AAEP Convention 2004: The Unwanted Horse

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has added the welfare of unwanted horses in the United States to its priority list for the foreseeable future, according to AAEP leaders during the annual convention Dec. 5-8, 2004, in Denver, Colo.

While the AAEP's stand against the national bill that bans slaughter of horses has been seen as a negative by many horse owners, the AAEP is not pro-slaughter, but pro-horse, said incoming president Scott Palmer, VMD. The AAEP sees their role as stewards of the horse, and they see the current bill as only a Band-Aid for a small cut in the otherwise gaping wound that is equine welfare in this country.

The AAEP, in conjunction with other groups, will host a national industry summit on the unwanted horse in Washington, D.C., on April 19, 2005, during the American Horse Council conference. In fact, the AAEP is so serious about the plight of the unwanted horse that it held a session on that topic that was very well-attended during its annual convention.

In the AAEP unwanted horse seminar, Tom Lenz, DVM, a former AAEP president, discussed acceptable euthanasia procedures, carcass disposal, and equine slaughter.

He noted that the term euthanasia comes from the Greek word eu, meaning good, and thanatos, meaning death. "A good death is one that occurs with minimal pain and at the appropriate time in the horse's life as to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering," stated Lenz. "Justification for euthanization of a horse for humane reasons should always be based on medical considerations as well as future quality-of-life issues for the horse."

Lenz noted there are only three acceptable methods of euthanasia for horses as published by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) expert panel on euthanasia and endorsed by the AAEP: Overdose of barbiturate anesthesia, gunshot, and penetrating captive bolt.

Among reasons cited by AAEP in opposing the slaughter ban bill is the limitation of euthanasia to barbiturate overload, with gunshot only allowed in emergency, and the banning of captive bolt. "This restriction does not conform to the expert advice of the AVMA's panel on euthanasia and removes the opportunity for professional judgment when determining the best form of euthanasia for a particular horse."

Also, the cost to keep a horse per year (without veterinary and farrier care) is estimated to be about $1,825 per horse, resulting in needed funds of more than $124 million per year to care for unwanted horses. That number will grow exponentially each year, and there is no provision in the bill to fund for the care of these horses.

The bill also fails to establish standards of care for rescue facilities.

"The slaughter of horses in the United States has struck an emotional chord within the horse industry and the general public," said Lenz. "Although the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act and its supporters are well-intentioned, the passage of these proposed acts of legislation will create a series of unintended consequences that will negatively impact the health and welfare of our nation's horses."

Numbers Don't Lie

Nat Messer, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, associate professor of equine internal medicine at the University of Missouri and a long-time welfare proponent, looked at the scope of the problem of unwanted horses. He defined an unwanted horse as follows:

"Unwanted horses represent a subset of horses within the domestic equine population that are no longer needed or useful, or their owners are no longer interested in or capable of providing care for them either physically or financially. Most unwanted horses will likely be sent to slaughter, with fewer numbers being euthanatized and disposed of through rendering. Still fewer are 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 (e.g., athletic ability), 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 ineligible for any sort of responsible, long-term care."

He said there is a lot about the unwanted horse that needs to be discovered in order to better identify horses at risk such as average age and sex, types of things that cause them to be unwanted, and whether they are purebred or grade horses.

Carcass Disposal

Another problem is carcass disposal of horses that die or are euthanatized. Messer said on average, about 1-2% (75,000-150,000 horses) of the seven million domestic horses in the United States were sent to slaughter each year for the past 10 years. Another 10,000-20,000 horses were exported to Canada each year for slaughter, and an unknown number of horses were sent to Mexico for the same purpose.

For example, in 1997, less than 1.3% of the domestic equine population was sent to slaughter (about 90,000 horses). In comparison, according to the National Animal Health Monitoring System report, in 1997 1.3% of horses aged six months to 20 years (about 80,500 horses) on all premises surveyed either died or were euthanatized. Additionally, 11.1% of horses greater than 20 years of age (about 55,000 horses) on all premises surveyed either died or were euthanatized in 1997.

Total mortality in 1997 then would be about 200,000 horses, or about 3-4% of the total equine population. Messer questioned whether the United States was prepared to handle that number of carcasses if 90,000 had not gone through the slaughter process.

Feral Horses

The unwanted horses session also touched on the feral horses removed from federal lands each year. Robin Lohnes of the American Horse Protection Association discussed the fiscal burdens on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to care for unadopted feral horses removed from public lands. She included in her discussion the recent line item in the federal appropriations bill that allows feral horses greater than 10 years of age or which have not been adopted in three attempts to be sold at public auction (and possibly sent to slaughter).

She noted that according to 2003 BLM statistics, there were 37,186 wild horses and burros on U.S. public range lands. The BLM's five-year plan calls for the removal of 45,000 animals.

Lohnes said the BLM has successfully adopted out more than 190,000 animals since 1978. In fiscal year 2001-2003 alone, the BLM placed 21,541 animals. And as of March 2004, the BLM estimated it had 5,844 animals in preparation or maintenance facilities slated for adoption in 2004.

However, the BLM in February of 2004 had 8,364 animals in short-term holding areas awaiting adoption, 6,993 animals in long-term holding areas, and 5,736 animals in sanctuaries.

Lohnes said that the BLM's adoption program "clearly competes" with the general horse industry to place animals, and that ultimately "it can potentially contribute to the plight of the unwanted horse."

Standards of Care

Doug Byars, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC, an internal medicine specialist from Lexington, Ky., discussed retirement and adoption farms. The AAEP recently began distributing Care Guidelines for Equine Rescue and Retirement Facilities. These guidelines came out about the same time as a similar resource from the Doris Day Foundation. Byars thinks there is a need to establish standards of care for equine retirement and adoption farms.

He feels that if equine slaughter is eliminated, it creates problems in identifying an appropriate number of care facilities with adequate funding, educated management for such facilities, and medical staff to care for the horses.

"Well-meaning individuals can quickly get in over their heads, and uneducated animal collectors, uninformed zealots, emotional individuals, and entrepreneurs seeking financial opportunities may increase proportional to the increased population of horses needing to be accommodated on retirement and adoption farms," said Byars.

He stressed the need for certification that looks at not only care of the physical animal, but management and financial assessment. He stressed the need to have humane, but practical, means of dealing with horses at life's end.

Veterinarians and Neglect

During her talk, Lydia F. Gray, DVM, executive director of the Hooved Animal Humane Society in Illinois, underscored the ways in which humane societies and veterinarians help horses at risk of neglect or which are being neglected.

Gray said the reasons owners neglect horses could be divided into the following categories:

  1. Ignorance (the owner doesn't understand how to care for the horse);
  2. Apathy (the owner doesn't care about caring for the horse);
  3. Lifestyle change (the owner has some financial or other problem);
  4. Intentional (the owner doesn't want to provide proper care); and
  5. Mentally ill (the owner is a collector or hoarder of animals).

She explained that neglect does not mean a horse that has burrs matted in his mane and tail. While that might indicate neglect could happen, that is not something that the law considers neglect. "Simply put, it is the withholding of basic needs from a horse: Food, water, shelter, and veterinary care when needed."

Gray said veterinarians have three options when faced with equine neglect: educating the owner, reporting the owner to the proper authorities, or doing nothing.

She said if veterinarians want to become actively involved in welfare issues, they need to become educated in the proper way to gather and present evidence in animal welfare cases and the proper way to rehabilitate neglected horses.

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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