Rescuing Horses: Good Intentions Gone Wrong

The psychology behind rescuing and hoarding horses

Jennifer Williams, MS, PhD, had just moved back to Texas after graduating with a psychology degree from Northeast Missouri State University when she met a woman needing help on her Arabian farm. Penniless and eager to work with her favorite breed, Williams jumped at the chance. She was surprised when she arrived, however, to discover the woman had about 30 horses on her 15-acre property, plus nearly 70 dogs living in her double-wide.

“At the beginning I didn’t realize how bad things were, and I thought I could help the animals,” says Williams. “After a while it became clear I couldn’t,” so she quit.

Over the next year and a half, authorities seized the animals repeatedly, but the owner would get them back and relocate. When they were seized a third time, the woman took her life just before her court date. While the county was able to place the dogs in rescues, there wasn’t a local equine rescue to award the horses to, so the woman’s son sold them off.

This tragic case of animal hoarding and mental illness was the impetus behind Williams forming her own nonprofit equine rescue. Today she has her master’s and doctorate in animal science and is the president of Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society (BEHS), in College Station, Texas.

“I’ve seen a whole lot more of these similar cases where people start out rescuing or breeding or showing horses and end up as hoarders,” she says. “Sadly, I’ve seen a few too many.”

The equine industry needs rescue facilities and sanctuaries to house, rehab, and rehome horses in need. Sometimes, however, a good thing goes bad. Let’s take a look at the psychology behind rescuing or hoarding animals and how people get in over their heads.

An Inherent Need to Help

Over the past five to 10 years, the word “rescue,” as it pertains to acquiring a horse, has almost become a fad. I “rescued” a horse off the track. I “rescued” a horse from auction.

Williams says people often come to BEHS saying they want to rescue one of the horses there—horses that might have come from bad situations but are now healthy and safe and available for adoption.

“People like that word,” she says. “It makes them feel good. In their mind, at least, they helped a horse.”

Katy Schroeder, PhD, is an assistant professor in companion animal science and the director of the Equine-­Assisted Counseling and Wellness Research Lab at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock. A lifelong equestrian, ­Schroeder is also a professional counselor and holds certifications with the Professional ­Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International as a therapeutic riding instructor and equine specialist in mental health and learning. She studies human-­companion animal interactions, with a special focus on the human-equine bond.

Recently, she’s been helping the Texas Tech Therapeutic Riding and Therapy Center staff look for horses to join their therapy herd, browsing online listings and social media posts. In the process, she says, she’s discovered many Facebook groups in which people have come together in an organized effort to rescue horses headed to auction, where they’re at higher risk of being purchased for slaughter.

“I think that many people are concerned that a horse is immediately destined for trauma and death if they go to auction,” she says. “People will do everything they can to funnel horses away from that scenario.”

While horses at auction could ultimately fall into the wrong hands or into the slaughter pipeline, Williams believes a horse truly in need of rescue is one in a potentially deadly situation. “I see (rescuing) as taking them out of a situation in which they’re starving, suffering, and could die, and getting them the help they need to recover, and either putting them into a sanctuary where they spend the rest of their lives or finding them new homes.”

It’s not buying a horse from your neighbor because you don’t like its living conditions, she adds.

“We can’t be involved in rescue unless we have a great passion for it, because it’s really hard—emotionally, financially, even physically,” Williams says. “But I think sometimes something overrides that, and you become convinced that you’re the only one that can help.”

In Over Their Heads

Individuals who do believe they’re the only ones who can care for animals are often on a slippery slope to becoming hoarders. In recent years researchers have created a preliminary classification system to describe three categories of animal hoarding behavior, says Schroeder.

The overwhelmed caregiver is typically someone who initially took proper care of their animals, but financial problems or other life stressors caused them to no longer be able to provide that care, she says. Their decline in animal caretaking capacity can be gradual, and they are more likely to be aware that a problem exists. They also may be more willing to accept help from others to reduce the number of animals under their care, Schroeder says.

