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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Real Mustang Trim: AAEP Task Force Recommends Hoof Trimming for Captive Wild Horses in BLM Facilities

Wild Horses
Wild horse warning sign on a highway in Arizona. Photo by Gary Minniss.
Self-help expert Dr. Wayne Dyer has a saying that seems so critical to me that it has made the place of honor in my life: it's stuck with a magnet on my refrigerator.

It's been there a while, and it's faded and curled but I know it by heart: "When you change the way you look at things, the things you're looking at change."

It's there to remind me about analyzing difficult situations, but a press release I received today made me chuckle. What about when a difficult situation is analyzed by people with completely fresh eyes? When you read an article about your hometown written by an out-of-state journalist, do you think, "Wow, is that really where I live?"

That's the power of a fresh set of eyes on something you know so well; it sounds completely different. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but you stop and think about the way your little town looks to someone "from away", as they say in Maine.

So what would happen if one of the hot-button situations in the horse world was visited by a task force of veterinarians, most of whom live and work worlds away, either on another coast or in academic clinic settings? Would someone who may have little or no exposure to wild horses see them differently from someone who lives and works with them everyday? Is one vet's status quo another vet's no-no?

Dr. Ann Dwyer of New York
When a veterinarian like Dr. Ann Dwyer from upstate New York took a look behind and into the pens at the Bureau of Land Management's wild horse warehouse system in the United States western states, did she see things differently than the BLM's own staff veterinarians and stockmen?

Maybe she did, maybe she didn't, but today the American Association of Equine Practitioners' Bureau of Land Management Task Force released its evaluation--and some critical recommendations--designed to improve the care and handling of the nation's wild horses during gathers and captivity.

Palomino Valley Nat'l Wild Horse & Burro Center
Behold the Palomino Valley (NV) National Wild Horse and Burro Center, located north of Sparks, Nevada. The AAEP task force observed horses with active cases of strangles at this facility. Photo courtesey of Visit Reno Tahoe.
The AAEP report comes at the request of the Bureau of Land Management, which asked the AAEP in June 2010 to evaluate the handling, health care, and welfare of the horses and burros at BLM wild horse and burro gathers and holding facilities.  

Dr. John S. Mitchell of Florida
The AAEP agreed to lend its expertise and a task force was formed under John S. Mitchell DVM, AAEP president elect and Task Force chair, who is as removed from the west as Dwyer. Mitchell is a Standardbred racehorse specialist in Pompano Beach, Florida, and the task force he headed was a fascinating cross-section of the United States equine veterinary community. The report notes that one task force member "had visited a BLM facility previously" and another "is a member of a group practice that does contract work for a BLM short‐term facility."

Dr. William Moyer of Texas A&M
From the academic sector came Texas A&M's William Moyer (who is also currently AAEP president) and equine lameness specialist Professor Kent Carter. From the University of Georgia, Susan White, Professor of Large Animal Internal Medicine. From industry, the task force chose Rocky Bigbie, Senior Veterinarian at Pfizer Animal Health. In addition to private vets Dwyer and Mitchell, the task force included some veterinarians from western states: Jacy Cook, private vet in Bozeman, Montana; Roger Rees, owner to a large animal clinic in Utah; Stuart Shoemaker, a surgeon who left Louisiana State University to start a sports medicine practice in Idaho and Beau David Whitaker, an equine lameness specialist vet in Texas with a penchant for humor writing.

Surely all or most of these veterinarians could be considered excellent judges of western horses. In their practices, they probably see well-bred and valuable cutting and reining horses, or tend to the needs of wealthy ranchers. The horses they would see in their work for the task force would be the other end of the spectrum, America's ultimate "Unwanted Horses".

If you need any proof of that: The United States Government can't even give these horses away lately. Adoption statistics have plummeted in spite of higher visible of mustangs in the show ring. Yet these horses have powerful friends in high places, like a Congress charged with upholding a federal law, Public Law 92-195, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which was designed to protect the horses.

They also have a few million fans who are happy to hold the BLM's feet to the fire, so to speak, over the care that the horses receive in captivity, and to question even if captivity should be employed. Enter the AAEP with the mission to take a fresh look around.

"One stallion jumped out of the corral at the Pine Nuts gather, even though the fence was six feet high. The horse did not appear to suffer any injury when he jumped out, and was allowed to return to the range..." (AAEP report)

According to the AAEP's statistics quoted in the report, as of June 2011, the BLM had 39,948 horses housed in a wide variety of temporary and permanent facilities or with contracted long-term holding ranches.

AAEP task force veterinarians observed wild horse "gathers" and also inspected the temporary and permanent holding facilities for mustangs. Photo by Jeremy Hiebert.

How the Bureau of Land Management interprets the federal law is a hotly contested issue across the United States. Are government policies "protecting" the wild horses by keeping them in holding pens and farming them out for long-term warehousing? Was it the intent of the law to run these horses on ranches in the Midwest instead of the Western range? Are the gathers in western states that bring in thousands of wild horses each year in the best interest of the horses or of administrative policy? Are the gathers and gatherers guilty of cruel practices that threaten the health and welfare of the horses?

Task force members certainly must have known the issues before they agreed to serve. However, their marching orders clearly stated "It is not the charge of the Task Force to evaluate the BLM program with regard to moral, ethical or economic issues."

