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Check-up Time for the Equines

578 horses, burros undergo tip-to-tail exams

The Humane Society of the United States / The Fund for Animals

by Mike Satchell

  • Rounding up all the horses and burros at the ranch for their exams was no easy feat. Diane Miller/The HSUS

  • Keeping hooves trimmed is critical to the health and comfort of horses. A few animals, not accustomed to handling, required sedation in order to complete the work safely, both for them and for the people working on them. Diane Miller/The HSUS

  • Not surprisingly, some of the horses were reluctant to come forward for their check ups. Diane Miller/The HSUS

  • Extensive dental work was performed on 70 of the equines. Aging is determined by examining the incisor teeth for wear patterns and decay and gums for periodontal disease. Diane Miller/The HSUS

  • Knowing the approximate age of the ranch's equines will allow staff to plan more effectively for needs over the next 10 to 20 years. Diane Miller/The HSUS

  • More than 50 horses and burros appear to be older than 20 years. Diane Miller/The HSUS

It was roundup and checkup time recently for one of the largest and most storied equine herds in America. For the 578 horses, burros, ponies and mules at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Murchison, Texas, they were in for a thorough nose-to-tail veterinary examination to establish their ages and conditions and create individual health records.

Rounding up the patients

There’s only one way to gather, confine, sedate, examine, identify, microchip, photograph, deworm, vaccinate, and perform dental exams, hoof care and other procedures on so many animals, ranging from placid donkeys to spirited mustangs to strong-minded mules: Gently and with great patience.

More than a dozen ranch staff and outside equine specialists spent 10 bone-chilling days handling and doctoring the animals. Ranch Director Diane Miller was delighted with the project’s success.

Says Miller: “We’ve never attempted anything of this scope before and an immense amount of work was completed safely. We now have a better understanding of our herds and of improvements we can make to our facilities for the future.”

A sanctuary for equines

The Fund for Animals' Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch – the largest of five animal centers operated by The Humane Society of the United States -- has close to 1, 300 animal residents on its 1,250 bucolic acres. Nearly all were rescued from slaughter, abuse and neglect, or some other terrible lifelong fate and now will spend the rest of their days at the sanctuary. Equines, the vast majority horses and burros, form the largest species group at the ranch.

The ranch was established in 1979 by The Fund as a haven for 577 wild burros scheduled to be shot in the Grand Canyon by the National Park Service, which considered them “exotic invaders.”  The late author, animal activist, and Fund founder Cleveland Amory arranged to have them lifted to safety by helicopter. Today, Friendly, the only known survivor of that epic deliverance, is now more than 35 years old and remains the beloved greeter to all who enter the ranch.

An aging population

One of the critical goals of the project was to estimate the age of each animal, because for the most part, they arrive at the ranch with nothing known of their backgrounds beyond the circumstances of their rescue.

The ranch currently operates at full equine capacity, and knowing the approximate ages of the horses and burros will allow the staff to more effectively plan for the needs of the animals and the facility over the next 10 to 20 years.

Aging, explains Dr. Eric Davis, director of Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association Field Services who led the health profiling team, is done by examining the incisor teeth for wear patterns and decay and the gums for periodontal disease. Extensive dental work was performed on 70 of the equines and enough extractions were performed to fill a bucket with bad teeth.

What did the dental exams reveal to Davis?  “I was surprised by how old the population is and also by the hardiness and good condition of the mustangs,” he relates. “Most thoroughbreds and quarter horses lose their teeth and get infections, but you find mustangs older than 25 years with all of their teeth and their hooves in good condition. They are amazing animals.”

Planning ahead

For Miller, confirmation of an aging equine population means a steady increase in the number of special needs animals. While the main herd roams over some 1,000 acres of pasture and woodlands, more than 50 horses and burros appear to be older than 20 years.  Geriatrics spend their time in smaller pastures, segregated for supplementary feeding of special diets and more closely monitored care.

“As they continue to age, it will become more expensive to care for them” she points out. “We will need more paddocks and stalls, more staff, and a significant increase in veterinary care.”

The next phase of equine facilities development at the ranch should come in March, when ground is scheduled to be broken for the Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center. All of the horses taken in by the ranch to date are permanent residents The new rehabilitation and training center, which will have the capacity for 50 animals, will allow suitable new arrivals to be adopted into loving homes, marking a new proactive role for the nation’s largest animal sanctuary.

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