I'll Propose A Plan For Unwanted Horses

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For the last couple of months, We've been discussing in this space the problem of unwanted horses and whether the elimination of U.S. equine slaughter almost a decade ago has contributed to the rise in the number of unwanted horses. I've long been a pragmatic advocate for equine slaughter, but my feelings on it are beginning to bend. Why' Because some of you readers have brought up figures and observations that suggest there may not be a strong relationship between the availability of slaughter and the number of unwanted and neglected horses in this country. That is, it's not entirely clear that the availability of slaughter decreases the number of horses that people neglect or abandon. You know, Thoroughbred breeders often get hammered for the unwanted horse problem, and certainly the Thoroughbred racing world has its share of blame to shoulder. As you'll recall, I launched into this topic in February because of the catastrophic problems of the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund, the largest and most well-funded U.S. horse rescue. My premise was, basically, that if a group like the TRF can't succeed, how could any horse rescue succeed' But quite a few readers have pointed fingers at the American Quarter Horse Association and the breeding incentives it offers to its 330,000 members. So I looked up the annual registration numbers for both The Jockey Club and the AQHA. The Jockey Club registers about 35,000 Thoroughbreds annually, but the AQHA registers roughly four times that each year (135,000 to 150,000 a year during the last decade). That means that each year, almost half of the AQHA?s members are registering a foal they've bred. Holy cow! I can't give a contrasting number for The Jockey Club, the Thoroughbred registry, because it's not an individual membership organization. Several readers have pointed their fingers at ?irresponsible breeders? (especially of Quarter Horses) for the unwanted-horse problem, an accusation I've long dismissed because I know how difficult and expensive horse breeding is. How could anyone afford to breed horses like dogs or rabbits, I wondered' But I've been told that, especially in Texas and Oklahoma, there are numerous Quarter Horse breeders who produce hundreds of foals a year, figuring that the numbers will yield a handful of good horses.? And, I'm told most of the rest get disposed of through cheap sales or sent, now, to Mexico or Canada for slaughter. I'm simply amazed that such a practice is economically viable, but I'm told they really do make it work, mostly because it's simply a numbers game. (Here's one financial incentive for Quarter Horse breeders: The AQHA charges only $25 to register a foal, while The Jockey Club charges $200.) I'm really not looking to turn this blog into a diatribe against the AQHA. But any breed group that's adding 150,000 horses to the U.S. herd every year is clearly part of the problem and, thus, needs to be a much stronger part of the solution. (Interestingly, I discovered that the American Paint Horse Association registers about 35,000 horses a year, about the same as The Jockey Club.) I said at the start of this blog that my support of equine slaughter as a method of dealing with the unwanted horse problem is weakening, but that also means that my support for humane euthanasia of unwanted horses is growing stronger. Why' Because the reality is that horse owners (whether responsible or irresponsible) simply must have an option to humanely divest themselves of horses that they cannot keep, especially if the cause is the horse's health or their own health or financial situation. Yes, all too often, people purchase a horse, or a number of horses, when they shouldn't. Those horses become unwanted (and, thus, neglected or even abused) because they aren?t capable of caring for them. Veterinarians and rescue workers around the country will tell you that they regularly find horses abandoned on roadsides or in someone else?s field or shed. And then these horses?who are almost always very old or sick or unsuitable for anything?fill up the rescue stables. And, as we saw with the TRF, keeping large numbers of horses is simply too expensive, for any organization. They require far more resources than keeping dogs and cats at a ?no-kill? shelter. Unwanted horses often become that way because owners can't afford to pay an equine veterinarian to euthanize the horse and then pay to have the body hauled away. (And in some places, you can't even find a service to haul the body away.) So I'm going to make a suggestion that some horse owners may not like, but, please, hear me out. The simple truth is that every horse (like every one of us) must die someday. Another truth is that equine euthanasia, done correctly by a veterinarian, is a painless process for the horse?they just go to sleep. The hardest part is controlling the horse's collapse to the ground. (I know, because I've seen it done more times than I wish.) A third truth is that equine euthanasia is expensive. Most veterinarians charge $300 to $500, and the livestock renderer charges somewhere between $100 and $400. A fourth truth is that it would be nearly politically impossible for slaughter plants to return to the United States, especially a network of them that would eliminate the horrible transportation problem. Nor would they have a more certain, and cost-effective, way to end the horses? lives. But, as I said earlier, a fifth truth is that American horse owners need to also have a cost-effective way to divest themselves of horses they cannot take care of, a way other than dumping them somewhere or letting them slowly starve. And, as We've seen with the TRF, horse-rescue organizations aren?t the complete solution. So, why can't a coalition of horse-welfare groups establish a nationwide humane-euthanasia program to provide the service at a very low cost (say, around $100)' The most obvious partners would be veterinary schools and clinics with equine-welfare groups, including horse rescues. These groups are already doing low-cost castration clinics in parts of the country. Breed organizations and racing organizations should also be partners, primarily on the funding end, but also on the education end. Breed organizations could charge an ?end-of-life fee? with each foal registration, which the organization would transfer to a foundation established to underwrite the cost of the euthanasia service. Racetracks (for all breeds) could charge a small fee for each horse stabled there (I'm talking $3 or $5 per horse per month) and allot a small percentage of each day?s betting handle to the cause, funds that again would be transferred to a funding foundation. Discipline organizations like the U.S. Equestrian Federation or the AQHA could also charge members a small annual fee for the humane-euthanasia fund. At $5 a member, those two organizations alone would yield $2 million a year. ?And if the AQHA charged a $25 end-of-life fee for every foal registered, that would yield another $3.75 million per year. Of course, if they?d educate their members about the consequences of over-breeding and decrease or eliminate the incentives they have for breeding horses, both numbers would decrease. To make this work at the grass-roots level, veterinarians can't be expected to practically donate their services to everyone who has a horse they don't want. There would need to be a way to establish the owner?s level of need or inability to pay, plus there would have to be standards for the horse's health and age. Obviously, this is just the start of an idea to help solve our problem of too many unwanted horses. What do you think'