No Law Protects Horses from Neglect

Dear Attorney,

I recently moved to New Mexico and have noticed some horses that are kept alone in fairly small grassless fenced areas. These animals have no shade or shelter, and don’t ever seem to be taken out for exercise. This seems cruel. Are there any local ordinances or state laws that control how horses must be treated, like there are for dogs and cats?


This is a very good question, and a timely one given the recent horrors revealed at Southwest Livestock Auction in Los Lunas, where a number of horses were found starving, injured, and dying. Perpetrators found guilty of such extreme cruelty to horses could be prosecuted and even put in prison if these actions were deemed intentional, but intentionality is hard to prove, and successful prosecutions are rare. The situation you have described appears to be one of possible negligence or inadequate care.


New Mexico State Statute 30-18-1 precludes horse owners from negligently mistreating, injuring, or tormenting horses. However, this appears to apply only to horses suffering serious injury; for example, horses that have been overworked to lameness, or that have not received sufficient food and water. Yet, even such egregious negligence is deemed only a misdemeanor in New Mexico. My review of local government ordinances in Sandoval County reveals no standards for care of horses other than a prohibition of cruelty.


The New Mexico Livestock Board is supposed to provide general guidelines for care and treatment of horses, but it appears to have little enforcement power and even less interest in exercising it. The New Mexico Cooperative Extension suggests that horses (non-pasturing) require no less than a quarter acre of land on which to move about, that they need regular daily exercise, must have shade from the sun and shelter from the wind and rain, and that they require “mental stimulation.”


While horses are often kept as companion animals in New Mexico, they are still treated quite differently than dogs and cats. Unlike dogs, horses do not need to be licensed within the municipality, nor are any vaccines required. The health and well-being of horses used commercially are often left to the control of the very industries that abuse them, with the result that old or lame horses are often abandoned, shot, or sent to Mexico to be worked to death or slaughtered. Perhaps New Mexico law will evolve to recognize horses as more akin to companion animals than commercial livestock.


Unfortunately, many people who own horses are not sufficiently familiar with the needs, proclivities, and nature of these wonderful animals to provide a full and contented life for them. It appears there are no laws in any New Mexico municipality that have set forth veterinary requirements, acreage limits, or maximum animal ownership rules for livestock. Hopefully, as understanding of and respect for all companion animals continues to rise, standards defining basic care for horses can be legally codified.


Ed Goodman worked for more than two decades as a trial lawyer in Massachusetts. A painter, screenwriter, and novelist, he now lives in Corrales with partner Ennio Garcia-Miera and six dogs, four turkeys, four chickens, and a parrot.