AAEP Convention 2005: Horseman's Day Unwanted Horse

What is an unwanted horse? An unwanted horse is a horse within the domestic equine population that is deemed by its owner to no longer be useful or needed, said Nat Messer, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, during the Horseman's Day session at the 51st annual AAEP Convention in Seattle, Wash., Dec. 3-7, 2005.

Messer explained that unwanted horses range from being essentially normal, healthy horses of varied ages and breeds to horses with some type of disability or infirmity. They could be horses that are unattractive, or horses that failed to meet their owners' expectations--lacked athletic ability, had behavior problems, or were dangerous.

How big is the unwanted horse population? In 2004, about 60,000 horses were sent to slaughter in the United States, another 20,000 were sent to Canada, and about 4,000 were sent to Mexico, according to Messer. Additionally, the Bureau of Land Management held 17,000 feral horses in short- and long-term facilities, and another 20,000 pregnant mare urine (PMU) industry mares and foals were in need of homes. This adds up to more than 100,000 unwanted horses to be concerned about. In addition, approximately 100,000 horses were euthanatized or died of natural causes, making the total number of potentially deceased horses in 2004 in excess of 200,000.

"We have to ask ourselves, is our current system capable of handling this many deceased horses every year?" Messer challenged the audience. "Will it be capable of handling it in the future, and what will happen if we eliminate the means of disposing of unwanted horses such as the slaughter industry?"
Messer said that the slaughter industry has been highly criticized by welfare groups and individuals as an inhumane way of dealing with these unwanted horses. Many veterinarians have been targeted by in the criticism for not speaking out against slaughter.

"I am a veterinarian," Messer said. "It is not my job to deal with the moral issues of horse slaughter as long as it is carried out in a humane manner. I've been to two processing plants with the intention to be very critical of the process. The information you see in the press about misfiring captive bolts and other horrors are the exception rather than the norm in my experience. I've seen the captive bolt in use, and it is a humane way of euthanatizing horses. But I am personally more interested in finding a solution to reducing the number of horses going to this end."

Messer warned the audience that eliminating horse processing plants before dealing with the issues contributing to the number of unwanted horses would be irresponsible of the horse industry and Congress and could lead to more cases of abuse and neglect. He said that after horse processing was banned in California, 500-600 neglected horses were confiscated from horse collectors by local authorities, and caring for these horses nearly overwhelmed the capacity of equine welfare groups asked to provide care. "If a system like California has can't handle 500 to 600 horses, how is the rest of the country going to deal with an extra 80,000 to 100,000 horses that would normally go to those processing plants?" Messer said.

"Whenever there are large numbers of unwanted horses as there are today, there is always the concern for the welfare of these horses," Messer said. "But rather than catering to our own personal feelings, let's think about the horses. It's of no consequence to the horse what happens after his death, just to those of us opposed to eating horsemeat. We just need to make sure that the horses are properly cared for until their death."

Messer credited various equine welfare groups, breed organizations, and veterinarians with educating and caring for unwanted horses, which he said resulted in the 80% decrease in the number of horses sent to slaughter over the past 15 years. There are approximately 480 legitimate equine rescue facilities and individuals in the United States, but even if they averaged 30-50 horses per facility, the number of unwanted horses far exceeds the resources available to care for them.

Messer said the horse industry needs to examine what makes these horses unmarketable. What was their most recent occupation? Why are they unable to do that job anymore? What was their value then? Are they grade or registered? He said the answers to these questions could help reduce the number of unwanted horses.

"This problem is not going to resolve on its own," Messer explained. "It is up to the equine industry to promote responsible breeding and to educate horse owners about the plight of the unwanted horse."

About the Author

Chad Mendell

Chad Mendell is the former Managing Editor for TheHorse.com .

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