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The Ultimate Guide for Horses in Need by Stacie Boswell, DVM, DACVS


By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.

Subtitled “Care, Training, and Rehabilitation for Rescues, Adoptions, and Horses in Transition,” this book is oriented toward people caring for, and bringing back to health, rescued horses, but it also has a lot of valuable, general information for any horse owner to use in caring for their own horses.

In the U.S. it is estimated that almost 150,000 horses per year are unwanted. The term “unwanted horses” refers to those that are old, injured, sick, unmanageable, or fail to meet an owner’s expectations. The horse’s problem could be life-threatening or chronic or manageable.

Veterinarians, especially those who deal with unwanted horses, often see the worst kinds of problems that humans inflict on horses. Many of the photos in this book are not for the faint of heart, and there are sad tales of horses who could not be saved, as well as heartwarming tales of those who made it back to health.

Where do these unwanted horses come from?  Boswell answers, “A rescue horse comes to you from a situation where his physical or mental needs have not been met.” When the “five freedoms are not met, a horse’s situation needs improvement.” The Five Freedoms are: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

When we learn of neglected horses that have been starved, it is easy to blame and want to punish the “caretaker” who let the horses get in this condition. But Boswell tells “a cautionary tale” about an elderly couple who were so poor they could barely feed themselves, did not have enough money to feed their one remaining horse, but could neither sell nor give away the horse. Boswell writes: “Please help your neighbors. Please learn more about their struggle before assuming the worst of them.”

Boswell takes readers through the process of confiscation and how to take proper care of the rescued horse.

The chapter on trailering and bringing the rescued horse home has valuable information for all horse owners on trailer safety. The Pre-Drive Checklist and Trailer Inspection List give important steps to go through before regularly using your trailer. She says that a single-axle trailer is not as safe for hauling horses as a double-axle trailer, and that you’ll want to make sure that your trailer is level with the ground before hauling. Be aware of state and federal regulations for transport and how to reduce travel stress in your horse. “A new horse brought to the barn should be quarantined from other horses for at least three weeks,” she advises.

For those who need a review of the Henneke Body Condition Score, she devotes two full pages describing and illustrating each rating, from 1 (poor) to 9 (extremely fat), (pp.28-29).

A horse that has experienced starvation will need a carefully regulated feeding program to avoid “refeeding syndrome, a life-threatening metabolic complication that occurs when a starving horse eats too much food too soon.” She takes the reader day-by-day, week-by-week and through the long term feeding plan for the starved horse, recommending which hays and which feeds are appropriate. Included in the rehabilitation plan is a thorough dental check up and remedying any dental problems. She also gives a thorough explanation of colic in this chapter.

Next on the agenda is to manage parasites with a deworming program and to get the horse on a vaccination program. The vaccination guide is a good one for all horse owners (p. 57). Included in this chapter are photos of a horse who had outgrown his halter, causing deep facial wounds that were infested with maggots. The horse recovered, but the incident left the horse with a permanent bony deformation on the face.

Next she turns to hoof care, lameness issues, and laminitis, beginning with foot anatomy and routine hoof care. She also has a section on wounds and wound treatment. As a side note, she shows a photo of a horse with a Clostridial abscess as a result of the injection of Banamine® in the muscle. Boswell has a chart of commonly given drugs, i.e., NSAIDS, Osteoarthritis drugs, and joint injections. There are startling photos of serious wounds in this chapter, one of a joint infection in the pastern as a result of a wound (sadly, the horse could not be saved) and one of a serious injury to the poll with several small bone fragments (the horse was treated and the wound fully healed with no complications). There’s also an excellent photo guide to properly bandaging a leg (p. 82).

She has a chapter on castration – routine and complications – also addressing the “proud cut myth.” Surprisingly, some very thin mares can be pregnant, “so all rescued mares should be evaluated for this,” she recommends.

Logically following is a chapter on rescuing foals. The general information on foaling is appropriate for everyone, including examination of the newborn, and limb deformities that can happen. Included is how to care for the orphan foal. The time frame for the foaling process (p. 115) is a helpful chart to have on hand if you have pregnant mares. There’s good information here, too, on how and when to safely halter train a foal and teaching the foal to lead.

