Reducing 'Unwanted' Horse Numbers

Reducing 'Unwanted' Horse Numbers


In January 2011 authorities removed 80 horses from the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary and Rescue in Hot Springs after the sanctuary's primary patron declined further support. After veterinary evaluations the horses were relocated to the Montana Horse Sanctuary in Simms until Habitat for Horses, a nonprofit organization that works with law enforcement in equine rescue cases, could help find them adoptive homes. According to Habitat for Horses president Jerry Finch, the animals had been placed at the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary and Rescue by former owners. But he declined to classify the animals as unwanted.

Nevertheless, based strictly on definition, the horses fell under the unwanted label, according to the Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC). The UHC defines an unwanted horse as one that is no longer wanted by its current owner because it is old, injured, sick, unmanageable, fails to meet the owner's expectations in terms of performance, color, or breeding, or is a horse the owner can no longer afford to maintain.

The exact number of unwanted horses in the United States is unknown. But according to UHC estimates, 100,000 animals join the unwanted ranks annually. Some are shipped to horsemeat processing plants in Canada and Mexico. Others are abandoned or maltreated by their owners, then seized by authorities and placed at equine rescues for rehabilitation and possible adoption. Still others are voluntarily relinquished to rescues by owners either unable or unwilling to care for them.

Thanks to the persistently lackluster economy, the number of unwanted horses is unlikely to decline soon. As a result, some equine industry members, including veterinarians, rescue operators, and lawmakers, are thinking outside of the box and identifying ways to manage existing unwanted horses in the United States and to prevent their ranks from swelling.

Reinvent Rescues

Last year researchers from the University of California, Davis, asked 144 nonprofit equine rescue and sanctuary operators in 37 states how they were coping with the expanding number of unwanted horses coming into their care. The survey revealed that, collectively, respondents took in 7,990 horses that were relinquished by their owners from 2007 to 2009. They also revealed that from 2006 to 2009 only three of every four relinquished animals were adopted or sold. Faced with an average care cost of $3,648 per horse annually and limited facilities for maintaining unplaced animals, some respondents said they had refused to accept additional horses in need.

With more animals expected to enter the welfare system, former UHC Chairman Tom Lenz, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, believes rescues must reinvent themselves if they hope to cope. "I'm 100% sure we can't continue to warehouse horses," he says.

Grace Foundation (which provides critical care for abused and neglected horses in Northern California) director Beth DiCaprio envisions rescue operators modeling their organizations after small animal clinics. This would mean establishing regional evaluation centers where relinquished horses would undergo medical and behavioral evaluations. Based on evaluation outcomes, horses would be divided into three groups: animals with good adoption prospects; those in need of veterinary care or training to become adoptable; and those with few adoption prospects. Under the model, horses with little or no adoption potential would be euthanized.

"Unadoptable animals are a drain on rescues' resources," DiCaprio says. "Saving the horse at all costs is no longer an option."

But Jenn Williams, PhD (animal science), founder of Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society in Rosharon, Texas, believes some rescuers might resist embracing the small animal shelter model unless horse industry members work together on how it can be adapted to suit equine rescues.

Promote Castration

Idaho Humane Society shelter director Patricia Vance has spent the last 22 years helping law enforcement authorities rescue horses from neglectful or abusive owners. Each rescue operation has one element in common: "Never once have we ever taken a group of horses that doesn't have studs in it," Vance says. "We have to encourage people to castrate their stallions if we want to reduce unwanted horse numbers."

Equine welfare advocates' interest in castration to curb the unwanted horse population surfaced in 2008 when NorCal Equine Rescue in Oroville, Calif.--now the Horse Plus Humane Society--began offering low-cost castration services for owners in its immediate area. Since then organizations nationwide have established similar low-cost castration programs, such as the gelding project started in April 2009 by a consortium of organizations including the Minnesota Horse Council, Minnesota Association of Equine Practitioners, Animal Humane Society, several equine rescue organizations, Julie Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, of Turner Wilson Equine Consulting LLC, and Krishona Martinson, PhD, equine extension specialist for the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

According to Martinson, more than 40 stallions were castrated during the program's first year, collectively saving horse owners who participated in the clinics about $10,000. "We've also eliminated 1,000 possible foals that could someday have been taken to rescues," she says.

To encourage this trend, the UHC established its Operation Gelding assistance program last year, which offers financial assistance and other resources to rescues and institutions sponsoring castration clinics for horse owners in their service areas. Lenz says American Horse Council affiliates in most states now offer some kind of castration assistance program, as well.

"If we could get breed associations to make announcements about castration at shows and major events, we could get this message out to owners," DiCaprio says.

