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April 24, 2009

Horse Power

When horses are endangered or abused, it demands the attention of the American public—and of The HSUS. These symbols of freedom, beauty and companionship hold a special place in the hearts of many Americans and in recent weeks, in different parts of the country, the plight of horses—from the deaths of 21 polo ponies in Florida to this week’s rescue of 200 mustangs found starving on a Nebraska ranch—has captured the headlines.

On Tuesday we received a call for help from Habitat for Horses, one of the nation’s largest equine rescue organizations, requesting urgent assistance. We had just 12 hours to gather a response team of expert equine handlers and report to Alliance, Neb. Transporting and properly caring for a herd of large animals is no small feat and it took the coordinated efforts of several animal welfare groups from across the country, as well as the assistance of the local equine community.

Scotlund Haisley, HSUS Emergency Services, feeds a rescued horse in Nebraska
© The HSUS
Emergency Services' Scotlund Haisley feeds a rescued mustang.

The HSUS was charged with the task of securing horse trailers, equine handlers, medical supplies, food, and sheltering supplies. In less than 12 hours our Emergency Services team, with tremendous efforts from our animal cruelty case worker Jackie Beckstead, had gathered a response team and the needed resources and set off for Nebraska.

At the ranch, they found emaciated, hollow-eyed mustangs. Many were so weak they could not make their way to the bales of hay that were spread out. These horses had obviously been denied proper nutrition and medical care for some time. Tragically, the team also discovered some 60 carcasses of horses who had likely starved to death.

The exhaustive work of our logistics team and an outpouring of support from the local community allowed us to gather enough manpower and equipment to transport the 200 surviving animals to a temporary home at the local fairgrounds. After they recover, good homes and green pastures await them.

As the emergency team was wrapping up its assignment, Keith Dane, our director of Equine Protection, was in Wellington, Fla. to investigate the suspected poisoning of the 21 Venezuelan ponies and encourage increased oversight and better protections for polo horses. Though definitive toxicology tests are still to come, news reports indicate a pharmacy incorrectly prepared medication that was administered to the animals.

The deaths have thrust into the open the sport’s absence of drug policies and regulation. With no current prohibitions or testing requirements for the use of drugs or other performance-enhancing substances, it is our hope that the polo establishment will soon begin to implement reforms. It’s best if the industry embraces these reforms and implements them immediately.

Finding better ways was high on the agenda earlier this month when, in partnership with the Animal Welfare Institute, we held the third annual Homes for Horses conference in Las Vegas (in conjunction with our Animal Care Expo). Dozens of representatives from equine sanctuaries and rescues and national animal welfare groups spent two days discussing the needs and challenges facing the equine rescue community in these difficult economic times. The challenge: how can we better assist our nation’s at-risk equines, work more effectively together, and amplify our efforts to help more horses.

A highlight of the conference was the announcement of a forthcoming accreditation program for equine rescues and sanctuaries. This program will help raise the standard of professionalism and care across the equine rescue community and hopefully help prevent situations like that in Nebraska.

Our work to help horses involves small cases and large, from rescue to assisting with cruelty cases to finding permanent homes for horses needing another chance. But it also looks at the big-picture issues, from ending equine slaughter, to protecting wild horses and burros on our public lands, to stopping cruelty to Tennessee Walking Horses, to lifting standards at sanctuaries and rescues, to educating the public and media about responsible horse ownership.

Wherever horses need help, they’ll have a powerful ally in The HSUS and its equine programs.

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