“You’re in a place where you can afford 20 horses and take care of them, but then something happens,” says Williams. She describes, for instance, one case in which a woman and her partner had 60 healthy horses on their property. When the woman lost her partner, things began to fall into disrepair. Yet, despite receiving offers to help or buy the animals, she wouldn’t let them go. Like many individuals that fall into this situation, she had a very strong attachment to her horses.

She also sees this scenario when people acquire a pregnant mare or a mare and stallion that continue breeding unchecked. “We’ve gotten those cases where we go to pick up 15 horses, and they’re horribly inbred because someone got two pregnant mares 10 years ago, and they’ve bred and bred and bred,” says Williams. “It’s a gradual increase in numbers and decrease in care.”

The rescuer might also start with adequate resources, but the number of animals gradually overwhelms his or her capacity to care for them. According to Tufts University’s Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC), this individual has a hard time refusing more animals.

Julie Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, of Turner Wilson Equine Consulting LLC, in Stillwater, Minnesota, is a member of the Minnesota Horse Welfare Coalition and has been involved with animal seizures as an assessing equine veterinarian. She says that in her experience, rescuer hoarders start out with great intentions, then find themselves in trouble. “Some seem to not be able to say ‘no’ when they have reached their capacity for space and money,” she says.

These rescuers also tend to believe they’re the only ones who can care for their horses. “That’s when there might be co-occurring, psychological concerns and perceptual issues in terms of feeling special or needed by animals,” says Schroeder. “It’s not that they are purposely trying to harm animals—in fact, they will tell you they love their animals.”

Williams says with many of these cases, the individuals will have their animals seized or taken away but go on to acquire more. “Or like the woman that I helped for a while,” she says, “when she lost hers she killed herself. She couldn’t face life without the animals she had around her.”

Rescuing Horses: Good Intentions Gone Wrong

The exploiter is the most challenging type, and these individuals might exhibit behaviors associated with antisocial personality disorder, says Schroeder.

“People who exploit animals through hoarding may show no remorse regarding the suffering of their animals, nor do they appear to form emotional attachments with their animals,” she says. “As of yet, it is not clear whether this group truly fits the criteria associated with hoarding.

The group of researchers behind the HARC describes this individual as one with extreme denial of the situation, a belief that his or her knowledge is superior to all others, and a need to actively acquire and control more animals.

Regardless of hoarding type or intent, it can result in compromised horse welfare and contribute to more diffuse issues, such as infectious disease spread among a confined group of horses.

“Infectious diseases gain a foothold when there is an inadequate preventive health care program,” the HARC team states. “Stress from crowding, poor nutrition, untreated medical conditions, and confinement decreases resistance to disease, and crowding and lack of sanitation facilitate a disease’s spread.”

Hoarding as an Illness

The exploiter is the most troublesome type, say our sources, due to the implications to both the horses and humans involved. It’s associated with not only animal cruelty but also child and domestic abuse and self-neglect. Wilson says Animal Folks, a Minnesota nonprofit she works with, has developed training programs for veterinarians and law enforcement investigating potential animal cruelty cases; through these it’s begun educating investigators to look for the signs of child neglect and domestic violence in hoarding cases.

Researchers have also linked hoarding to a variety of comorbid (occurring together) mental health problems, including personality disorders, mood disorders such as social anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder, attention-deficit/­hyperactivity disorder, and, less frequently, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), says Schroeder. Until recently, hoarding was considered to be a form of OCD. However, newer research indicates hoarding differs from OCD, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition classifies it an entirely separate disorder.

“It is important to note that less is understood about animal hoarding in particular, as much of the research literature focuses on the hoarding of possessions or objects,” she says.

The HARC describes this type of hoarding as “a complex behavior that results from a variety of psychological and behavioral deficits that may limit a person’s ability to care for themselves or others. Although hoarding may start out as a seemingly benevolent mission to save animals, eventually the needs of the animals become lost to the person’s needs for control.”

