Equine Nutritional Abuse & Neglect - Expert Investigation

This article explores equine abuse and neglect through the lens of an actual incident. Through examination of this dispute, equine expert, Dr. J. Tim Potter provides an introductory lesson on relevant issues, such as body condition scores, equine nutrition, exposure-related health issues, group dynamics, and dental health. Names and other identifying factors have been excluded.

Equine Nutritional Abuse & Neglect - Expert Investigation

The dispute centers around a veterinarian who reported the prior owner of the subject horse for animal cruelty after performing a necropsy on decedent horse and finding it to have a body condition score of one (1). The horse’s prior owner later brought charges against the veterinarian for defamation of character and associated monetary damages. Equine expert, Dr. J. Tim Potter was retained to determine if the veterinarian’s claims of abuse were substantiated.

Abuse, Cruelty and Neglect Investigations

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) defines animal abuse as willful failure to provide care or doing something harmful. Animal cruelty is any act that by intention or neglect causes an animal unnecessary pain or suffering, while animal neglect is best characterized by lack of care, often resulting from ignorance, poverty, or extenuating circumstances.

Allegations of abuse, cruelty and neglect should be investigated by experts with the appropriate education, training and experience. Experts with such credentials are best suited to assess all factors associated with the care of the animal. Utilization of experts is essential, as not all situations can be attributed to abuse, cruelty and neglect.

For example, a horse owner was once investigated by animal control officers as a result of a passerby observing a thin horse in the pasture. To the uneducated eye, the presence of a thin horse would suggest neglect. However, an expert with the requisite education, training and experience determined that although the horse was thin, the causative factor in the horse’s condition was due to age and not malnourishment. Aging horses are more difficult to manage and maintain body condition, and in this instance, the owner was using all means to maintain his geriatric horse, and there was no evidence of neglect.

Description of the Event

The subject horse, 14 years of age at the time of his death, was delivered to the plaintiff exhibiting a body condition score of five (5), which was depicted in the photo used for its Coggins test paperwork. He was in the possession of the plaintiff for three months until his death, at which time he was observed to be in a body condition score of one (1).

The subject horse was pastured with other horses, and showed signs (cuts, scratches) of being “picked on” by other horses during the time he remained at the plaintiff’s farm as a result of being pastured in a group. The plaintiff stated that the subject horse was fed only free-range minerals, free-range hay and grass while in plaintiff’s possession. No established protocols for deworming and dental care were utilized for the subject horse. In addition to being malnourished, the subject horse had a skin condition called rain rot, which was not treated.

Factors Affecting Body Condition

The industry standard for measuring a horse’s body condition is the Body Condition Scoring system developed by Dr. Don Henneke at Texas A&M University. A horse’s Body Condition Score (BCS) is determined by the amount of palpable fat around the neck, withers, back, tailhead, ribs and behind the shoulder. Body condition scores range from 1 to 9, with 1 being extremely emaciated and 9 being extremely fat:

1PoorAnimal extremely emaciated. Spinous processes, ribs, tailhead, tuber coxae and ischii projecting prominently. Bone structure of withers, shoulders, and neck easily noticeable. No fatty tissue can be felt.
2Very ThinAnimal emaciated. Slight fat covering over base of spinous processes, transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae feel rounded. Spinous processes, ribs, tailhead, tuber coxae and ischii prominent. Withers, shoulders, and neck structures faintly discernable.
3ThinFat buildup about halfway on spinous processes; transverse processes cannot be felt. Slight fat cover over ribs. Spinous processes and ribs easily discernable. Tailhead prominent, but individual vertebrae cannot be easily identified. Tuber coxae appear rounded but easily discernable. Tuber ischii not distinguishable. Withers, shoulders, and neck accentuated.
4Moderately ThinNegative crease along back. Faint outline of ribs discernable. Tailhead prominence depends on conformation; fat can be felt around it. Tuber coxae not discernable. Withers, shoulders, and neck not obviously thin.
5ModerateBack level ribs cannot be visually distinguished but can be easily felt. Fat around tailhead beginning to feel spongy. Withers appear rounded over spinous processes. Shoulders and neck blend smoothly into body.
6Moderately FatMay have slight crease down back. Fat over ribs feels fleshy-spongy. Fat around tailhead feels soft. Fat beginning to be deposited along the side of the withers, behind the shoulders and along the sides of the neck.
7FleshyMay have crease down back. Individual ribs can be felt, but noticeable filling between ribs with fat. Fat around tailhead is soft. Fat deposited along withers, behind shoulders, and around the neck.
8FatCrease down back. Difficult to feel ribs. Fat around tailhead very soft. Area along withers filled with fat. Area behind shoulder filled with fat. Noticeable thickening of neck. Fat deposited along inner thighs.
9Extremely FatObvious crease down back. Patchy fat appearing over ribs. Bulging fat around tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders, and along neck. Fat along inner thighs may rub together. Flank willed with fat.