One of the worst cases that rescuers can encounter is the “down horse” – a horse that is unable to get up on its own. Here the reader can learn the reasons for a horse to be down, how to safely help a down horse get upright, and the slings that are used to help a weak horse stand.

Should a natural disaster happen, like a flood or fire, do you have an emergency plan in place for your horse? The chapter on Urgent Rescue: Working in Disasters has good advice on how to plan ahead, have transport ready, how to ID your horse, and have a medical history for your horse. The guidelines on how to “make your go bucket” (p. 135) are both handy and valuable for being prepared to quickly move your horse out of harm’s way. There are also guidelines for rescuing horses in natural disasters, Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER), as well as details of specific disasters and their equine health consequences.

Many horse owners have to make the difficult decision to euthanize their beloved horse. Her chapter on “A Good Goodbye: Euthanasia” can guide horse owners through making the decision, and then the process. “The AAEP Guidelines help make a decision about euthanasia that is fair to the horse,” she says.

Now that the complete topic of caring for horses in need has been covered, Roswell devotes Part II to training horses in need. Many of topics covered in the chapter on “How Horses Sense and Respond” will be (or should be) familiar to horse owners/trainers, including equine vision, hearing, smell, and other senses. The training principles of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and clicker training are all explained here. An important part of this chapter is dealing with horses who are fearful – how to recognize signs of fear, the fear response, as well as recognizing the signs of relaxation in the horse.

Trust is the key component in building a relationship with a horse and the next chapter is devoted to developing a foundation of trust with your horse. “Your routine should be kept as consistent as possible from day to day; rescue horses value the ability to predict how you will act.” She explains how to expose your horse to as many new objects, sights, and sounds as possible in a low stress manner and how to help the horse overcome fear. Handling the horse’s feed and legs is critical, so she explains how to train the horse for the farrier.

Next comes a chapter on halter training adult horses, along with a description of halter types and how to correctly fit them. Correct fit of the halter on a horse’s head is of upmost importance! “The halter should not rest over the facial crest nor below the nasoincisive notch, but should rest halfway between the eye and nostril.” (p. 191) Perhaps the photo of the horse with the outgrown halter should have been in this chapter. I strongly encourage folks to heed this advice, as so many times I have gone to horse shows and seen both halters and bridles so incorrectly fitted that the horse is constantly in discomfort. Properly tying horses, and teaching them to tie, is important for both the horse’s safety and the human’s safety (p. 193).

The “Patient Training” chapter covers proper leading, teaching the horse to how enter a trailer or chute while eliminating the fear factor, and the skills needed in giving a horse a physical examination, giving oral medications, and giving injections (such as vaccinations), especially how to desensitize your horse to injections.

Many folks with be familiar with the methods and tools described in doing groundwork with your horse. This chapter covers longeing, tacking up, and saddling the horse.

Finally, you are ready to ride the rescued horse! An important part of this chapter is bridle fit, which I hope all riders will read. When mounting, “the most important thing is to avoid scaring him, so you will break this process into tiny baby steps, as you have done with all other training steps” (p. 226).

More and more individuals are choosing to give an unwanted horse a second chance through purchase, adoption, or rescue. Dr. Stacie Boswell’s goal is to restore health and comfort to every horse in transition, and to help him learn how to function as the horse he is expected to be.

About the author: Stacie Boswell, DVM, DACVS is an equine veterinarian who completed five years of specialty training beyond veterinary school, earning Diplomat status with the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS). She has worked with horses in veterinary medicine in Virginia, North Carolina, New York, Tennessee, New Mexico, and Montana, completed a three-year surgical residency, and spent additional training time with pathology, radiology, anesthesia, and internal medicine specialists. She is a large animal surgeon with Hardaway Veterinary Hospital in Belgrade, Montana. She has raised and trained her own horses for over two decades, and is a lifetime member of the AQHA and APHA, and a participant in Backcountry Horsemen of America (BCHA), volunteering to keep trails open to riders and maintained in her region. Visit her website at:

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