The Equine Industry's Top Welfare Issues

The so-called unwanted horse population, which some equine advocates say includes an overabundance of wild mustangs, continues to be a major welfare issue.

Photo: iStock

A rundown of equine welfare issues currently plaguing the U.S. industry and what’s being done to address them.

In March 2014, law enforcement authorities in New York discovered 33 horses residing on a Hamptonburgh farm without access to food or water. Further investigation revealed that one additional horse had died in its stall and two others had died elsewhere on the property. 

“Evidently, the farm operator was boarding (the horses for customers) and not feeding them,” says Gene Hecht, chief investigator for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Orange County, New York.  

Prosecutors eventually charged the farm’s operator with multiple counts of animal cruelty. This case is just one example of the hundreds focused on horses’ well-being every year. Many more go unprosecuted. 

While equine advocates agree horse abuse is always unacceptable, some don’t see eye to eye on which welfare issues are most urgent or why the horse industry as a whole should be concerned. In this article we’ll take a look at the issues industry players are worried about and what’s being done to address them.

“Unwanted” Horses and Their Trickle-Down Effects

Jennifer Williams, PhD, president of the Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, in College Station, Texas, believes reducing the number of so-called unwanted horses should top equine advocates’ priority list. The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) defines an unwanted horse as one that an owner cannot care for because of financial, emotional, or other reasons. Horses can also become unwanted if they become too old or injured to provide value—either financial or emotional—to their owners. 

A 2009 American Horse Council (AHC) survey estimated that 9.2 million horses were living in the United States. Those horses generated more than 400,000 jobs and contributed more than $30 million to the nation’s economy annually. Even so, the AHC’s Unwanted Horse Coalition estimates that in 2007, 170,000 of those horses were unwanted. The AHC has not yet been able to conduct a study to determine a more recent estimate of how many horses become unwanted annually or what happens to them over the long-term, but discussions of how to fund one have begun.

Williams says she believes that tackling major equine welfare issues begins with stemming the number of these unwanted horses, many of which wind up overpopulating rescues, being shipped to slaughterhouses, or abandoned to fend for themselves.

“I think the unwanted horse problem touches more horses and even more horse owners” than other welfare issues, she says. 

Beneath the unwanted horse umbrella might fall the overabundance of wild horse and burro herds under Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction, as well as slaughter-bound horses. In 2007 a combination of local court rulings and federal legislation closed existing horse processing plants in the United States. Since then, horses have been shipped thousands of miles to plants in Mexico and Canada for processing. Some equine advocates maintain that the transport and slaughter of American horses is inhumane. Meanwhile, slaughter proponents believe horse processing plants should be established in the U.S. to create humane options (Mexican processing plants, for instance, are not regulated by laws governing the humane handling of livestock) for owners who cannot or will not care for injured, aging, or otherwise unusable animals. 

Williams says she believes the factors mentioned, along with indiscriminate breeding, poor training, and uneducated horse owners all contribute to the number of horses abused or abandoned every year. She also believes horses have suffered as Americans moved away from depending on them for farming and transportation and as the number of people willing or able to train horses for pleasure or exhibition declines. 

“If we focus on the unwanted horse problem, we end up also addressing at least some of the wild horse problem, some of the slaughter problem, and some other general welfare problems,” Williams believes. “Because if we didn’t have an overabundance of horses with too few homes, we’d have more places for mustangs to go, we would have less fodder for the slaughterhouses, and we would have fewer abandoned horses.”

Soring and Abusive Training Methods

Some abused horses are not necessarily unwanted, says Teresa Bippen, president of Friends of Sound Horses, a horse industry organization (HIO) that advocates against the practice of soring, particularly in the training and exhibition of Tennessee Walking Horses. Soring is the deliberate injury to a horse’s feet and legs to obtain an exaggerated high--stepping gait. The Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970 forbids such practice. 

Bippen believes the soring issue represents any training or exhibition technique that can harm horses, no matter the breed.

“Soring is a significant issue because it is incomprehensible in this enlightened horsemanship age that pain and abuse are the training methods of any horse,” Bippen says. “The practices in the (Tennessee Walking Horse industry) negatively impact the reputations of all horse people and equine disciplines.”

In recent years some federal lawmakers have proposed legislation that would amend the HPA. The Prevent All Soring Tactics Act (PAST, HR 1518) would have forbidden trainers from using action devices, including metal chains and so-called “stacks” and pads also known as performance packages. The bill would have increased federal penalties for anyone who sored a horse and would require the USDA to assign a licensed inspector if management for a Tennessee Walking Horse show indicated its intent to hire one. 

