Updated June 18, 2021
If you are planning on providing lifelong care for horses, either in a sanctuary or microsanctuary environment, the hands-on training you’ll need and the standard care practices you must develop for your residents are much more rigorous than what non-sanctuary horse resources may have led you to believe! Taking in horses without having the appropriate skills and policies in place could threaten their health and well-being, as well as the health of other residents at your sanctuary.
This introductory resource is not intended to dissuade you from rescue, but merely provide a perspective on what a sanctuary must be able to commit to in order to provide the best life for a horse.
Horse Care That Should Be Taught By An Expert
Responsible horse care means being able to fully understand and perform safe handling and healthcare techniques, as well as being able to react rapidly and effectively in the event of an emergency. Anyone who is in charge of regularly providing care to horses should be taught the following techniques from a compassionate horse care expert or a qualified veterinarian.
- Performing a horse health examination: All of the horses in your care need to be regularly examined from their head to their hooves in order to catch any health problems early on for successful treatment. An expert or veterinarian can give you hands-on training so you can give examinations quickly, efficiently, and with the least stress possible for the horse.
- Safely being around and handling a horse: There are a number of nuances that an expert must demonstrate for you in order to prevent potentially serious health and safety consequences from mishandling a horse or misjudging their behavior. Certain individual horses may require unique handling techniques, due to their size, personality, history of trauma, or health status.
- Knowing the normal ranges for heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature.
- Understanding the safe range of joint motions in horses: When performing health examinations on horses, it’s important to check their leg and joint flexibility and check for signs of pain, infection, inflammation, or arthritis. You must have an expert demonstrate for you how to check the range of motion in their bodies without causing injury and teach you what a healthy horse looks and feels like. This way, you can be the best advocate possible for them if something feels or looks amiss.
- Evaluating a horse’s foot and hoof health: Horses can develop a number of foot and hoof problems throughout their lives, either as a result of overgrown hooves, genetics, environmental problems, infection, or old age. Failing to identify horse foot issues early could lead to permanent injury and a greatly reduced quality of life for the individual horse.
- Evaluating a horse’s droppings: Abnormal horse droppings can be a warning sign that something is amiss in them, be it a problem with their nutrition, an illness, or a parasitic infection. It’s important to learn what healthy horse poop typically looks like for the individual horses in your care throughout the day so that abnormalities can be caught and evaluated early on. Early intervention for many horse health issues can be lifesaving.
- Cleaning and trimming a horse’s hooves: Regular cleaning and safe trimming are health essentials for horses that someone at your sanctuary must be able to regularly perform, or a farrier must be regularly available to perform trimming. Improper technique could hurt or permanently injure a horse. Whether to shoe a resident, depends a lot on their hoof health and other health conditions, with some requiring orthopedic shoes. Others may require them in special circumstances. Many horses do not need to wear shoes at all. In fact, shoeing them may cause injury.
- Foot illness management in horses: Foot illnesses such as thrush are highly common in horses. If left untreated, the illness could cause permanent damage. Treatment is dependent on the kind of infection and how much its progressed into the horse’s foot. Failure to learn appropriate foot and hoof treatment techniques could potentially lead to greater health problems than the infection itself.
- Treating mites, flies, parasites, and lice in horses: Although it may seem straightforward to treat individuals for these problems, you should have someone demonstrate dosage and technique until you are fully comfortable with treatment (and know when not to treat for parasites to prevent resistant strains from propagating). Some horses may become seriously ill or die if they are exposed to too much pesticide or anti-parasitic medication. Flies around horses must also be managed with effective strategies, as they can spread serious diseases like pink eye.
- Handling colic: You must learn exactly what to do if a horse is suffering from colic, including rapid evaluation and response if necessary. If a horse is exhibiting signs of extreme distress, you may have a limited time to administer lifesaving treatment. A veterinarian may not to be able to come to you in time, so caregivers must receive training on what to do long before any emergencies.
- Administering oral and injectable medications and gastric intubation for horses: You must be shown how to safely administer oral medications to a horse without causing them undue stress or accidentally choking them, and must also be shown how to administer injectable medications. While oral medications are often preferred and administration is less stressful to both the horse and the human, there are instances when an injection is necessary, so you must learn how to administer properly. Gastric intubation (such as to intervene in cases of bloat- often associated with colic or grain poisoning) absolutely must be taught by an expert. The threshold for lethal mistakes is very high due to their biology.
Necessary Practices For Responsible Horse Guardianship
In order to provide the best care possible for horses, you must have the proper policies and practices in place, in addition to providing them with the best environment and nutrition possible.
- Establishing regular record keeping policies for horses: Keeping detailed records of horse residents from intake until they leave your sanctuary is a crucial part of giving them the best healthcare as well as providing an extra layer of legal protection to your sanctuary in certain circumstances.
- Creating and following a new horse arrival protocol: Herd safety means following practical biosecurity and quarantine guidelines when you bring a new resident horse onto your sanctuary grounds. Failing to have an appropriate intake process could pose a serious risk to your residents.
- Daily checkups for each individual: Although it does not have to be as rigorous as a health examination, each of the individual horses you take in must be visually looked over at least once a day (such as during feeding time) to watch out for early signs of illness or other health concerns. It is not responsible to take in horses and not be able to provide this minimum standard of care for each of them.