Proper Training

Morgan Silver, executive director of the Horse Protection Association of Florida, believes equine training is key to preventing horses from becoming unwanted initially and for placing relinquished animals in permanent homes. A properly trained horse is not only more appealing to prospective owners, but it also has more adoption or career opportunities; for example, such a horse could be donated to an at-risk youth or prison program, a therapeutic riding school, or a teaching and research program at a university.

"Good training is a horse's insurance policy," says Silver.

But owners and rescue operators frequently overlook training as a factor in solving unwanted horse issues, according to Diane Panetta, founder of Rescued to Ride, a Colorado-based organization that promotes training for relinquished horses.

She would like to see horse industry organizations encourage owners to partner with trainers who can help horses reach desired performance levels. She would also like to see rescues budget horse training costs into their operating plans and require that adoptive owners commit to at least 30 days of additional training for horses acquired from rescues.

"In some cases you see the same horses coming back to a rescue again and again because of training issues," Panetta says. "That doesn't have to happen."

Inform Law Enforcement

Effective animal cruelty law enforcement is fundamental to resolving unwanted horse issues, according to Nicole Walukewicz, board chairman of the Palmetto Equine Awareness and Rescue League in Sandy Springs, Ga. But some law enforcement officers lack the training they need to make solid cases against neglectful owners or to educate owners whose horse-keeping practices put animals at risk. To promote better anti-cruelty law enforcement, Walukewicz and Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, president and primary instructor of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue Inc., have developed a livestock-specific training program for animal control and other law enforcement officers. Training sessions teach officers to identify signs of neglect, and they cover basics such as appropriate housing, feeding, and parasite control. Officers can apply this knowledge to educate and monitor owners they suspect of neglect, Walukewicz says.

"If officers find the horses are still not being cared for after 30 to 60 days, then they have no other option than to remove the animals," Walukewicz says. "But I think once people (the owners) become educated (with law enforcement's help), we'll have much better outcomes."


Recently, a horse owner asked Walukewicz what she could do for the blind, elderly animal she could no longer care for.

"I told her the most humane thing she could do was euthanize the horse," she says. Traditionally, euthanasia only was considered by owners whose horses were deemed dangerous, chronically lame, elderly, or otherwise unable to live productive lives. But recently some rescue organizations and veterinarians have begun pondering how euthanizing otherwise healthy horses can prevent unwanted horses from suffering neglect by owners who can no longer afford the animals' care. Horse Plus Humane Society routinely sponsors low-cost euthanasia clinics for owners in its area. Other rescues still consider the option a last resort, Walukewicz says. And, she adds, many owners are even more reluctant to embrace the option.

"For one thing, it's not easy for an owner to watch a horse being euthanized," she says. "Also, cost of carcass disposal is high, even for owners who have the space and the legal right to bury it on-site."

Many veterinarians are just as reluctant. During a recent presentation Lenz asked Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association members if they would euthanize a healthy horse brought in by an owner who no longer wanted it. The majority rejected the idea, Lenz says. Nevertheless, he believes the option is one rescuers, owners, and especially veterinary practitioners must consider in their search for unwanted horse issue solutions.

Domestic Horse Processing

For decades, processing horses for human consumption represented a commercial outlet for owners who didn't want to maintain the horses they no longer wanted. But the U.S. processing industry began to decline in 2005 when Congress ceased funding for USDA food safety inspections at horse processing plants, and by 2007 the remaining U.S. plants closed their doors.

This eliminated the domestic processing option just before the recession sent horse keeping costs soaring. Some lawmakers and horse owners blame the industry's demise for the spike in the number of unwanted horses in the country. In response some lawmakers have introduced bills promoting private sector processing plant development. In January 2011, for instance, Nebraska State Sen. Tyson Larson introduced a measure that would establish a state inspection program for plants processing meat for human consumption and invite horse processing development in that state. If passed, Larson believes the bill would generate much-needed jobs in his state, revitalize the horse market, and reduce the number of unwanted horses.

Shannon Neibergs, PhD, associate professor and extension economist at Washington State University, however, does not believe the horse processing industry's decline is responsible for expanding unwanted horses' ranks. He believes unwanted horse problems are recession-related, and that even with so many ideas to consider, no immediate solution is in sight.

"The cost of horse keeping is going to continue to rise. Corn prices are going to continue to rise. And when that happens more hay fields will go to corn," Neibergs says. "I just don't see a solution."

Even so, Gimenez is optimistic. She believes by working together members of the horse industry will eventually find ways to at least reduce the numbers of horses that become unwanted annually.

"I don't know what that solution will be," Gimenez says, "but we'll get it."

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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