If your horse lives on a farm, is it a "farm animal?"

If your horse lives in the back yard, and gets more attention than your dog or cat, is it a "companion animal?"

If your horse shares a pasture with cows, or sheep, or llamas, is it "livestock?"

The answers depend on state law, which generally lumps horses with other livestock. But state law can be revised to reflect changes in the use of animals or the perception of the role of animals in society. The New York State Senate, for example, is considering legislation that would alter the legal status of horses. The proposed bill (S6729) would amend Section 350 of the state’s Agriculture and Markets Law to remove horses from the statutory definition of "farm animal." The legislation does not simply add horses to the existing definition of "companion animal," which includes "any dog or cat, and . . . any other domesticated animal normally maintained in or near the household of the owner or person who cares for such other domesticated animal." Instead, a new legal category for horses would be created if the amendment is approved.

Horses used for "recreational pursuits," including racing, jumping, showing, and rehabilitation, would be classified as "equine companion" animals. This would not, by the way, alter the current legal status of animals as the personal property of their owners, nor would it bestow legal rights on animals. That is the purview of the Guardian Movement, which is an entirely different kettle of fish.

One effect of the proposed change would be to broaden the application of animal protection laws in New York. Under the current scheme, misdemeanor animal abuse and neglect applies to a person who "overdrives, overloads, tortures or cruelly beats or unjustifiably injures, mains, mutilates, or kills any animal." Horses clearly fall into this category.

Aggravated cruelty to animals, on the other hand, is a more serious felony that applies only to individuals who cause physical injury to a companion animal. Because the current definition of companion animal specifically excludes "farm animals," horses cannot, by law, be the victims of aggravated cruelty—no matter how despicable their treatment. Arguably, horses as "equine companions" would fall under either the misdemeanor or felony animal cruelty statutes, based on the severity of the abuse or neglect, but that is not at all clear.

This seems like a positive step, but there are some potential problems.

If horses lose their status as farm animals or livestock, will the United States Department of Agriculture and state departments of agriculture continue to support humane treatment for horses and research into equine-specific diseases? Or will that already limited support vanish?

Will commercial breeders of horses for racing or shows be eligible for agricultural loans if their animals are considered companion animals rather than livestock? And will the Internal Revenue Service be reluctant to confer business status on a commercial horse farm that raises companion animals rather than livestock?

How would such a change affect equine liability laws in states like Kentucky, where those laws are written broadly to cover injuries to participants in "farm animal" activities rather than "equine" activities? Would sponsors of equine activities lose the protection of those statutes if horses no longer are farm animals?

These questions are all very speculative, and none present insurmountable difficulties. A far simpler approach, though, is to simply apply the full range of a state’s neglect and cruelty laws to all animals, horses included.