Examples of body condition scores:

The major nutrient that determines fatness in horses, as well as other species, is dietary energy intake. Digestible Energy (DE) requirements, expressed as Megacalories (Mcal) or kilocalories (kcal) are determined by the type of work or status of a horse. Energy balance is extremely important in the maintenance of a moderate level of body condition, or a condition score 5.

  • Positive energy balance: Intake exceeds the requirements for DE, results in deposition of fat in the previously mentioned areas on the horse.
  • Zero energy balance: Intake equals the requirements for DE, results in maintenance of body weight and body condition.
  • Negative energy balance: The requirements for DE exceed intake, results in mobilization of fat reserves in the body for use as a fuel source for energy. The horse burns through fat reserves and loses weight.

The primary reason for low body condition in horses is inadequate caloric intake. Dr. Potter determined that the subject horse’s diet was hazardously insufficient to maintain body condition and violated the standard of care for properly feeding horses.

Effects of Rain Rot

The condition of rain rot (rain scald) in horses is bacterial in origin, through the organism dermatophilus congolensis. Left untreated, secondary bacterial infections, commonly staphylococcus and streptococcus can occur. Prolonged exposure to bacterial infections in horses can result in a hypermetabolic state which leads to a rapid breakdown of the body’s reserves of carbohydrate, protein and fat. This hypermetabolic state results in loss of body condition.

The rain rot on the subject horse would have contributed to the deterioration of his health, as he was receiving neither the medical treatment nor the nutrition necessary for his body to fight off the infection.

Effects of Pecking Order

Dominance hierarchies are present in groups of horses. When fed, the more dominant horses will prevent the timid horses from eating, even when ample amounts of feed or forage are present. The plaintiff should have known about the difficulty in providing adequate caloric intake while the subject horse was maintained in a group setting. They also should have taken action upon observing cuts and scratches on the horse, by moving it to a different pasture or enclosure where it would not be picked on by other horses and giving the horse medical treatment for its wounds.

Deworming and Dental Care

Best practices for health management in horses includes regular deworming and dental care. Parasite infestation and dental issues, in combination with inadequate caloric intake, contributes to low body condition in horses. There was no testimony provided indicating that established protocols for deworming and dental care were utilized for the subject horse.


In this case, the plaintiff alleged that the veterinarian falsely accused them of abusing or neglecting the subject horse. The veterinarian did as they were required to do by reporting any incidence of a horse with a Body Condition Score of one (1). Dr. Potter was retained to investigate the cause of the horse’s death and whether the plaintiff adequately monitored its nutritional status, overall health and body condition, and whether the plaintiff acted reasonably in observing any deficiencies.

Through Dr. Potter’s investigation, he found:

  1. The hazardous exposure of the subject horse to inadequate management conditions violated the standard of care for properly maintaining equine body condition.
  2. The plaintiff failed to knowledgeably observe and monitor the nutritional status, overall health, and body condition of the subject horse.
  3. The plaintiff failed to act upon observed deficiencies in the nutritional status, health, and body condition of the subject horse in a timely manner.

In alignment with Dr. Potter’s findings, this case resolved favorably for the defendant.


Robson Forensic provides specialized forensic experts to investigate injuries to humans as well as claims of animal abuse and neglect. Our experts can approach these investigations from the perspectives of horse trainers, facilities owners, nutritional specialists, and more.

Submit an inquiry or contact animal scientist, Dr. Tim Potter to discuss your case and how Robson Forensic can assist.

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