While animal hoarding occurs among people of all ages, genders, and financial backgrounds, the typical stereotype, says the HARC, is that of “a single older woman, living alone and socioeconomically disadvantaged.”

Rescuing Horses: Good Intentions Gone Wrong

Signs That Something’s Wrong

Based on the many hoarding and neglect cases discovered over the years, researchers, veterinarians, mental health professionals, and welfare organization personnel have come to recognize the signs. While some are obvious, such as starving, injured, or dead animals, others are subtler and more gradual in onset.

“Say your neighbor has horses and used to go pick manure out of the paddocks once a week. Then it becomes once a month,” says Williams. “They’re also maybe dividing their paddocks into smaller paddocks so they can bring in more horses. Maybe the farrier used to come on a six-to-eight-week schedule, then it’s once every six months, and now he’s not coming at all, because they’re getting so many animals they can’t manage them.

“Some of those things in and of themselves aren’t a problem,” she adds. “It’s an additive thing. Over time (the horses) don’t get enough food or care.”

Collectively, these stressors and ­others—such as lack of opportunities for socialization (in the case of a single neglected horse or many horses housed separately), inability to avoid threatening animals, uncomfortable or confined living conditions—can pose significant welfare issues for the horses involved.

More recognizable signs of animal hoarding, says Schroeder, include owners becoming very defensive when questioned by others, lacking insight about the problem, and becoming socially isolated.

“They tend to cut you off, they don’t want you to see their place,” Williams adds. “They don’t want you coming out to visit because it’s going to be so obvious the animals are not being taken care of, or there may be dead animals or feces piled everywhere. They tend to cut even close friends or family off, because I think at some level they know it isn’t right to have starving and dead animals throughout their property.”

Wilson says hoarders might also pose as “rescuers” at horse auction kill pens. “These individuals are so distraught that they buy more of these animals for meat price than they should,” she says.

What Can You Do?

If you suspect a hoarding situation, there are right and wrong ways to address it. Williams says the only scenario she suggests getting involved with directly is if the person is a close friend or family member.

“They’re probably going to deny it, get mad at you, shut you off,” she says. “But if there’s really a link between it and other mental illnesses, they can get help.”

Otherwise, for the horses’ safety as well as your own, you should get the proper authorities involved.

“The first steps should be contacting law enforcement and a humane agent,” says Wilson. “Entering a property without a search warrant can totally blow an investigation, which means the owner cannot be successfully prosecuted.”

Depending on the severity of the situation, authorities might take one of several steps. “They might start with education to try to get the person to better care for their animals and reduce numbers on their own,” Williams says. “If that’s not successful, they might have to seize the animals. If there are already dead animals or animals at the brink of death, they’ll seize first and educate later. The bad thing with hoarding, especially if it’s a mental illness, is they get their animals seized but don’t get help to avoid this happening again.”

In fact, according to the HARC, if hoarders don’t get appropriate treatment for their disorder, their tendency to relapse is almost 100%.

“Currently there is relatively little research on what types of mental health treatments might work best for people who hoard animals,” Schroeder says. “What we do know so far is that it is important to provide each person with a team of community professionals (e.g., law enforcement, public health, animal welfare, and mental health professionals), who can support them. Hoarding is such a socially isolating experience, it is ­important that people be met with empathy during this process so they can get the treatment they need.”

“Hopefully, as a horse industry and animal welfare community we can work on changing this, to where people can get help, too, so they don’t keep perpetuating the problem,” adds Williams.

Take-Home Message

Most people who acquire or rescue horses start out with good intentions. And the many reputable equine rescues out there are doing great things for horses in need. It’s when the number of animals add up and the quality of care plummets that things can take a turn for the worse.

“I think we all need to remember that true hoarding is a mental illness, and that while we may worry about and decide what happens to the animals, it’s not something these people do on purpose,” says Williams. “I think a lot of people either don’t understand or forget that. And you do forget that when you’re standing there holding a horse that you are going to lose because he’s so far gone. Everyone in that case is the victim.