FAQ Horse Care Tips

How to Help Horses in Need: A Veterinarian’s Perspective

helping horses in need

An interview with author Dr. Stacie Boswell

If you’re a Horse Rookie reader, you undoubtedly love these beautiful animals and want the best for them. It can be hard to understand how anyone could neglect, or downright abuse, horses — yet it does happen. In the United States, alone, almost 150,000 horses per year are “unwanted” due to no fault of their own. 

Unfair? Yes. Disheartening? Definitely. Hopeless? Not according to Dr. Stacie Boswell of Bozeman, Montana. She’s the author of a comprehensive horse care reference called The Ultimate Guide for Horses in Need, which walks readers through the care and rehabilitation of a rescue horse step-by-step.

We caught up with Dr. Boswell to chat about her advice for those helping struggling horses achieve healthy and happy lives.

Knowledge is Horsepower™, so order your copy at Trafalgar Square Books today.

Ultimate Guide to Horses in Need Book

Click to order your copy

Helping You Help Horses

What motivates you to educate others about “unwanted” horses?

I truly believe that the vast majority of people want to do the right thing for their animals. At the time I began writing this book, there was no consolidated resource for how to care for horses in crisis, and that was a big challenge.

If you get a horse, and go to look for a single book about how to properly take care of it, it’s hard to find relevant information. So how on earth are you supposed to know what to do?

Rescuing a horse adds a whole different layer of complexity to care and training.

I’ve seen many good horsemen and women with the best of intentions make mistakes, or simply not know what to look for or how to care for complicated horses. The Ultimate Guide for Horses in Need is my way of helping others help these special animals.

stacie boswell with her horse

Dr. Boswell’s love for horses runs deep

At a high level, how can you help an abused horse?

With respect to training, the foundation must be patience! The most important training tool is to become well versed in reading horse behavior and body language.

The slower we go with training, the faster we’ll reach our ultimate destination — deep trust between horse and human. Most positive reinforcement training advocates recommend no more than 10 minutes per training session (as far as ground work tasks such as haltering, leading, clipping, hoof handling, etc.).

It’s also critical to make sure the horse is not in pain — that he is in good shape physically — before you progress from ground work to riding.

Common “rookie mistakes”:

  • Not waiting on the horse in the short term. Instead, give him time to think.
  • Not waiting on the horse in the long term. Instead, give him time to grow and develop confidence.
  • Not recognizing pain that is preventing him from progressing. Instead, consult an experienced equine veterinarian.
  • Not getting help when you feel stuck in your training program. Instead, consult a trusted trainer.

How do you bond with an abused horse?

Providing food, water, shelter, and consistency will establish a baseline that abused horses can rely on. As you develop trust and are fair to him through handling, groundwork, and training, your bond will grow.

Common “rookie mistakes”:

  • Excusing a horse’s behavior because he has been “abused,” rather than fairly correcting it.
  • Only having the horse (or donkey or mule) handled by one person rather than socializing him.
  • Focusing on your horse’s past instead of what his life can be like in the future.
sad chestnut horse

Bonding takes time and patience. (Source: Pixabay)

How do you put weight on a starved horse?

“Refeeding syndrome” is when the horse’s metabolic processes go awry as he shifts from using his own fat and muscle stores for energy (i.e. starving) to being able to utilize provided feed for energy.

Starving horses can die if fed too much too soon, and the first two weeks put them at the highest risk of refeeding syndrome.

Horses are at highest risk if they:

  • Have a body condition score (BCS) of less than 3 out of 9
  • Have not had access to food for about a week – even if his BCS is normal
  • Have lost more than 10% of his body weight in less than 8 weeks
  • Exhibit other concomitant metabolic problems

The primary mistake people make — and it can cost a horse its life — is to over-feed a skinny horse too soon and/or with an inappropriate feed choice.

It’s very important to use alfalfa, and start slowly, as outlined next. We have to re-set the horse’s metabolism before we can work on weight gain, otherwise the horse could die of refeeding syndrome. Feeding grain, grass hay, treats (especially those high in sugar) complicates the return of normal metabolic function, which can ultimately result in death.

I also strongly recommend using a weight tape for monitoring purposes. Remember that it takes months to lose weight, so it also takes months to put weight back on. Even if you’re managing feeding properly, the horse will still appear skinny for quite a while.

It can take a year to fully rehabilitate a previously-starved horse to a healthy horse.

Weight tape monitoring helps a caretaker to see that progress is being made, even when it’s not obvious to the naked eye since we look at the horse daily.

horse weight tape

Using weight tape on a horse (Photo from Stacie Boswell)

horse weight tape

Reading horse weight tape (Photo from Stacie Boswell)

UC Davis’ Recommendations for Refeeding a Starved Horse:

  • Days 1-3: For an “average” sized horse, feed one pound (approximately 1/6 flake) of high-quality alfalfa every four hours (total of six pounds per day in six feedings). A salt block can be offered, though with caution initially. He should always have access to clean, fresh water. Note: Some horses cannot eat hay and must be fed with soaked alfalfa pellets.
  • Days 4-10: Slowly increase the amount of alfalfa and decrease the number of feedings so that by Day 6 you are feeding just over four pounds of hay every eight hours (total of 13 pounds per day in three feedings).
  • Day 10 and for several months: Feed as much alfalfa as the horse will eat and decrease feeding to twice a day. Grass hay can be slowly added in after about a month.
horse grass pellets senior feed

Horse eating grass pellets and senior feed (Photo from Stacie Boswell)

soaked alfalfa pellets

Soaked alfalfa pellets (Photo from Stacie Boswell)

moist alfalfa pellets

Moist alfalfa pellets (Photo from Stacie Boswell)

Here is a helpful article about how to rehabilitate a starved horse by Dr. Carolyn Stull, Extension Animal Welfare Specialist at the University of California.

