The Unwanted Horse: What's His Fate?

With a struggling economy, closure of U.S. slaughterhouses, and lack of resources to support equine rescue, thefate of the unwanted horse is one of the most heated topics among U.S. horsemen today. Here are answers to some of the most common questions.
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With a struggling economy, closure of U.S. slaughterhouses, and lack of resources to support equine rescue, thefate of the unwanted horse is one of the most heated topics among U.S. horsemen today. Here are answers to some of the most common questions.

In the April 2012 issue, we wrote about the controversial topic of unwanted horses. In the June issue, our "We Hear You" section featured many reader responses to the article. Review the full article here.

He stands in a pen of mud and manure. His mane is long and tangled, and his feet haven't been trimmed in over a year. Although he's hungry, his kind expression and gentle face greet me hopefully when I approach the fence along with the humane officer who's been called out by a worried passerby. He was once a champion. Now he's starving and has no home. This is the plight of the unwanted horse.

The number of unwanted horses has increased significantly in the past five years, and experts agree on several contributing factors. With the minimum estimated annual cost for supporting a horse running between $1,800 and $3,600, the recession that hit our country hard in December of 2007 has made it simply impossible for some to support their horses. Meanwhile, closure of U.S. slaughterhouses that same year, the increased pressures on rescue facilities, cost of euthanasia and body disposal, and a greatly weakened horse market left many desperate owners with no options other than abandonment or neglect.

The harsh realities are hard to believe for horse lovers who haven't hit desperate times, and aren't faced with such decisions as "feed my horse or feed my family." Misconception and controversy abound. In this article, I'll answer the questions I'm frequently asked about the state of the unwanted horse.

Unwanted Horses: Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is an "unwanted horse," and why has this become such a problem?

A: The American Association of Equine Practitioners and now the American Horse Council's Unwanted Horse Coalition define an unwanted horse as "one that is no longer wanted by its current owner because it is old; injured; sick; unmanageable; fails to meet the owner's expectations in terms of performance, color, or breeding; or is a horse the owner can no longer afford to maintain." Over 150,000 horses each year fit this description, and numbers are increasing steadily in these economically troubled times.

Experts agree on a combination of factors that have made the problem of and consequences for unwanted horses more prevalent. These include indiscriminate breeding, the struggling U.S. economy, the high cost of humane euthanasia and disposal of remains, and the closure of U.S. slaughterhouses. There are simply too many horses, and too few people who can afford to care for them.

Q: Why do people get a horse if they can't afford to take care of it?

A: In some situations, owners who once could afford their horses have found themselves out of a job. Savings are depleted, and they may even be at risk of losing their homes. Feeding and caring for their horses becomes a low priority.

In other cases, people simply aren't educated enough about the cost and commitment required for horse ownership. One of the main objectives of the Unwanted Horse Coalition is to find ways to educate owners to purchase and own responsibly. Owning a horse is a luxury?and a long-term commitment.

Q: I hear so much about equine rescue facilities?don't they rehabilitate these abused and neglected horses to help them find new homes?

A: Yes, they do. But sadly, rescue facilities throughout the country are almost all at or near capacity, meaning there simply aren't enough resources to save every horse. In a national survey conducted by the Unwanted Horse Coalition in 2010, 63 percent of rescue facilities reported that they were at or near full capacity, and, on average, these facilities turn away 38 percent of horses brought to them. AAEP has estimated that 2,700 new rescue facilities would have to open every year to accommodate the number of unwanted horses at current increasing numbers.

Not every horse that ends up in a rescue facility can be adopted or sold. Reports from rescue-facility operators indicate that, on average, 25 percent are unadoptable due to age, health, or temperament issues. These unadoptable animals drain resources and limit the ability of rescuers to focus on horses that might be rehabilitated and rehomed. One of the proposed solutions to this problem is to adopt the small-animal model for managing populations at horse shelters, including euthanasia for unadoptable horses.

Finally, it's sad but true that some horses must be rescued from their rescuers. Reports of neglect at rescue facilities that have run out of resources aren't uncommon, and when a rescue facility fails, large numbers of unwanted horses may find themselves with nowhere else to go. Lack of rescue-facility regulation is a problem that needs to be addressed as part of the unwanted-horse dilemma.

Q: If there are too many horses, why don't people just stop breeding them?

