTIFYING NEGLECT AND ABUSE
When on the lookout for neglect or abuse, remember you are trying to identify violations of the law, not personal standards of care. Essie Rogers, Director of Education and Welfare with the Kentucky Horse Council, believes it is important to make this distinction: "The more unjustified accusations that are made, the less likely law enforcement might be to take complaints seriously." She estimates that in Kentucky about 50% of complaints prove to be valid.
Figuring out how each state defines neglect and abuse can be difficult because every state’s animal welfare code is a little different. Without access and time to study the code of the state where you’re vacationing, you’ll have to be guided by a general awareness of what is probably illegal and your intuition.
At least three types of neglect or abuse are reportable in most states:
(1) Failure to provide food and water. However, reminds Essie Rogers, “Most rental facilities will feed their horses periodically and water at a tub on a schedule, usually in the morning, mid-day, after every ride, and then allow free choice water at night. Animals may be standing without access to food and water at the time the patron is there - but as long as they appear healthy, alert, and in acceptable body condition they are most likely receiving adequate quantities of food and water.”
(2) Failure to adequately maintain a horse’s weight. Rogers clarifies that a “too skinny” horse is not one that is showing just ribs, but also "a prominence of bones, including individual vertebrae, a prominent tail head, or a dip in the neck where it joins the withers.”
Note: Don’t ever offer food or water to a rental horse, whether on or off the stable’s property. If you feed a horse that later comes down with colic, you open yourself up to prosecution from the horse's owner, Rogers says. In addition, says Gail Gantt, Assistant Abuse/Neglect Investigations Coordinator with Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society in Texas, if you feed or provide water to a needy horse you could jeopardize a case against the owner: "A judge is not going to care who fed or watered a horse, only that it's been fed or watered, and then dismiss the charges."
(3) Failure to attend to injuries. These might include hoof injuries, sores around the mouth where the bit fits, or dirty, open wounds on the legs. Lori Morton-Feazell, former Director of Animal Control at Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA in San Mateo, California, says, “horses will cut their legs from time to time but the wounds should look clean.”
You should also be on the lookout for negligence related to housekeeping or sanitation, although it may not be illegal in every state. Gail Gantt believes it’s a good idea to “treat a rental stable as you would any business: Expect it to be clean and well-kept.” You might want to report:
(1) Excess feces in or a strong ammonia smell coming from stalls;
(2) Fences in disrepair or debris lying around;
(3) Horses who are very dirty (beyond whatever dirt might accumulate from rolling on the ground) with matted manes or tails.
A good rule of thumb, concludes Gail Gantt, is to “Report anything you find alarming.”
MAKING A REPORT
You should report any suspected violation within a few days of when you noticed it, making sure to include:
(1) the name, address, and phone number of the stable;
(2) a good description of the location of the barn or field where you saw the horse(s) you are concerned about;
(3) a good description of the horse(s) you are reporting. Note color, gender, and any special markings (e.g., white stockings)
You may also want to include:
(1) Photographs. "While they can’t be submitted in court,” says Essie Rogers “they can be used to show probable cause to the investigative authorities that there is a problem."
Note: Take photographs only while on a stable’s grounds as a patron; if you sneak back onto the stable’s grounds you are trespassing on private property.
(2) Your name and contact information. Investigators will frequently accept an anonymous complaint, but they’d prefer to be able to contact you with any follow-up questions about the animal you’ve reported, or even instructions on how to find the rental stable you’ve reported.
Most investigators will ensure that your report will be kept confidential, although you may be asked if you want to volunteer to appear as a witness in court if charges are filed. If you’ve asked an investigator to contact you with the status of your report but haven’t heard back within a few days, call back; it’s a good way to make sure your complaint has been investigated.
Finally, make your complaint to either a local sheriff or animal control officer, which in every location has investigative authority, or to a welfare organization, such as an SPCA, which in some places can launch investigations. If the organization you contact can’t investigate the complaint, they’ll refer it to law enforcement. In many places, law enforcement relies on local welfare organizations to help gather and validate evidence during an investigation.
For many of us, a vacation wouldn’t be complete without a trail ride on horseback. Enjoy the experience, but remember, in most places you ride, you may be the only one monitoring your rental horse’s welfare. Make the best-educated observation you can about his treatment, and if you are as certain as you can be that he’s a victim of statutory neglect or abuse, make a thorough complaint to a legal authority or welfare group as quickly as you can.
Leith Emrich is a recreational rider and an Information Specialist who works for a nonprofit publisher in Falls Church, VA.