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The Plight of the Unwanted Horse

Editor's Note: The following article is being reprinted with permission from
the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP).

by Nat T. Messer IV, DVM

            For the past 15 years, on average, approximately 1-2%
(75-150,000 horses) of the domestic equine population in the United States
is sent to slaughter each year, with another 10-20,000 US horses being
exported to Canada each year for slaughter, and an unknown number of horses
being sent to Mexico for that purpose as well (eg: @ 4000 in 2004). In 1998,
slightly more than 1% of the domestic equine population was sent to
slaughter (approx. 75,000 horses).
    In comparison, according to the 1998 National Animal Health Monitoring
System (NAHMS) Report, 1.3% of horses age 6 months to 20 years (approx
80,500 horses) on all premises surveyed either died or were euthanatized in
1997, while 11.1% of horses greater than 20 years of age (approx. 55,000
horses) on all premises surveyed either died or were euthanatized in 1997.
    Assuming these numbers are at least somewhat representative of what
occurs annually, almost 200,000 deceased horses (3-4% of the total equine
population) must be disposed of annually, one-third of which are being
processed for human consumption, with the remainder being rendered, buried,
disposed of in landfills, cremated or "digested".
    "Unwanted horses" represent a subset of horses within the domestic
equine population determined by someone to be no longer needed or useful or
their owners are no longer interested in or capable of providing care for
them either physically or financially. Some unwanted horses will find new
accommodations; however, most unwanted horses will likely be sent to
slaughter with fewer numbers being euthanatized and disposed of through
rendering or other means and still fewer simply abandoned and left to die of
natural causes.
    Unwanted horses range from being essentially normal, healthy horses of
varying ages and breeds to horses with some type of disability or infirmity,
horses that are unattractive, horses that fail to meet their owner's
expectations for their intended use (eg: athletic ability, horses with
non-life-threatening diseases, horses that have behavioral problems or
horses that are truly mean or dangerous). In many cases, these horses have
had multiple owners, have been shipped from one sale barn, stable, or farm
to another, and have ultimately been rejected as eligible for any sort of
responsible, long-term care.
    When the number of unwanted horses mentioned above are combined with the
10,000 or so feral horses being maintained by the Bureau of Land Management
(BLM) on privately owned sanctuaries deemed to be un-adoptable or unwanted
and 5,000 or so horses being held in short-term holding facilities operated
by the BLM awaiting adoption plus some 20,000 or so displaced pregnant mares
and their foals from the Pregnant Mare Urine (PMU) industry, one can readily
see that the number of truly and/or potentially unwanted horses constitutes
a significant number of horses to be dealt with each year and in the future.
    To their credit, various equine welfare organizations, breed-specific
organizations, and numerous benevolent equine welfare advocates and horse
owners have made a conscientious and concerted effort to either provide care
for unwanted horses, provide funding for the care of unwanted horses, or to
find suitable accommodations for them in both the private and public sector.
These efforts, along with widespread efforts to inform the public about the
plight of the unwanted horse, and a relatively high demand for horses by
prospective buyers presumably accounts for the nearly 80% decrease in the
number of horses being sent to slaughter over the past 10 years.
     The carrying capacity for these retirement farms, rescue farms and
sanctuaries, as they are called, is unknown at this point, but despite their
noble efforts to provide care for many unwanted horses, the number of
unwanted horses far exceeds the resources currently available to accommodate
them all. The estimated cost of providing basic care for a horse range from
$1800-$2400 per animal per year. Even well-meaning volunteers can become
overburdened with unwanted horses, at times to the detriment of the horses
under their care. Currently, there simply are not enough volunteers, funding
or placement opportunities for all of the unwanted horses.
    Why are there so many apparently unwanted horses? Is there, as some
would suggest, a glut of horses in the United States today? Was there, then,
an even larger glut of horses when 200-300,000 horses were being sent to
slaughter in the late '80s and early '90s?
    For the past 5-10 years, the demand for horses on the part of those
buying horses has been very good. Over the years, however, this demand has
certainly run in cycles that frequently follow other economic trends. In
general, when the demand for horses is low, then the number of unwanted
horses increases, irregardless of what their bloodlines may be. Recent
changes in various breed organizations' rules, such as permitting the use of
embryo transfer and frozen semen, have favored the production of horses,
allowing breeders to produce more than one offspring per year from mares,
and allowing breeders to more efficiently select for horses with desirable
bloodlines or performance records. New technology will further facilitate
this practice in the future.
    Unfortunately, even with the help of technological advances, not every
mating will produce a horse that meets the expectations of an owner or
buyer. For those in the business of breeding and raising horses, an unsold
horse becomes a liability rather than an asset.
    Currently, to the author's knowledge, there is a lack of information
about the demographics of unwanted horses other than the generalizations
made previously, ie, not marketable, disabled or infirm, unattractive,
lacking athletic ability, dangerous or mean. A more detailed study
investigating the demographics of horses deemed to be unwanted would allow
the horse industry to focus more appropriately on the problem.
    For instance, former racehorses are frequently singled out, as examples
of unwanted horses when their racing careers end and they are not candidates
for breeding or other athletic endeavors. There are undocumented estimates
suggesting that less than 10% of the horses that go to slaughter are
Thoroughbreds, but just how many of the 80,000 or so horses that went to
slaughter last year in the US and Canada were former racehorses? What is the
average age and sex of those unwanted horses? What are the types of things
that cause them to be unwanted? Are they purebred or grade horses?
    Answers to questions such as these and many more need to be addressed to
be able to understand the problem and potentially reduce the number of
unwanted horses.
Whenever there are large numbers of unwanted horses as there are today,
there is always concern for the welfare of these horses. According to
Rebecca M. Gimenez, PhD, a member of the advisory board of the South
Carolina Awareness and Rescue for Equines organization, in a letter to the
editor in the April, 2004, issue of a prominent horse magazine, "we have
seen a huge upsurge in abuse and neglect cases over the last three years in
our state alone." She goes on to say, "Looking on the web and talking to
veterinarians, farriers, and horse industry professionals all tells me that
this isn't only a South Carolina problem."
Neglect of horses takes many forms and is due to a variety of factors. Could
this upsurge in neglect, referred to by Dr. Gimenez, be due to solely to an
increasing number of uninformed horse owners unfamiliar with the proper care
of horses; or could it be due purely to economic constraints created by the
downturn in the economy since 9/11; or could it be due to the availability
(or lack thereof) of affordable ways to responsibly dispose of unwanted
horses brought about by regulations prohibiting burial of animal carcasses
in some locales, costs associated with veterinary euthanasia and disposal by
cremation, "digestion" or rendering, or fewer slaughter plants processing
horses for human consumption?
    All of these factors must be considered when faced with this large
number of unwanted horses and what should be done with them, always ensuring
they are treated humanely and with dignity until the end of their lives.

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