Meanwhile, the Horse Protection Amendments Act of 2014 (S 2913) would have given lawmakers an alternative way to prevent soring. That proposed legislation would have created one HIO to manage horse shows where Tennessee Walking Horses or other sport horses compete. That HIO would have been composed of equine veterinarians and industry experts who would develop and implement protocols, guidelines, testing policies, and inspection policies for the industry. Those industry experts would have been drawn from states most impacted by the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. Finally, the bill would have required that testing used in Walking Horse inspections be done “through objective science-based methods and protocols” and preserve the oversight shared by the Walking Horse industry and the USDA. 

Both bills died in the 113th Congress. 

In the absence of a new bill, Walter Chism, acting executive director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association (TWHBEA), says his organization is stepping up to prevent abuse connected to soring.

“There is no legislation,” says Chism.“It failed to garner enough support to get a vote in either branch of Congress, and who knows if it will surface again.”

In the meantime, Chism says the Tennessee Walking Horse industry has begun implementing objective tests, including blood tests and X rays, as a part of its inspection protocols.

“This year’s world championship show solicited world-renowned (veterinarians) to begin testing above and beyond what is required by HPA, investing over $100,000 toward ensuring the welfare of our show horses,” he says. 

Doping in Horse Racing

John F. Wayne, chairman of the Organization of Racing Investigators says horses competing at racetracks in the United States and elsewhere are vulnerable to other suspect training practices and sometimes receive unregulated substances, misbranded drugs, or medications with allegedly invalid prescriptions. Sometimes injected by trainers, sometimes by veterinarians, he says the substances are almost always intended to enhance equine performance. However, he adds, they often put horses at risk or injury or even death.

Unregulated drugs intended to enhance equine athletes' performance can actually put horses at risk of injury or even death.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

“We did a seizure and investigation and found a treasure trove of uncategorized and unlabeled medications,” in one trainer’s possession. 

And in March of the year four veterinarians were charged with administering drugs to Thoroughbred racehorses within 24 hours of when the horses were entered to race at the Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Pennsylvania. 

While the veterinarians’ cases remain pending, Wayne believes most owners and trainers do want to do the right thing. “I believe that 95% of the industry follows the rules, but we have to deal with the lawless minority,” he says.

He also believes that doping should draw the ire of equine advocates because investigating and prosecuting it benefits the horses involved. 

“The horse can’t tell us if something is wrong, and it’s our job is to make sure that we protect the horse,” Wayne says. 

It’s good for the racing industry, too, he says: “We need to build bridges between jurisdictions that are prosecuting and investigating these cases, because it’s important to keep integrity and honesty in racing in order to keep the public’s trust.”  

Carriage Horse Welfare

While keeping the horse industry honest is key, Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, professor and Fulbright scholar in the Department of Animal Science at Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, also believes that the future of equine welfare revolves around how the horse industry responds to proposed legislation that would ban horse-drawn carriages in New York City.

Organizations in several cities have called for bans on horse-drawn carriages.


In 2013 the nonprofit New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS) called for a citywide ban on horse-drawn carriages on grounds that carriage company operators exposed horses to traffic fumes and collisions, failed to provide appropriate shelter for working animals, and sometimes overworked animals to the point of injury or death. The measure drew fire from carriage company owners who said the horses are already subject to 2010 legislation mandating their care and welfare and that passage of the ordinance would force owners to sell the horses or place them with rescue organizations. The owners argued that the horses were business partners and assets connected directly to the drivers’ ability to make a living.

While the debate raged, Ralston met with drivers, toured stables, rode in the carriages, and found that none of the horses she observed suffered stress either in the stables or on the street. Ralston says the ban has nothing to do with equine welfare.

“The proposed ban is based on the premise that it is cruel and abusive to have horses without access to pasture 24/7 and asking them to work,” Ralston says. “My research has shown that horses always do better when they have a job and that these (drivers and owners) are working-class people who love to work with horses. The radical animal organizations are plucking the low-lying fruit.”

As a result, Ralston believes that if those who support such a ban are successful, the entire horse industry is in jeopardy. 

“This opens the floodgates for people who want to eliminate horses from any activity, and that means horse racing can be banned, endurance events can be banned—we are all going to be impacted,” she explains.

The solution, Ralston says, is to clearly define the ways horses might be maltreated, such as being deprived of adequate food, water, veterinary care, and safe housing, and to support law enforcement and others who prosecute the actual abusers. 

Take-Home Message

Jerry Finch, president of the Habitat for Horses rescue, in Hitchcock, Texas, refuses to identify just one issue that welfare advocates should rally around.

“There is no difference between the unwanted horse issue, the carriage horse issue, or any other issue,” Finch says. “They are all horse issues to me, and I can’t put one ahead of the other.”

Instead, he believes respect for horses will survive only if the industry cultivates a new generation of welfare--conscious owners, trainers, and -exhibitors.

“What are they doing to get city kids involved with horses, to keep equine sports alive, and to keep horse racing alive?” Finch asks. “We need to get people interested in horses again.”

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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