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The Nitty Gritty On Horse Rescues In San Diego County

Horses are shown in a stable at the HiCaliber Horse Rescue in Valley Center on March 2, 2018.
Megan Wood
Horses are shown in a stable at the HiCaliber Horse Rescue in Valley Center on March 2, 2018.

Since February, inewsource has published 14 stories about HiCaliber Horse Rescue, a Valley Center nonprofit accused by critics of misusing donor funds, not disclosing disease outbreaks and animal cruelty.

Because San Diego County is a popular location for horse owners, stables and rescues, we wanted to share what we’ve learned about the local horse community.

What Kind Of Permits Do Rescues Need?


There are no permits specific to rescues. But in 2013, San Diego County changed its laws about the kinds of permits certain horse facilities need. The new permitting system laid out four tiers.

The first tier is for properties with up to three horses that aren’t owned by the property owner. It doesn’t require a permit and is for facilities that board horses or offer riding lessons.

The second tier allows up to 50 horses with no more than 10 per acre of usable land. That includes such things as enclosures, corrals, paddocks and riding arenas, county spokesman Michael Workman said. Tier 2 operations need a zoning verification permit.

At one point, HiCaliber was seeking an administrative permit under the third tier to house up to 100 horses. This tier also requires no more than 10 horses per acre.

The fourth tier requires a major use permit for facilities with more than 100 horses, but unlike the other tiers, it allows for more than 10 horses per acre. Administrative and major use permits may take a “substantial amount of time to complete from start to finish,” according to the county.


Private owners who have horses for personal use fall outside the tier system and don’t need permits. These horses are kept at the owner’s property and are not used for riding lessons or other commercial benefit. This is called “horsekeeping.”

How Many Horse Rescues Are There?

The short answer: There is no official count.

The county doesn’t keep records on permits specifically for horse operations. The administrative and major use permits issued under the tiers are the same ones a housing project, for example, would be issued. And the county’s record-keeping system doesn’t distinguish between them.

Our online searches turned up hundreds of “horse rescues” in the county. But when we looked at mission statements and checked out locations, we found a dozen were real. That said, we have no way of knowing if that’s a complete list.

What Counts As Animal Cruelty?

California defines animal cruelty as “maliciously and intentionally” hurting or killing an animal. The penal code mandates a felony conviction and a fine of up to $20,000 or jail time if the accused is found guilty. The law says not providing adequate food or water, overworking an animal or letting an animal suffer can also qualify as animal cruelty and neglect.

Veterinarians are required by law to report animal abuse and are immune to civil liability for reporting it.

Acceptable euthanasia methods for large animals include lethal injection, gunshot or captive bolt, according to emergency euthanasia guidelines by the state Animal Health and Food Safety Division Services. Captive bolt guns send a rod through an animal’s skull. Exsanguination, or massive blood loss, is also considered a humane euthanasia practice if the animal is already unconscious and is used in combination with another method for destroying a horse.

Lethal injections of barbiturates are available only to veterinarians, but gunshot and captive bolt euthanasia can be used by horse owners and caretakers in an emergency. Proper aim for gunshot and captive bolt is essential for a quick and painless death, according to emergency euthanasia guidelines.

Emergency euthanasia of a horse is acceptable in the following situations, according to the state:

– Violent thrashing posing harm to itself or others.

– Evidence of severe shock.

– Exposure of abdominal contents or organs.

– Open fracture of a leg bone,

– An animal showing signs of severe pain from a chronic or incurable condition.

Non-emergency situations in which a veterinarian should be consulted include “chronic or incurable conditions or conditions that require continuous medication.”

Who Enforces These Regulations?

The San Diego County Department of Animal Services usually investigates cases of animal cruelty or neglect. The San Diego Humane Society does as well, but those cases usually concern unintentional neglect, according to its website.

The state Animal Health and Food Safety Division Services also oversees some equine regulation such as disease control and animal inspections.

The San Diego County Planning and Development Services Department oversees permit and code violations. If an operation is in violation, the department will work with the permit holder to achieve compliance, Workman said.

When a horse operation applies for one of the permits, no site inspection occurs. The usable land “will be reviewed and verified on the plot plans” for Tier 2, 3 and 4 permit applications, Workman said. On-site inspections occur if the permit holder has a building permit and needs the final building inspected or if the county has reasonable cause to investigate animal cruelty or permit violations, he said.