A: The statistics kept by horse-breed associations show that breeding rates have fallen by 40 percent or more in the last half-decade. But this still doesn't quell the problem of overproduction; indiscriminate breeding is one of the most pervasive underlying causes of the unwanted horse problem. The unchecked breeding of feral horses on BLM lands is another factor.

In fact, most seizures of large groups of abused or neglected horses involve a stallion as a part of the group. This component of the problem can be addressed in two ways?through efforts to castrate stallions that aren't a part of a controlled breeding program, and by breeders taking responsibility for the long-term future of horses they produce.

Castration programs such as the Unwanted Horse Coalition's "operation gelding" are part of the solution. This program provides funds and materials to assist organizations in setting up clinics for low-cost castration.

Breeders taking responsibility is a more difficult concept to address, although some responsible breeders have stepped up to the plate. For example, Three Chimneys Farm, a large and well-respected Kentucky Thoroughbred breeding operation, has established a policy of attempting to rescue any horse it bred, owned previously, or that was sired by one of its stallions. If more breeders were willing to accept this challenge, unwanted horse numbers would decline.

Q: There must be a lot of places like handicapped riding programs, riding schools, or camps that need horses. Why don't people who can't take care of their horses give them away to good causes instead of abandoning them?

A: Horses aren't always suitable for these types of programs, either because of lameness, old age, or lack of training. While not much can be done about chronic lameness or old age, training is a critical factor that can make the difference for a horse's future. In fact, many consider solid training to be a horse's insurance policy against potential neglect and abuse. Providing training for horses in rescue facilities, in order to improve their adoptability, is widely believed to be a very important part of the solution to the unwanted horse problem.

Aside from donating them to reputable causes, some desperate owners do offer to give their horses away to individuals willing to take them. However, this may or may not be in the horses' ultimate best interests, because not all those who respond to such offers are equipped for or suited to the realities of horsekeeping. Many a free horse ultimately finds himself unwanted again, and in worse straits than before.

Q: Isn't it true with closure of U.S. slaughterhouses, unwanted horses are now protected from death by slaughter?

A: No. This is one of the most common misconceptions held by those not fully informed. Approximately 138,000 U.S. horses were transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010, almost identical to the approximate number of horses slaughtered here annually in years just before 2007, when the U.S. slaughterhouses closed. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of American horses exported increased by 148 percent to Canada, and a staggering 660 percent to Mexico.

The difference: A 2006 ban on funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection of horses intended for slaughter means that horses are transported extremely long distances to slaughter plants out of the country. By one estimate, these horses are trucked an average of 25 hours before reaching their final destination.

Canada's slaughterhouses are regulated, but the same can't be said of Mexico. There, many horse-slaughter facilities exist, including ones serving local markets, but only five operate under regulations required for meat export. Evidence exists that those regulations aren't always met.

In 1998, Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, made great strides to aid welfare of horses destined for slaughter. In an extensive survey, she learned that 73 percent of severe welfare issues occurred prior to slaughter, with horses being loaded for transport with broken legs, severe founder, or so weak they were unable to stand.

This resulted in establishment of the Slaughter Horse Transport Program and regulations that prohibit transport of horses if they're unable to bear weight on four limbs, unable to walk unassisted, blind in both eyes, foals under 6 months of age, or pregnant mares likely to foal during the trip. These rules require that stallions and other aggressive horses be separated from a group. Horses must have adequate food, water, and rest six hours prior to loading.

The SHTP regulations also outlawed double-decker trailers, and required that horses have adequate floor space and be confined no longer than 24 hours without food and water. But these transport regulations couldn't be enforced following the 2006 ban on inspection funding.

Q: Wasn't the ban on inspection funding lifted last fall, when President Obama signed a new piece of legislation that removed the funding ban?

A: It's true that the bill signed by the President omitted language that prohibited federal funding for inspections. But it didn't provide for funding, so inspections still aren't taking place. Furthermore, the new law will expire this September. (See "The Truth About Anti-Slaughter Laws," below.)

Q: Why are some horse welfare organizations arguing in favor of horse slaughter in the United States?

