A Promising Future

When equine industry leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., on April 19 for the first Unwanted Horse Summit, it marked the start of an unprecedented effort by the horse community to address the care and fate of this country's “unwanted” horses. The recently coined phrase "unwanted horse" represents those horses within the domestic equine population that are no longer wanted or useful to their owners, or their owners are not interested in or capable of providing their day-to-day care. They range from normal, healthy horses of varying ages or breeds to horses that fail to meet their owners' expectations, have non-life-threatening diseases or untreatable lameness, are unattractive, possess behavioral problems, or are dangerous.

The Summit was hosted by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), which is serving as the catalyst for identifying and implementing long-term, practical solutions to improve the health and welfare of horses. To ensure all views were considered, representatives from national breed organizations, sport and discipline groups, rescue and retirement facilities, veterinary associations, federal government agencies, and welfare groups were invited to attend. An independent, professional facilitator led the meeting, and over 25 people, including a United States congressman, participated.

Discussion centered around two key areas: The causes of the unwanted horse problem and possible approaches for dealing with it. Participants identified the following factors as being among the most critical causes: The steep cost of ownership, the uneducated horse owner who becomes disenchanted with the animal, the horse that develops a career-ending physical or behavioral problem, or the horse that is the result of irresponsible breeding.

The consensus was that today the only options for dealing with unwanted horses was through rescue and retirement, euthanasia by a veterinarian or at a commercial processing (slaughter) plant, development of second careers, and responsible ownership. The owner's responsibility to care for a horse throughout the animal's entire life was a consistent theme throughout the day.

The controversial topic of horse processing (slaughter) was discussed at the Summit; however, the issue did not dominate the meeting and was discussed no more and no less than the other factors affecting the unwanted horse population. Currently, nearly 80,000 U.S. horses are processed annually for meat or exported to Canada or Mexico for processing. With processing plant buyers paying somewhere around $300 each for these horses, most are believed to be unwanted and to have been disposed of by their owners. Participants felt that as an industry, we must work toward the long-term objective of making horse processing obsolete. In the short term, we have to focus on finding alternative solutions for horses going to processing plants and ensure that the United States Department of Agriculture continues to strictly enforce transport-to-slaughter regulations.

At the end of the day, all participants agreed that dealing with the unwanted horse issue will require a long-term, well-funded, collaborative effort including not only the groups attending the Summit, but others across the equine industry. To accomplish this, the formation of a national steering committee was agreed upon, with separate working groups charged with specific issues such as rescue and retirement facility standards, owner education, and second career strategies, as well as euthanasia and carcass disposal options.

Looking back on the initial Summit and the participants' enthusiastic discussion, I have no doubt that there is adequate commitment by the industry to tackle and resolve the unwanted horse problem. And having been privileged to attend, I am encouraged that we, the horse industry, can resolve it.

It will not happen overnight. We have been trying to solve the unwanted dog and cat problem in this country for decades and still euthanatize over five million dogs and cats each year in humane shelters. Nevertheless, we have taken the first step, and I believe the commitment by the industry is real. The meeting proved an excellent starting point for what will hopefully be an ongoing effort to improve the quality of life for our horses. But the Summit was just that: A starting point. The challenge now facing the equine industry is to commit resources and manpower to solve this problem in the long term.

Editor's Note: A comprehensive report detailing the work of the Summit participants, as well as the papers presented at the Unwanted Horse Educational Session that preceded the Summit, is available for public reading at www.aaep.org/press_room.php?id=195.

About the Author

Tom Lenz, DVM, Dipl. ACT

Tom Lenz, DVM, Dipl. ACT, is chairman of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of unwanted horses and to improving their welfare through education and the efforts of organizations committed to the health, safety, and responsible care and disposition of these horses. Lenz was the 49th president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and he has served on the American Horse Council's Animal Welfare Committee and the Research Committee of the American Quarter Horse Association.

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