Horses occupy a unique place in American law, as well as our society at large. They are used as beasts of burden on farms, displayed for their beauty at competitive shows, and treated as family members by many families around the country. Because of the variety of roles horses play in our society, the law’s treatment of them covers a wide range of often competing goals. Some laws treat them as livestock, while others describe them as precious national symbols and extend significant protections to them.
The evolution of the modern horse has occurred over a period of 45 to 55 million years. Modern domestic horses have a life expectancy of between 25 to 30 years and can vary greatly in size, as demonstrated by a comparison of a Clydesdale draft horse, 72 inches, and the Falabella miniature horse, 30 inches. They exhibit a diverse array of coat colors and patterns. Their senses are generally considered to be superior to those of humans, especially their eyes, the positioning of which allows them to see a range of vision over 350 degrees. Horses are prey animals, i.e. they do not prey on other animals but are themselves preyed upon, and have a keenly developed flight-or-fight response. Usually, their immediate response to a threat is to startle and flee, however they will stand their ground if given little alternative or if they are protecting their young. Though historically considered unintelligent, more recent studies dispute this. Horses are social animals, able to form deep attachments to their own species and to other animals, including humans.
Though horses are used far less today than in the past, they still play important roles in human society. Police officers often use horses in cities for patrol duties and cattle ranches use them to round up cattle on rugged, distant terrain. Horses are also commonly used for entertainment and sports purposes. Often you will see them in historical movies, on a racetrack, or being used for recreational riding. Though uncommon in America, horses are used as a food source in some parts of the world. Finally, horses are often brought into families as companion animals, enriching human lives
Multiple state and federal laws affect horses. The largest horse-specific law at the federal level is the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which protects and manages the nations wild horse herds. At the state level, horses may be protected or otherwise impacted by any number of laws depending on the state, including anti-cruelty laws, anti-soring laws (a process whereby a horses gait is surgically, and painfully, altered for purposes of presentation at show), and anti-slaughtering laws.
Unlike many companion animals, dogs and cats in particular, horses are expensive and require a lot of maintenance. This often means that they are just as likely to be treated as livestock as companion animals. Because of this, the law often treats horses in different ways that seem incompatible. The most striking example of this is the movement towards making it illegal to sell horsemeat for humans to eat, even though humans eat other livestock, such as cows, all the time.
Whatever their treatment under the law, it is undeniable that horses continue to play an important role in our society, as beasts of burden, symbols of the American spirit, and members of many human families.
For more on this see the Legal Overview.
For a detailed, in-depth analysis of horse laws, see the Detailed Discussion.