Selection of the task force members meant that a wide range of expertise and geographic perspectives were included. None of the veterinarians selected can be described specifically as an academic specialist in equine welfare or behavior or wild horse issues.
"Foot trimming schedules should be created and customized for each facility in accordance with environmental conditions and periodic inspections to reduce the likelihood of excessively long hooves." (AAEP report)

Beginning last fall, the task force visited multiple BLM sites during a six-month period to observe gathers and evaluate conditions at short-term holding and long-term pasture facilities. The task force's data collection was limited to the safety, health status, health management, care, handling and welfare of equids in the BLM program.

"The task force concluded that the care, handling and management practices utilized by the BLM are appropriate for this population of horses and generally support the safety, health status and welfare of the animals," said William Moyer, DVM, AAEP president and a member of the task force, in a press release provided by the AAEP. "However, the task force did see areas that can be improved."

In addition to key recommendations about helicopter herding, anesthesia, biosecurity and other concerns, the veterinarians made suggestions to solidify the footing in the pens at the short-term holding facilities, so that the horses would be able to lie down. 'The overcrowded and wet muddy conditions throughout the pens at Salt Lake Regional Wild Horse and Burro Center in Herriman, Utah, were unacceptable, according to the report. "The conditions posed a health risk for the horses, and did not meet the standard for horse welfare at the time of the task force team visit," the report noted.

An interesting note from the report is that the task force veterinarians thought that the horses in captivity were, in anything, too well fed. "...some horses were fed to excess as evidenced by body condition scores that reflected a substantial amount of body fat," the report explained.

"The BLM staff explained that (hoof) trimming is done on a rotation and that all horses that have long feet are on a waiting list for the trimmer." (AAEP report)

Of particular interest to Hoofcare and Lameness readers is the task force's recommendation that the horses have their hooves trimmed. "Foot trimming schedules should be created and customized for each facility in accordance with environmental conditions and periodic inspections to reduce the likelihood of excessively long hooves," the white paper report informs us.

"A few horses had long feet in need of trimming," the report tells us. "The BLM staff explained that trimming is done on a rotation and that all horses that have long feet are on a waiting list for the trimmer."

Carson River Wild Horses
The AAEP task force recommended that the BLM focus on population control. The US Government currently warehouses approximately 40,000 wild horses, according to the report. Photo by Scott Schrantz.

All the veterinarians would be able to pick out a horse whose hooves needed to be trimmed. Dr. Moyer in particular is experienced in hoofcare and would have been looking at the hooves with an experienced eye. The fine line between "long" and "too long" would be obvious to Dr. Moyer.

"The observed horses appeared healthy without evidence of chronic injuries, disease or congenital defects other than a small number with a unilateral club foot (about 1% noted at Adobe Town/Salt Wells Complex). Overall hoof condition of the captured horses was judged good."
(AAEP report)

How do you trim the hooves of a wild horse that has never been touched by human hands, much less had to stand on three legs while its feet are picked up? The report explains:

"The task force teams were told that the average length of stay at the short‐term holding facilities often exceeds 200 days, with a range of 90 to 300 days. Over this confinement period horses do not move enough to wear their feet to a healthy condition as they do on the range.

"Most horses undergo foot trimming during their stay in short‐term holding. The AAEP teams did not observe any hoof trimming but made close inspection of several padded hydraulic squeeze chutes that were used for this purpose.

"When a trim is scheduled, the horse is herded through an alleyway or chute into the squeeze chute. The entry door, sides, floor and exit door of the squeeze chute are hydraulically controlled. Once the horse is enclosed in and restrained with the padded squeeze panels, the chute is rotated 90 degrees onto its side with a separate hydraulic system.

Donkey BLM Freeze Brand
As part of the capture process, horses and burros are checked to see if any privately-branded horses are mixed in with the wild horses. All newcomers receive the BLM's freeze brand on the neck. Photo by Jean.

"The foot trimmer accesses the feet through the floor which opens once the horse is in lateral recumbency. Foot trimming is reported to be a quick procedure, accomplished either with hand tools or a special hoof trimming disc on a hand grinder. The squeeze chutes the task force examined were well designed and appeared safe for restraint.

"The foot condition of most horses was good. Less than 5% of the horses at Broken Arrow had long feet in need of trimming. The staff at the sites acknowledged this, saying these individuals were slated for the trimming process soon. The feet were not deemed to be an immediate health risk to the horses."

Dr. Mitchell concluded, "The AAEP will gladly continue if needed as a resource for equine medical expertise to the BLM Wild Horse and Burro program."

The complete AAEP BLM Task Force report is available for download here. For more information, contact Sally Baker, AAEP director of marketing and public relations, at (859) 233-0147 or


Wild horse hoof research links:

Where's My Brumby Now: Chris Pollitt Offers Donors a Chance to Ride Along for Hoof Satellite!

Pollitt Hoof Studies Group Hot on the Trail of Australian Wild Horses

Aboriginal Brumby Walkabout: Pollitt and Hampson Back from the Outback

The Environmental Hoof: Will Wild Horse Feet Adapt to a Sudden Change in Climate and Terrain? Australian Researchers Switch Brumbies, Observe Hooves

Australian Wild Horses at Risk for Laminitis After Floods Turn Scrubland to Pasture

Hoof Research Road Show Premieres This Weekend: Pollitt-Hampson Laminitis and Wild Horse Hooves Headline in Australia


 Learn all about it! 3-D anatomy of the hoof and lower limb in animated format for client education, academic studies, self-improvement, professional continuing education. Click for PayPal ordering!


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