A: Many respected professional organizations, including the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Association, oppose the anti-slaughter bills currently before Congress, and support re-opening of slaughter plants in the United States. Even the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), one of the most radical animal-rights organizations in existence, has come out in support of re-opening U.S. slaughterhouses due to unintended consequences of their closure. Unfortunately, closure of the U.S. slaughter plants has had the boomerang effect of increasing suffering and abuse by opening the door for unregulated transportation of horses across the borders to Canada and Mexico.

These groups and individuals concerned for equine welfare recognize the current harsh reality that a strictly regulated trip to a domestic processing plant with humane slaughter practices in place is a preferable alternative to abandonment, starvation, or a hellish end in a Mexican slaughter plant. Until effective efforts to address the unwanted horse problem in the U.S. are made, humane slaughter may be one of the alternatives that results in the least amount of suffering.

Contrary to popular belief, most aren't "pro slaughter"?they simply sup- port re-opening of plants in the U.S. until better alternatives can be made avail- able. And, many are working tirelessly to improve the options available for the unwanted horse.

Q: Is equine slaughter ever an acceptable choice?

A: The horse plays a unique role in the lives of many Americans, both in history as a working partner that helped to build our country, and in current times as an athletic partner or companion. For many, this relationship with the horse makes equine slaughter an unthinkable choice. For others, especially those with hunting or agricultural livestock perspectives, the difference between slaughtering a horse and a cow, sheep, or pig is a difficult distinction.

Whatever side of the slaughter debate you're on, one thing is certain: If horse slaughter is to be permitted in the Unit- ed States, it must be humane.

Q: What can I do to help?

A: There's an old adage, "If you want to empty a bucket, start by no longer filling it." If you really want to make a difference, start by taking full responsibility for the horses you already own. Make sure they're as well trained and easy to handle as possible, to increase the chances they can always find a job once they leave your care. If you can't afford to support a horse once it becomes no longer useful, don't become an owner. If you breed or own a stallion, breed only quality horses with potential for a future. Also take care to give all the foals you produce a solid start that'll prepare them for success. If you "breed for fun," stop. And if you own a stallion "just because," have him castrated.

To help alleviate the existing problem, become involved in groups such as the Unwanted Horse Coalition as a volunteer, or donate to a local equine rescue facility. If you have the skills, offer to provide training for horses in rescue facilities to increase their chances of finding a home. And if you really want to step up to the plate, consider fostering or even adopting a horse that needs a home.

The Truth About Anti-Slaughter Laws
It's likely that there are more misunderstandings about current anti-slaughter legislation than about any other subject in the horse world today. Here's a review of the facts.

  • The legislation signed last fall by President Obama did not "lift the federal ban on slaughter," because no federal ban was in place. Legislation falling under the umbrella of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention act (AHSPA) was first introduced in 2006 as HR 503 and S 1915. This proposed legislation, which would've outlawed horse slaughter in the U.S., was passed by congress but not the senate and died that year without becoming law.
  • In 2006, congress began prohibiting use of federal funds to inspect horses destined for food. This was widely (and incorrectly) claimed to be a "ban on slaughter of U.S. horses." Initially, slaughter plants paid for inspections out of pocket to stay in operation.
  • The AHSPA legislation was reintroduced in 2007 as HR 503 and S 311, but again died without becoming law.
  • State laws passed in 2007 in Texas and Illinois resulted in closure of the three remaining slaughter plants operating in the United states.
  • The bill signed by President Obama on November 18, 2011, widely believed by the general public to "eliminate the ban on U.S. horse slaughter," simply omitted language that prohibited funding for inspection of horsemeat. But no funding was provided. Therefore, the USDA still is unable to oversee transport and welfare of the horses going to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. Not only is there no funding to allow for these much-needed inspections to take place, the current new law also will expire on September 30, 2012.
  • AHSPA legislation has continued to be presented to congress and the senate, currently in the form of HR 2966 and S 1176. This strongly worded anti-slaughter legislation would "prohibit shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donation of horses or other equids to be slaughtered for human consumption." It has yet to become law. Were it to be enacted, it might stop slaughter for good in the U.S., but it would not change the current situation.

Equine.com, H&R's sister entity within the Active Interest Media Equine Network, has joined forces with the Unwanted Horse Coalition to launch an innovative program called A Home For Every Horse. The program helps connect horses in need of homes with people looking for horses. Find more details at Equine.com, the world's largest horse marketplace, with 300,000 visitors each month.