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THE PLIGHT OF UNWANTED HORSES
by Ruth Bourgeois
“The unwanted horse” is a term used to describe horses within the domestic equine population that are considered no longer useful or needed, or whose owners are either uninterested or incapable of providing care for them, physically or financially. The unwanted horse is not a new problem. It is, however, a growing concern. Some unwanted horses do find new homes; some are humanely euthanized; others are abandoned and left to die; most end up being sent to slaughter.
There is no typical unwanted horse. It may be a perfectly normal, young, healthy horse, purebred with breed registry papers, or it may be a horse that is unsound due to an injury. It may be a horse that has been abused and mistreated, and has behavioral problems as a result. Sometimes horses fall into the unwanted horse category when their owners become ill, lose their jobs, or have some other major life crises.
Additionally, there are approximately 10,000 Bureau of Land Management wild horses that are considered unadoptable, another 5,000 or so that are awaiting adoption, and yet another 20,000 or more mares and foals from the Pregnant Mare Urine industry.
So what happens to all these unwanted horses?
Throughout the country, horse rescues and equine welfare organizations work diligently to save as many of these animals as they can. They struggle to raise money to provide feed and care, and to find homes for as many of them as possible. Sometimes, despite their good intentions, well-meaning horse rescuers become overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of the effort and cost of caring for these horses. It is estimated that providing basic care for one horse is roughly $1,800 to $2,400 per year. The cost for a horse with special needs or extensive veterinary care is easily double or triple this figure. Despite the fact that there are numerous horse rescues, they do not begin to meet the needs of the huge number of unwanted horses. To put it simply, there are not enough responsible caring owners for the number of horses needing homes.
On April 19, 2005 a group of thirty concerned horse people representing breed groups, veterinarians, horse rescues and other horse industry professionals gathered in Washington, D.C. for the first Unwanted Horse Summit to address the problem of unwanted horses. They identified key issues, with the goal being to improve the quality of life and to reduce the numbers of these horses. Issues include standards for rescue/retirement facilities, euthanasia and disposal of carcasses, slaughter, education of horse owners, rehabilitation of horses, and identifying the causes of this problem, such as over-breeding and lack of responsible breeding. New Mexico was represented at the Summit by Valerie Cole from the New Mexico Horse Council and Dan Manzarares of the New Mexico Livestock Board.
Recently controversy has loomed over legislation concerning slaughterhouses that process horses for human consumption. Many people believe that there should not be any slaughterhouses for horses. Not everyone agrees. Temple Grandin, PhD, Associate Professor at Colorado State University, argues that there are alternatives far worse for horses than slaughter. According to Grandin, these include the sale of horses to Mexico or South America, where an already malnourished animal may be subjected to a life pulling a cart or being ridden to death. When their usefulness is over, they still might be shipped back to a slaughterhouse in Texas. Grandin feels that slaughter is a better alternative than abuse, neglect or being worked to death in a state of malnutrition.
Clearly this is an emotional issue that most people would prefer not to think about, let alone take a stand on. A horse may end up at the local sale barn because the owner no longer wants to care for the horse. The animal may have reached an age where it is no longer able to perform as it did when it was younger because of health problems or injuries. Chances are good that this horse will be sold to the kill market. The owner often chooses to ignore this, wanting to believe that the horse will be sold to a good home, and is just glad to be relieved of the financial and physical burdens of caring for the horse. Unfortunately, it is not just old and unsound horses that end up on the truck headed for the slaughterhouse. Grandin did a study in 1999 of 1,000 horses at slaughter plants. Ninety-two percent of these 1,000 horses were brought to kill in sound condition. It is estimated that 75,000 to 150,000 horses go to slaughter here in the United States every year because the only market for them is the kill market.
What can you do as a horse owner or horse lover?
As with all animal welfare issues, one of the most important things that a person can do is to learn all they can about the problem. If you own a horse, take responsibility for that animal and do everything you possibly can to ensure that it is properly cared for throughout its lifetime.
Think long and hard before you breed your mare or stand a stallion at stud. Unless you have a superior quality individual, and have good reason to breed that horse, don’t do it. If you want another horse, there are countless horses available that need homes. When you acquire a horse, make a commitment to care for that horse for life.
Learn how to handle and care for your horse, providing the best nutrition, health care and training possible. The goal should be to have a healthy horse that will give you many years of enjoyment. With careful training and handling, your horse will be a pleasure to own and to be around. It is much more likely that a well-mannered, well-trained, healthy horse will not end up as an unwanted horse.
Speak out about the plight of unwanted horses. Help educate others about the problem. Encourage horse owners to be responsible.
If you do not own a horse consider volunteering your time and talents and making financial contributions to horse rescues in your area. I personally feel that this is one of the most valuable and worthwhile things that you can do to help with the plight of unwanted horses. Not only will you experience the joy of spending time with these wonderful animals, you will be making their lives better. You can also help tremendously by financially sponsoring a horse at a horse shelter.
It may not seem important to save the life of one animal, but it is. Horses deserve a good quality life just as much as any other living creature. Working together, we can help to reduce the plight of unwanted horses.
For more information, go to www.equinespiritsanctuary.org.
Ruth Bourgeois of Taos has spent her entire lifetime owning, loving and caring about horses. She works at Thal Equine and is a founding director of a newly formed horse rescue, the Equine Spirit Sanctuary, located near Tres Piedras.