Equine Welfare Challenges

Last year welfare of the horse in the United States reached the consciousness of not only the industry, but also the general public. The horse and veterinary industries have long addressed issues of equine welfare as it relates to competition, and the equine rescue community has long dealt with the reality of abused and neglected horses. But mainstream media outlets such as USA Today published stories outlining the welfare issues of horses as a result of the processing plant closures, and the U.S. government again brought the issue of "wild" horses and their fate to the general public. Finally, injuries to horses in high-profile competitive events propelled equine welfare to a hot topic last year, and there is no doubt it will continue to be one this year.

In 2007 phrases such as "unwanted horse" and "unintended consequences" became words that were familiar not only to the media and legislators, but ones that trickled down to the average horse owner, who continues to gain awareness of the welfare issues facing the industry. The "unwanted horse" phrase became the universal term used to identify horses that are caught up in the economic and legislative circumstances in our country.

Where we take the lessons learned in 2009 is up to us. In Colorado we have begun to address the issues of the unwanted horse, and this started with gathering data on the number of unwanted horses, the opinions of horse owners in the state, and suggestions on potential solutions. The Colorado Unwanted Horse Alliance was formed and includes representatives from the horse industry, government, and humane organizations, along with educators and others concerned about the issue.

The Colorado Unwanted Horse Alliance published results of a survey funded by the Animal Assistance Foundation that gave us the information we need to move forward in our state. Some of the information coming from this assessment included:

  1. The current problem is a combination of two almost simultaneous occurring factors: closure of the U.S. plants that processed horses and worsening economic conditions. The problem is escalating.
  2. There are limited resources in place to solve the problem. Horse rescue facilities are full, sanctuaries are full, and euthanasia and disposal options are limited and expensive.
  3. The top three solutions identified in the findings are:

    • Educate new owners regarding the options and resources during economic crisis and the reduction of indiscriminate breeding;
    • Provide options and resources for cost-effective euthanasia; and
    • Increase capacity and credibility for horse rescue facilities.

As the daily economic news grows more dismal, so do the reports of abandoned, abused, and neglected horses. This is also reflected in the results of the Colorado research that showed equine cruelty cases increased from 1,067 in 2006 to 1,498 in 2007. While the news isn't good for the industry or the welfare of the horse, the positive news is that the industry is responding. Outside of Colorado other states are addressing the situation, and the American Horse Council is working with the Unwanted Horse Coalition to educate the public about the issue.

The danger the horse industry faces at this point is allowing outside influences to capitalize on our unwillingness to change and our divided house to come up with solutions that are not good for the industry, and in many cases not good for the welfare of the horse.

The welfare of the horse in our nation is at a turning point, and horses depend on the industry, legislators, and the rescue community coming together to deal with the current problem, search for solutions, and put the welfare of the horse at the top of our priority list.

It is up to every individual horse owner and the organized horse industry to put aside our differences and do what is best for the horse. This is not going to be easy, but it is vital.

About the Author

Cindy Schonholtz

Cindy Schonholtz is president of the Animal Welfare Council.

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