Equine welfare: Unwanted horses — an epidemic

Equine welfare: Unwanted horses — an epidemic

As numbers of unwanted horses multiply, experts cite economic woes, closure of processing plants
Jan 01, 2009

Fast Facts
National Report — There are tens of thousands of them across the nation — no one knows exactly how many.

And there are few reliable statistics on their age, gender, breed, use or where they wind up.

They are horses that nobody wants.

Their numbers are growing at an alarming rate — to the point that some are calling it an epidemic that within a couple more years could rival a natural disaster's impact on horses.

"Three or four years ago, there wasn't a lot of talk about this issue, but nowadays there's so much interest I could give a speech about it every day," says Tom Lenz, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, a former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) who is chairman of the Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC), a group of more than 20 veterinary, horse-industry and equine-sport organizations formed in 2005 with the mission of reducing the number of unwanted horses and improving their welfare.

What facts are documented provide only a general overview of the problem. Here's what they reveal, as presented at last month's AAEP convention in San Diego:

  • In 2007, about 58,000 horses went to the last three U.S. slaughterhouses that processed and exported horse meat for human consumption before the plants closed about mid-year.
  • About 45,000 were exported to Mexico for processing that year.
  • About 35,000 went to Canada for processing.
  • There are about 21,000 un-adoptable feral horses kept on Bureau of Land Management-funded sanctuaries.
  • About 9,000 wild horses are in the BLM adoption pipeline. (Between 7,000 and 8,000 are gathered off federal rangelands each year in 10 Western states, and between 5,000 and 6,000 are adopted, but those adoptions have been in sharp decline lately.)

That totals about 170,000 unwanted horses — but it's by no means the real number.

There are far more than that, experts say, based on increasing reports from across the country of recreational and work horses being abandoned, left tied to posts outside sales barns or on farms, unloaded on rural pastures or left to roam with feral horses on government-owned rangelands. Many cases of abuse and starvation are reported.

What's behind the alarming numbers of unwanted horses?

The troubled U.S. economy clearly is a major contributing factor. Many owners can no longer afford the few thousand dollars a year it costs to care for a horse. The price of hay and other feeds has risen dramatically because of drought conditions in some areas and because of grain diverted to fuel production. Euthanasia and carcass disposal costs are rising.

Kentucky, which advertises itself as the world's horse capital, provides a microcosm of what is happening in many states. "People who used to be able to afford their horses now can no longer do so," Ginny Grulke, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Council, was quoted as saying recently. "They are not people who are ruthless or inhumane. In general, it's an economic problem, and they have no options. They don't know what to do with their animals." Some Kentucky farm owners report horses being left on their properties like stray dogs or cats. Grulke called on the state Legislature to commission a study to determine the full scope of the problem in her state.