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Equine Rehabilitation

Rehabilitating a rescued horse can be a very rewarding experience. However it can be a long and difficult process that may not achieve the results you wanted, therefore careful informed planning is imperative to ensure the horse's welfare for the rest of its life.

What do the terms rescue and rehabilitate actually mean?

Rescue implies freeing from imminent danger by prompt or vigorous action.

Rehabilitate means restoring or bringing to a condition of health or useful and constructive activity.

From a horse welfare perspective, rescue may mean assisting a horse below a body condition score of two on the Condition score chart for horses.

From a concerned horse lover's point of view, it can mean taking on a horse that no one wants, or a horse that no one is looking after, on an ongoing basis.

Most of the time it refers to a horse that someone is giving away because:

Rescuing a horse from a saleyard or knackery

Some would argue that buying a horse from the saleyard or knackery is rescuing it. However, horses are often sent to the sales or knackeries for a good reason. Sometimes issues cannot be fully identified within the saleyard or knackery environment, including:

It is not until the new owner gets the horse home, and undertakes the rehabilitation process, that many of these issues come to light.

If these problems arise down the track, there is a risk that a horse rescued from the saleyards or knackery will end up there again.

While the thought of a horse at the saleyards is unpleasant, the horse has a humane ending in sight. Otherwise, the horse may be recycled through the saleyards, numerous owners and potentially face neglect, before finally ending up back at the knackery anyway.

What to consider

Before you even consider taking on the task of rehabilitating a horse you need to look at your experience, resources and more importantly your motivations for doing so.

Be fully aware that the various outcomes of rehabilitating a horse may not match your own expectations.

Situations can arise that you may not have anticipated. For example, you may plan to ride the horse once it has been rehabilitated. However, this may be prevented by a recurring injury or behavioural problem may surface during or after rehabilitation.

Have you considered what you will do after spending so much time and money? During the course of rehabilitation the horse could become ill and need ongoing veterinary care. Can you afford this?

Generally, as horses get older they require more care and attention than younger horses, particularly if they have been neglected at some stage in their life.

A plan for unforeseen circumstances, including euthanasia, should be in place before you acquire a horse for rehabilitation.

Once you have addressed these issues, you will need to have a good understanding of what is actually required to rehabilitate a neglected horse.

Requirements for rehabilitating a neglected horse

Neglect can present in varying degrees, and the requirements for each horse may be different. Each situation needs to be treated as an individual case. These are some requirements to consider:

  1. Is a horse that has been neglected fit to travel?
    You need to be familiar with the Code of Practice for the Land Transport of Horses (Victoria). The Code outlines requirements regarding the condition of horses able to be transported. The main areas for consideration include body condition, injury and illness.
  2. Do you have appropriate facilities to begin the rehabilitation process?
    You need a small yard or small paddock where the horse can be kept on its own for the first few weeks. This yard will need a shelter that the horse can walk in and out of as it chooses. Ensure you can monitor the horse several times a day.
  3. Do you understand a horse's feeding and health management requirements?
    The horse needs access to good quality pasture hay and clean water. It is important to ensure that at all stages the majority (80 per cent or more) of the horse's diet is roughage (hay and/or chaff) for healthy gut function.Veterinarian advice and guidance for any feeding and health management program is strongly recommended.

Example general feed and care program

Keep in mind you don't know this horse and what experiences it has had before. Remember to take care with tying up, rugging, washing, picking up feet and other handling procedures.

Week 1

Week 2

Weeks 3 to 6


Post rehabilitation: The next step

Once the rehabilitation process has been completed, you need to decide if you are going to keep the horse or rehouse it. If the horse has met your expectations and will suit your purpose, a loving and caring home with you for the remainder of the horse's life might be the best decision.

If you rehabilitate the horse with the intention of rehousing it, it is best to lease the horse to the new home with a "no questions asked" return policy. This enables you to properly ensure that the new home is suitable and to keep track of the horse to ensure that it does not become neglected again.

Before rehousing a rehabilitated horse, thorough training and assessment (including veterinary assessment) after rehabilitation is imperative. This is to ensure the horse is appropriate for re-housing.

If, after rehabilitation, the horse did not meet your expectations and you can no longer keep, it you will have to consider your options.

Remember, the horse's welfare must be a priority. If it has major behavioural issues or ongoing health problems you need to be realistic about its future.

Some points to consider are:

  1. Will someone pay to feed and care for an aged horse that they can't ride? (Most often these horses become neglected as the owner loses interest in the horse.)
  2. Are its behavioural problems considered dangerous?
  3. Does it need special care that a new owner might find difficult to continue?

If the horse is only useful as a companion and you want to rehouse it, make sure you can guarantee the home it is going to. A lease arrangement is ideal in this situation.

If you can't guarantee a suitable home, euthanasia must be considered. This will ensure the horse does not suffer unnecessarily and end up back in the situation you found it in. This is particularly important if you obtained the horse from the sales or knackery, as it is was most likely there for a reason.

It is much kinder to have a horse humanely euthanised (preferably at home) than to risk it suffering in the wrong home.