Equine welfare: Unwanted horses - an epidemic


There are tens of thousands of them across the nation. And their numbers are growing at an alarming rate.

National Report — There are tens of thousands of them across the nation — no one knows exactly how many.

Fast Facts

And there are few reliable statistics on their age, gender, breed, use or where they wind up.

They are horses that nobody wants.

Their numbers are growing at an alarming rate — to the point that some are calling it an epidemic that within a couple more years could rival a natural disaster's impact on horses.

"Three or four years ago, there wasn't a lot of talk about this issue, but nowadays there's so much interest I could give a speech about it every day," says Tom Lenz, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, a former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) who is chairman of the Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC), a group of more than 20 veterinary, horse-industry and equine-sport organizations formed in 2005 with the mission of reducing the number of unwanted horses and improving their welfare.

What facts are documented provide only a general overview of the problem. Here's what they reveal, as presented at last month's AAEP convention in San Diego:

  • In 2007, about 58,000 horses went to the last three U.S. slaughterhouses that processed and exported horse meat for human consumption before the plants closed about mid-year.

  • About 45,000 were exported to Mexico for processing that year.

  • About 35,000 went to Canada for processing.

  • There are about 21,000 un-adoptable feral horses kept on Bureau of Land Management-funded sanctuaries.

  • About 9,000 wild horses are in the BLM adoption pipeline. (Between 7,000 and 8,000 are gathered off federal rangelands each year in 10 Western states, and between 5,000 and 6,000 are adopted, but those adoptions have been in sharp decline lately.)

That totals about 170,000 unwanted horses — but it's by no means the real number.

There are far more than that, experts say, based on increasing reports from across the country of recreational and work horses being abandoned, left tied to posts outside sales barns or on farms, unloaded on rural pastures or left to roam with feral horses on government-owned rangelands. Many cases of abuse and starvation are reported.

What's behind the alarming numbers of unwanted horses?

The troubled U.S. economy clearly is a major contributing factor. Many owners can no longer afford the few thousand dollars a year it costs to care for a horse. The price of hay and other feeds has risen dramatically because of drought conditions in some areas and because of grain diverted to fuel production. Euthanasia and carcass disposal costs are rising.

Kentucky, which advertises itself as the world's horse capital, provides a microcosm of what is happening in many states. "People who used to be able to afford their horses now can no longer do so," Ginny Grulke, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Council, was quoted as saying recently. "They are not people who are ruthless or inhumane. In general, it's an economic problem, and they have no options. They don't know what to do with their animals." Some Kentucky farm owners report horses being left on their properties like stray dogs or cats. Grulke called on the state Legislature to commission a study to determine the full scope of the problem in her state.

The slaughter issue

Aside from the economy, some of the major veterinary organizations point to what they believe is another key contributing factor, one that is complex and charged with emotion: the shutdown of the last three U.S. slaughterhouses in 2007 and a House bill that has been evolving since 2001 and in its current form would prohibit future transport, sale, delivery or export of horses for slaughter for human consumption — barring even the shipment of horses to Mexico and Canada for that purpose.

An AAEP delegation told a U.S. House subcommittee recently that the legislation, if passed in 2009, will lead to more unwanted horses left to languish and suffer.

The AAEP, along with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and other veterinary and horse-industry groups, warned for years that closing the plants would lead to more unwanted and neglected horses, even though their own membership support on that stance, while a large majority, isn't at 100 percent. A number of veterinarians consider horse slaughter predatory and cruel, and support the current House-passed bill that is likely to be taken up in Congress this year.

The AAEP states formally that it "is not pro-slaughter," but believes that "until the unwanted horse issue can be resolved, euthanasia at a federally regulated processing plant is an acceptable alternative to abuse, neglect or abandonment."

"If this legislation would allow a significant period of time, say for example until 2015, to prohibit slaughter here and close the borders to shipping horses to Mexico and Canada for slaughter, it would give the horse industry time to solve this problem," Lenz says. "We're working hard on it now and will solve it, but the legislation as written bars slaughter immediately, closes the borders and thus makes a solution that much more difficult."

The horse industry's other concerns with the legislation is that it provides no infrastructure for the welfare of horses no longer removed for slaughter, doesn't address carcass disposal, doesn't provide an enforcement plan or agency and provides no funding to care for unwanted horses.

"This legislation, which would make it a felony to knowingly sell a horse to be slaughtered for human consumption and moves enforcement to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney General rather than the Secretary of Agriculture, is based on the supposition that slaughter is cruel," Lenz says.

But when the AAEP toured the former U.S. processing plants, it found that horses were treated with dignity and euthanized humanely under USDA veterinary oversight, Lenz says.

AAEP visits Mexican plants

Can the same be said of the plants in Mexico?

Lenz got to see for himself in November, when he, along with Dr. Douglas G. Corey, another AAEP past-president, and Dr. Sergio Salinas, the international member on the AAEP's board of directors, finally were permitted to tour some plants in Mexico. Mexican officals and plant owners earlier had been reluctant to allow such tours after the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) released undercover video in 2007 showing a horse being stabbed in a Mexican facility, followed by a wave of negative publicity.

What were the AAEP group's impressions of the Mexican operations?

"There are three types of processing plants in Mexico — TIF or federal inspection-type plants, municipal plants and some clandestine ones that are privately owned and unregulated," Lenz explains.

"All U.S. horses go to the TIF plants, which meet European standards, have veterinary inspectors and use penetrating captive-bolt euthanasia, which is an acceptable and humane method," Lenz pointed out in a presentation at the AAEP convention.

"The municipal plants process only Mexican horses, meet Mexican standards and use the same form of euthanasia. We didn't see anything out of line or offensive at either of these type of plants. They of course could have staged some of this for us, but I doubt that was the case."

Conclusions and recommendations

If Congress does act this year to stop U.S. horses from being shipped to Mexican or Canadian plants, and bars any future slaughter for processing in the United States, what options are left for unwanted horses?

Here are some that Lenz presented at the AAEP convention:

  • change of occupation (converting former performance horses to other activities, for example)

  • opening of more rescue or retirement facilities

  • adoption

  • donation to teaching/research institutions

  • donation to therapeutic riding programs

  • euthanasia at processing plants as long as that is allowed

  • euthanasia at the request of owners

What can equine veterinarians do now to help solve the unwanted-horse problem? Here's what the UHC suggests, as Lenz outlined for the AAEP:

  • Learn the facts and share them with horse owners, saddle clubs, breed associations and others.

  • Encourage the establishment of breed-specific rescue and adoption programs.

  • Encourage clients to own responsibly by considering the consequences before breeding or buying another horse, and to take responsibility for horses after they are no longer wanted or needed.

"We can't completely eliminate the unwanted-horse problem at this point," Lenz says, "because we can't prevent aging, injuries, poor athletes or unattractive horses. But we can minimize it by encouraging people to buy rather than to breed more horses, adopt rather than buying, finding alternative careers for horses and euthanizing rather than discarding (horses)."

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