- Advocating for alternatives to horse riding: There are many ways to enjoy time with horses, help them get the exercise they need, and build a special human-horse bond that doesn’t rely on riding, which can cause a host of welfare problems.
- Establishing a vaccine protocol: Talk to your veterinarian to see what vaccines they recommend based on your area. Many sanctuaries vaccinate for Rabies, Tetanus, Encephalomyelitis, and West Nile. Depending on your location and the age and risk level of your resident equines, vaccinations for Herpesvirus, Strangles, and Influenza should be considered as well. Be sure your veterinarian fully understands your mission and how the sanctuary functions. There are certain vaccines that might be recommended to most of their clients, but are not necessary for horses who will never breed or who spend most of their lives at the sanctuary rather than frequently going to exhibitions where they are exposed to many other animals with unknown backgrounds.
- Regular fecal testing of horses: Horses can fall victim to a host of dangerous ailments and diseases that may not present symptoms visibly until they’re too late to treat. You must create a fecal testing schedule and follow it for all horses in order to head off health challenges early on.
- Create a plan for isolation or quarantine: If a horse becomes ill or injured and needs time away from the rest of your residents to heal or prevent the spread of disease, you should have an appropriate area reserved to isolate them. Without space to isolate an ill or injured resident, you risk the spread of disease or further injury to the individual.
What You Must Provide For Horses
Responsible horse care means making sure that their food, water, and shelter is provided and maintained to a high standard. It is important to think about what a sanctuary means in terms of providing living spaces. There are many different living area setups for horses and not all of them are ideal. Similarly, the nutrition you provide for them should be considered in terms of what works best for them, rather than what’s easiest!
- Providing appropriate living spaces for horses: You must give horses an appropriate home, with sunlight, clean air, appropriate temperature and humidity control, and horse-safe fencing. They should have a safe place to roam and run, and enjoy enriching activities. Forcing horses to live in cramped, dark, muddy, dirty, icy, or dangerous conditions is unacceptable. You should never take in so many horses that they lack adequate personal space!
- Providing appropriate food, water, and supplementation for horses: You must feed horses a healthy diet suited to their individual needs. They need access to clean water that ideally doesn’t freeze over in the winter, appropriate forage or hay, minerals, and, depending on your residents’ specific needs, nutritional supplementation. It’s unacceptable to knowingly feed them food that causes health problems or excessive weight gain. You must be willing to adjust their food and supplementation if a horse needs their diet modified to rectify health challenges as well.
- Regular cleaning and maintenance of horse living spaces: You must establish and follow a regular cleaning schedule for the spaces where horses live and sleep. Ignoring regular cleaning and bedding replacement can cause horses to develop a host of easily avoidable illnesses such as thrush, parasites, or social challenges like bullying.
- Protecting residents from predators: It is unacceptable to create living spaces that do not offer responsible protection from regional predators. You must implement strategies to prevent predators from entering their living space and regularly review the effectiveness of your efforts. Familiarize yourself with the various predators in your area to assess whether or not certain residents should be brought in overnight for additional protection. Young foals are especially vulnerable, so it’s a good idea to close them into a safe space overnight until they get a bit bigger.
- Creating and maintaining indoor living spaces with rodent-proofing in mind: Just as you must protect your residents from predators, it is important to create indoor living spaces that discourage or make it difficult for rodents to take up residence in them. Mice and rats can not only potentially spread disease to residents, they can also cause safety issues by damaging electrical wires (which could result in a fire) or getting into insulation (and creating opportunities for residents to ingest insulation). Severe rat infestations can also result in physical harm to vulnerable residents such as young foals or individuals with mobility issues. Be sure to design the space so that any insulation and electrical wires are contained in such a way that rodents cannot access them, avoid (or regularly check) gaps that could easily be turned into a cozy nest, and make sure any supplies that may attract rodents are sealed in metal bins (especially food or sweetened minerals). Making the space completely “rodent-proof” likely is not possible since the space will be open for residents to come and go for at least a portion of the day, but you can take steps to make it less likely that they will build themselves a cozy home inside your residents’ home.
- Regular hardware disease mitigation: You need to keep horses safe from hardware disease by regularly checking their areas for potentially dangerous materials that they may ingest.
- Poisonous plant mitigation: You need to inspect pastures and paddocks for poisonous plants and remove any that may be a danger to horse residents. See The Open Sanctuary Project’s Global Toxic Plant Database for more information on plants that are toxic to horses.
- Honoring the needs of younger or older horses: Horses that are very young or older have unique care needs that must be accommodated in order to thrive. You should not take in horses with special care requirements until you understand what they need and have an appropriate environment and policies in place for them!
- Providing appropriate veterinary care and medication for horses: When you give sanctuary to a horse, you are committing to providing them a high quality of life and individual care. Part of this means having a qualified equine veterinarian who understands horse care and is willing to treat health problems, manage pain, and provide compassionate end of life care when necessary. It is unacceptable to take in horses and deny them medical attention or withhold pain management.
This is not an exhaustive list of everything you must know and provide for horses in a sanctuary environment. Individual horses may have their own needs and challenges that require additional training and policies to give them the best life possible!