My family raised American Saddlebreds in Central Kentucky, at least until the late-1970s when they realized that spending several months a year at horse shows was fun but tended to create a financial black hole. We had some very nice horses, including a seal brown gelding that was Kentucky Association of Fairs and Horse Shows High Point Champion in the fine harness division for a few years. His show name was Flying Home but around the barn we called him "Slim," because no matter how hard we tried, we could not keep weight on him.

It was inordinately frustrating.

Slim always had good quality feed and hay, he received a batch of supplements and appetite enhancers, his teeth were in good shape, he was dewormed regularly, and ongoing consultations with the veterinarian probably paid for a new examining room at the clinic. Nothing worked. He ate like the proverbial horse but would not gain weight. When the Kentucky State Fair horse show rolled around at the end of the season, Slim always looked like an ill-nourished refugee. A stranger seeing Slim in his stall, or driving by the farm and seeing him grazing in a field when we pulled his shoes and turned him out after his retirement, would swear that he was being neglected.

What prompted this stroll down memory lane was a comment from one of The Horse’s Facebook friends. This was the dilemma: An older mare at the farm where the individual’s horse was boarded had a serious medical condition. The owner of the horse appeared to be ignoring the mare, and the owner of the farm was administering medication, presumably on the advice of a veterinarian, although that fact is not clear from the posting. The treatment plan did not seem to be working and the person was concerned. The writer wondered about options in such a situation.

One possibility is to try and contact the horse’s owner and discuss the matter. Being an absentee owner does not necessarily mean neglect, and the person may not be receiving accurate or timely information about the horse from the farm owner. Whether this approach will be effective, or even possible, depends entirely on the attitude of the horse’s owner. Some animal owners appreciate being educated; others—and we all have encountered them—most definitely do not.

Beyond this informal approach, reporting the suspected neglect to the proper authorities is the only realistic legal option. Interfering with the horse’s medication or feeding regimen is neither legal nor a good idea because of potential harm to the horse and the resulting liability. Spreading rumors is never a good idea. Calling in an outside veterinarian is problematic because the vet likely would be reluctant to give a second opinion without a veterinarian-client-patient relationship, which does not exist in this situation. In any case, even good veterinarians can disagree about treatment plans.

The real question is identifying the offense if a report is made to the authorities.

In Kentucky, animal cruelty means "every act or omission whereby unjustifiable physical pain, suffering, or death is caused or permitted." This definition includes "failing to provide adequate food, drink, space, or health care" or subjecting an animal to "cruel neglect." Other states have similar language and definitions. The statute does not require an owner to provide the best possible veterinary care for a sick horse, nor is it neglect if the chosen veterinary treatment is not successful. Although refusing to euthanize a sick or seriously injured horse might qualify as neglect or abuse depending on the circumstances and state law, making that call is difficult for a lay person. The American Association of Equine Practitioners has a set of guidelines justifying euthanasia, but they are based on veterinary standards of care and a professional prognosis.

Watching our trainer and veterinarian try for years to put weight on Slim taught me that appearances can deceive. Sometimes the best you can do for an animal just is not good enough. That does not mean neglect, though, no matter how it might look.