Dumped horses need care

No precise figures are kept on how many horses are abandoned each year in France but rescuers struggle to find them new homes. Maltreatment or simple lack of care can leave them with behavioural problems but Samantha David spoke to one charity that works to ‘cure’ and rehome them

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The animal charity SPA is opened a new horse refuge in Normandy in late 2015 and had 150 horses even before its doors opened – and the same problem is repeated in miniature across France.

SPA could only guess that several hundred horses are abandoned each year because no one keeps precise figures as equine rescue charities are usually small and local and work in isolation.

Each says their task is never-ending.

There are always horses in distress; injured or ill, neglected, maltreated, homeless. Many charities have to lock their paddocks at night, not to stop horses being stolen but to stop more unwanted horses being dumped.

One charity, ASHA (Association Saint Hippolyte Aquitaine) works to do more than just rescue them - it re-educates and tries to re-home them.

ASHA was started five years ago after a horse was dumped at Helen Green’s farm near Villeréal in Lot-et-Garonne.

Its belly was swollen with worms, it had an umbilical hernia, was underfed, its hooves had grown so long it could barely walk and it looked as if it had never been groomed.

Mrs Green said: “I already had my own horses so it wasn’t possible to adopt him on my own but I wanted to give him a chance so I called friends and asked them to help and the upshot of it was we started a horse rescue charity.”

She has been working with horses for years, using an ethological (behavioural) approach to rehabilitate even those with difficult temperaments.

“Ethology is the study of horse behaviour and psychology, which helps eliminate so-called behaviour problems because usually it’s the owner who is the problem, not the horse,” said Mrs Green.

“I do a stint in the US once a year, training students in horse rescue centres, because horses so often end up in these places due to behavioural problems but, as we know, their real problems are owners who have failed to communicate with them clearly.”

In her early days in the US she realised horses needed more than just nursing back to health. “I met a Mustang mare who was found combing the bins in Colorado but no-one could get near her.

“Everyone said she was so aggressive she’d have to be put down but I saw she was blind in one eye and so was always rolling her eyes and people were misinterpreting her expressions.

“I was riding her within two days, but a year later when I went back, no-one had done anything more with her and she was still at the rescue centre.

“That’s when I realised that re-training horses and rehabilitating them so they could find new homes would be better than simply filling a refuge up with horses and just keeping them forever.

“Healthy, fit horses kept in a confined space and not ridden or trained just get bored,” she said. “Refuges are better than nothing but horses benefit more if they are with other horses, and even more if they are being ridden.”

Mrs Green had already gained a reputation locally for looking after horses when Dido was abandoned outside her farm.

“Whoever did it knew I’d find it hard to turn him away. He was only a yearling and was very weak and ill. I think he’d been kept inside all his life.

But within 10 weeks, he was prancing around happy to be alive.

“He was sociable and really wanted to live. As in so many cases, I think he was neglected rather than ill-treated.

He wasn’t scared but he hadn’t started any sort of training or education and wasn’t used to being handled at all.”

The friends and neighbours who clubbed together to help pay for Dido’s rehabilitation realised that they needed to set up a not-for-profit association for other such horses and so ASHA began.

“We get one or two enquiries a month and we try to offer help so people can keep their horses. So often, people try to give their horses away because of behavioural problems but when we show them how to overcome the problem, they’re happy to keep them.

“People take on horses without understanding just how much money, work and commitment they require.

You can’t just put a horse in a field and think it’ll be all right. At the very least, horses need daily checks, their feet need regular attention, and they have to be wormed and groomed.”

The charity also follows up reports it receives from the public about horses who appear to be neglected. Volunteer Christine Milligan has researched French law on animal neglect so the group know the right steps to take.

The first is to have an informal look at the horse from the road and take photos and, then, if the animal’s welfare causes concern, to report it to the mairie (which has a legal responsibility to look into neglect).

“Sometimes they don’t want to but mostly they are pretty good and usually it just takes a letter pointing out the requirements of the law and then something gets done,” said Mrs Green.

“A lot of neglect is ignorance and if you approach people with a nice attitude then most are easy to deal with.

We don’t judge, we just want to help them take care of their horses properly.”

The most common issues stems from owners not being able to catch their horses, which leads to neglected hooves, especially with donkeys.

“People don’t even know they should be looking after their equines’ feet. We get some younger horses, under five say, which have never been handled or trained at all! People think little ponies are cute and sweet but if they’re not trained they can be very headstrong.”

ASHA adopts three to four horses a year with a view to getting them re-homed as soon as they are ready.

Prospective owners visit and work with their chosen horse once a week or once a fortnight and, when ready, take the horse on a three-month trial. Finally, they can adopt them in return for a donation.