Plight of the Unwanted Horse

"Unwanted horses" within the domestic equine population have been 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 physically or financially. Many unwanted horses will be sent to slaughter, euthanatized, or simply abandoned and left to die. Fortunate ones find new homes or jobs when their physical condition or temperament allows.

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 owners' expectations for their intended use (e.g., athletic ability), horses with non-life-threatening diseases, horses that have behavioral problems, or horses that are truly dangerous.

To my knowledge, there are no dependable demographics on unwanted horses. For example, ex-racehorses are often singled out as examples of unwanted horses when their racing careers end and they are unsuitable for breeding or other athletic endeavors. But how many of the 50,000-70,000 horses slaughtered last year in the U.S. and Canada were once racehorses? What is the average age and sex of these horses? What caused them to be unwanted? Answers to questions such as these need to be investigated so we can understand the problem and potentially find long-term solutions.

To their credit, various equine welfare groups, breed organizations, and benevolent equine welfare advocates and horse owners have made an effort to provide care for unwanted horses. These efforts, along with widespread efforts to inform the public about the unwanted horse's plight and a demand for horses by buyers most likely accounts for the 82% decrease in the number of horses sent to slaughter over the past five to 10 years. The capacity of retirement farms, rescue farms, and sanctuaries is currently unknown, but despite their noble efforts, the number of unwanted horses far exceeds the resources currently available. Well-meaning volunteers can become overburdened with unwanted horses, at times to the detriment of those horses. There simply are not enough volunteers, funding, or homes for all of the unwanted horses.

For the past 10 years, on average, approximately 1-2% (75,000-150,000 horses) of the U.S. equine population has been sent to slaughter each year1, with 20,000 or so horses exported to Canada each year for slaughter, and an unknown number sent to Mexico for that purpose (approximately 4,000 as of Dec. 23, 2004).

If we look at 1997 data, 1.3% of the domestic U.S. equine population went 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 (approximately 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 (approximately 55,000 horses) on premises surveyed either died or were euthanatized in 1997.2 Assuming these numbers are somewhat representative of what occurs annually (and recognizing the number of horses sent to slaughter continues to decrease), 150,000-200,000 equine carcasses must be disposed of each year through rendering, burial, slaughter, cremation, or other means.

Why are there so many apparently unwanted horses? Is there a glut of horses in the United States? Was there an even larger glut when 200,000-300,000 horses went to slaughter in the early 1990s?

Whenever there are many unwanted horses, there is concern for their welfare. Rebecca M. Gimenez, PhD, a member of the advisory board of South Carolina Awareness and Rescue for Equines, said in a letter to the editor in the April 2004 issue of The Horse, "We have seen a huge upsurge in abuse and neglect cases over the last three years in our state alone." She added: "Looking on the web and talking to veterinarians, farriers, and horse industry professionals tells me that this isn't only a South Carolina problem."

Neglect of horses takes many forms and is due to many factors. Could this upsurge in neglect referred to by Dr. Gimenez be due to an increasing number of owners unfamiliar with proper horse care? Could it be due to economic constraints from the economic downturn since Sept. 11? Could it be due to the high costs of disposing of unwanted horses brought about by regulations prohibiting burial of carcasses in some locales, or costs associated with veterinary euthanasia and disposal by cremation, "digestion," or rendering, and fewer slaughter plants processing horses for human consumption? All factors must be considered when faced with such a large number of unwanted horses.

The unwanted horse issue is complex, and it is the responsibility of the horse industry, equine welfare organizations, and equine veterinarians to proactively find long-term solutions that are in the best interests of the horses involved.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners will sponsor an Unwanted Horse Summit in Washington, D.C., on April 19, 2005, during the American Horse Council annual meeting. The day-long conference will bring equine industry leaders together to address the problem of unwanted horses.


  1. National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1998 Report.
  2. National Animal Health Monitoring System Part 1: Baseline Reference of 1998 Equine Health and Management, USDA/APHIS. September 1999. N280.898
  3. Gimenez, R.M. Letter to the editor. The Horse, April 2004; 30.

About the Author

Nat T. Messer IV, DVM

Nat T. Messer IV, BS, DVM (Colorado State University), Diplomate ABVP (Equine Practice), is currently a professor at the University of Missouri. He has a private practice and academic clinical background with interests in equine endocrine disease, equine laminitis, and equine welfare.

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