Common “rookie mistakes”:

  • Feeding too much at once.
  • Feeding grass hay instead of alfalfa, as recommended.
  • Feeding grain too soon.
  • Not monitoring with a weight tape.
  • Not offering pelleted feed or enough pelleted food.

How do you know when a horse is healthy again?

Horses always have ongoing health care needs, but here are some questions to consider:

  • Is he a body condition score around 5?
  • Is he maintaining his weight?
  • Is he getting along in the herd and does he seem happy?
  • A grouchy horse may have a painful problem.
    • Are his hooves and coat normal?
    • If he had injuries, have they healed?
    • Does he have a cough or nasal discharge?
    • Is his fecal output normal?

There are extreme cases where a previously starved horse will need long-term special needs for health maintenance. Consult your veterinarian for advice.

Common “rookie mistakes”:

  • Ignoring or not recognizing a health and/or weight problem.
  • Consulting the internet instead of your horse’s veterinarian.
  • Assuming that hitting a good weight is the horse’s sole health need.
healthy white horse

Few things are as rewarding as bringing a horse back to health. (Source: Pixabay)

Fire season hit close to home this year in Montana. What should equestrians know about wildfire preparation and evacuation for horses?

As horse owners, we should all be prepared with a “go bucket.” If you have the opportunity to evacuate your horses early, DO IT. Horses should be trained to load in trailers under all circumstances, not just on calm and sunny days. They should load if it’s nighttime, raining, snowing, or windy.

I know there are lots of people that don’t own trailers, so if not, make sure you have a plan (and a backup plan!) for emergency transport.

Common “rookie mistakes”:

  • Lack of preparation and planning.
  • Horses that don’t load quickly (or at all) in trailers.
  • Not having your trailer ready or an alternative travel plan in place.

Planning is the best wildfire prevention (Source: Pixabay)

What are some good ways for readers to get involved with horse rescue and rehabilitation?

Oh my gosh, so many things come to mind! First and foremost, it would broadly help to have more people in the horse community recognize the continued value of horses that end up in difficult situations.

A lot of time, it’s the result of pure bad luck. For example, Mustangs can be excellent horses. Yet, I know many horse people who say they would never want one. These animals are starving to death and overpopulated in many of the Bureau of Land Management areas, and I would love to see more of them have homes.

On a smaller scale, individuals can help on many levels — donate, volunteer, support local rescues, foster a rescue horse, or adopt and show off your rescue.

The EquiSave foundation has an annual award for a rescue horse who has excelled in the show ring, and I’d love to see more rescues getting this type of recognition! 

What is one “rookie mistake” you made that has made you a better advocate for horses?

The first story in the book, the one about the older couple without the resources to take care of their horse, still makes me wish I had been able to communicate with them more clearly about the dangers of refeeding syndrome.

Perhaps if I had worked harder to find resources to help rehabilitate the horse, she might be alive today with the people who love her. My failure to save this particular horse really inspired my entire book.

Click here to order The Ultimate Guide for Horses in Need.

What do you wish you could change about the equestrian community?

I wish that we could more easily put ourselves in other people’s shoes and not be so judgmental.

We never know the whole story, and we could help a lot more horses by focusing on helping the people who own them.

It would also be great if we could welcome more people into the horse world, too, especially “rookies” who may be beginners or may not ever intend to ride. These folks can offer great homes for horses in need or become excellent volunteers at rescue organizations.

horse riders

We decide how welcoming the horse community will be. (Source: Pixabay)

What is your favorite horse comeback story?

Years ago, when I first started practicing veterinary medicine, I worked as a Veterinary Technician in an equine practice in Northern Virginia. Our clients often competed at Devon, Rolex, and the Olympics. I don’t remember now whose horse it was, but one of the owners showed me before and after pictures of the animal.

The before picture showed an unkept, emaciated wisp of a horse. The after picture showed a horse in excellent shape; a true athlete.

This horse’s comeback is seared into my mind because it was the first time I realized that luck and circumstance greatly affect how well a horse lives and who he is able to become.

Parting Thoughts

It can feel overwhelming to take on an abused or neglected horse and try to bring it back to health. But armed with the proper knowledge, patience, and a support system of experts, you can make a difference. Whether you decide to volunteer at a rescue, foster an animal in need, or contribute in other ways, the horses you help will lead better lives because of you!

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About the author


Dr. Stacie G. Boswell is a practicing veterinarian board-certified in large animal surgery. She has a special passion for rescue horses and helping educate those caring for them to ensure success. She is a lifetime member of the American Paint and the American Quarter Horse Associations, participates in National Reining Horse Association events. She and her husband, Sid are active members of the Backcountry Horsemen of America (BHCA). BCHA is a national organization of volunteers who keep trails maintained and open to equestrian access.