Who is at fault for the "overabundance" of horses in the United States today?

The "unwanted horse" dilemma in the United States is akin to the awakening of a sleeping giant. Just how major the problem is and who or what is the prime culprit are questions that are open to debate. There are no easy answers, but a major part of the problem lies with overbreeding. We simply are breeding more horses than the market can absorb. To a large extent, the finger of blame perhaps can be extended toward the backyard breeder--the person who has a mare or two and decides to raise a few foals. In some cases the breeder has no definite plans for the future of the young horses; he or she just desires to raise a few because the mares are present and, perhaps, there is even a stallion on the premises. Sometimes these horses turn out to be excellent animals and are trained and placed in the marketplace, where they command respectable prices. In other instances they languish on the farm where the owner might lose interest in the animals' well-being.

Unfortunately, the problem doesn't stop there. Breeders of registered horses also contribute to the problem. If a horse is bred for a particular discipline, such as cutting, reining, racing, jumping, or dressage, and doesn't make the grade, it no longer has high value within that discipline. These horses--and there are many--also wind up in the general marketplace, where they are sold as recreational animals.

Even the highly specialized sport of racing contributes to the problem. A very small percentage of Thoroughbreds born each year will actually make it to the track. In 2007, according to The Jockey Club, an estimated 37,500 Thoroughbreds were registered in North America, a slight increase over the 37,300 registered in 2006.

No one knows how many of these horses are destined to have successful, or at least productive, careers on the track. The fact remains that thousands of the animals born each year wind up in the general marketplace instead of the racetrack because they don't have the speed to win.

The good news concerning absorption of these horses in the marketplace is that the majority of owners use horses for recreational purposes. The most recent statistics available are from a study funded by the American Horse Council and released in 2005. At that time it was estimated that there were more than 9.2 million horses in the United States. Of that number nearly 4 million were being used for recreation. This reflects a growing interest in trail riding. Next in line was horse showing, with more than 2.7 million. Racing accounted for 844,531 horses, and "other," including farm, ranch work, rodeo, carriage horses, polo, police work, and other competitions, accounted for more than 1.7 million.

Based on recent trends, there likely has been an overall increase in horse numbers since the study was made--pushing the total into the 10-million range or higher.

From Then Till Now

The above statistics are different than those presented shortly after the turn of the century when the horse was a "do everything" animal. When Henry Ford introduced the Model T back in 1908, the start of industrial mass production of the automobile, there were at least 21 million horses in the United States. That number peaked between 25 and 27 million around 1920. The decline in numbers started in the wake of World War I, shrinking all the way down to 3 million in the 1950s as the combustion engine took over and the interest in horses as recreational animals had not yet surfaced.

Many of the horses that no longer had value as farm animals or freight haulers met an untimely end. There were hundreds of horse processing plants across the country, and these excess animals were turned into pet food and fertilizer. Later, as numbers began to dwindle, pet food manufacturers turned to utilizing castoff products from beef and hog slaughtering plants in their products, and horse processing plants began to disappear.

A market then developed for exporting horsemeat to European countries for human consumption, and 15 processing facilities operated in the United States to fill the demand. An eventual tightening of this market resulted in a shutdown of most facilities until only three remained. Those have also been closed due to state legislation or legal action. At the time of their closure, approximately 100,000 horses per year were being processed for meat for export to foreign countries; meat for U.S. zoo animals; and for tissues used in human and veterinary medicine. A portion of that market has been picked up by an increasing number of horses being shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.

A resurgence of interest in the horse began in about the 1950s, with Western movies, more disposable income, and a desire in individuals to find additional recreational outlets spurring the rising tide. Numbers of horses began to climb, and more breeders' registries were formed. It started small, then the groundswell of interest in the horse and breeding took on an entirely new dimension. Horses were bred for specialized disciplines, such as dressage, cutting, jumping, and reining.

By 1996 the number of horses had climbed to 7 million. There were ebbs and flows in the numbers during the late 1990s and even into this decade, but a steady increase was experienced, bringing us into the 10-million range today.

Registered Horses?

A major player in the numbers game has been the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), which was formed in 1941. In 1974 (33 years later) the one millionth Quarter Horse was registered. By 1983 (nine years) the number had reached 2 million. The three-million mark was reached eight years later in 1991, and the four millionth Quarter Horse was registered in 2001 (10 years later). On Dec. 26, 2007, AQHA reported the registration of the 5 millionth American Quarter Horse.

These numbers reflect the growth of the horse industry overall through those years. However, there apparently has been a realization within this mammoth registry of more than 345,000 members that numbers are exceeding the market, and there has been a slight decrease in registration. According to AQHA, there were 135,787 Quarter Horses registered in 2007, a decrease from the 165,114 registered in the previous year.

In an effort to provide recreational outlets for the horses being born, AQHA--along with other breed registries--has been promoting a horseback riding program whereby members can log hours spent on horseback and earn various awards. In 2007 AQHA reported 13,481 enrollees with the number of total hours in the saddle reaching 4,619,007.

The American Paint Horse Association, which has been a fast-growing breed registry, also has reported a decrease in registrations. In 2006 there were 35,041 Paint Horses registered, and in 2007 that number declined to 30,639.

The Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC) also reported the number of registrations in 2007 had "decreased slightly" with 5,945 registrations, down from 6,756 in 2006. The ApHC was established in 1938, with the stated goal being to preserve, promote, and enhance the breed. Since then, some 670,000 Appaloosas have been registered.

The same trend was experienced by the Arabian Horse Association. In 2006 some 7,003 Arabians were registered, and in 2007 that number had dropped to 6,520. The Arabian horse perhaps experienced the most spectacular roller coaster ride during the rebirth of the equine industry. During its heyday throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, Arabian registrations were in the 30,000 range each year, with the ownership ranks being swelled by the entry of movie stars and wealthy businessmen. It was a status symbol to be an Arabian owner, and there were excellent tax advantages to horse ownership. Then along came congressional action in the mid-80s that ended the tax advantage. It took a while for the effects to filter down through the industry, but when they did, the market for Arabian horses plummeted and is just now climbing back.

Nonregistered Horses

It appears registered horse breeders are reacting to an overabundance of horses by cutting back on breeding. But what about the nonregistered horses? That subject presents a rather murky picture because we do not have accurate statistics on which to base conclusions.

The best source of information is from auctions where these horses are sold. People like Bill and Jann Parker, managers of BLS Horse Sales in Billings, Mont., say they have no problem selling top-end horses, but that it is getting harder and harder to get a bid on an overabundance of average to lower-end horses.

Among the most difficult horses to market, Bill Parker says, are mares of indifferent pedigree and conformation and weanlings or yearlings that fit into the same pattern. People are becoming more educated in regard to pedigrees, he says, stating: "They know good breeding." The low-end horses often are the product of backyard breeders.

Cleone Uecker, president of South Dakota Horse Sales in Corsica, S.D., agrees with Parker and adds that a dearth of trainers also figures into the equation. "Supply and demand is the name of the game," she says, "and an oversupply of young, nonbroke horses versus trainers makes them a bargain right now. We're raising horses faster than we are trainers."

Take-Home Message

What is an appropriate number of horses in this country? There is no simple answer. It depends on a wide variety of factors. One of those factors is economics. With the economic downturn, many owners who could afford to maintain a horse in the past no longer can and, in far too many instances, those horses are being abandoned.

At this point it would seem that the message to the horse industry in general would be: Make responsible breeding decisions that will result in a foal that has a useful future awaiting it.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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