In the April 2012 issue, we wrote about the controversial topic of unwanted horses. In the June issue, our "We Hear You" section featured many reader responses to the article. Review the full article here.
He stands in a pen of mud and manure. His mane is long and tangled, and his feet haven’t been trimmed in over a year. Although he’s hungry, his kind expression and gentle face greet me hopefully when I approach the fence along with the humane officer who’s been called out by a worried passerby. He was once a champion. Now he’s starving and has no home. This is the plight of the unwanted horse.
The number of unwanted horses has increased significantly in the past five years, and experts agree on several contributing factors. With the minimum estimated annual cost for supporting a horse running between $1,800 and $3,600, the recession that hit our country hard in December of 2007 has made it simply impossible for some to support their horses. Meanwhile, closure of U.S. slaughterhouses that same year, the increased pressures on rescue facilities, cost of euthanasia and body disposal, and a greatly weakened horse market left many desperate owners with no options other than abandonment or neglect.
The harsh realities are hard to believe for horse lovers who haven’t hit desperate times, and aren’t faced with such decisions as “feed my horse or feed my family.” Misconception and controversy abound. In this article, I’ll answer the questions I’m frequently asked about the state of the unwanted horse.
Unwanted Horses: Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is an “unwanted horse,” and why has this become such a problem?
A: The American Association of Equine Practitioners and now the American Horse Council’s Unwanted Horse Coalition define 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.” Over 150,000 horses each year fit this description, and numbers are increasing steadily in these economically troubled times.
Experts agree on a combination of factors that have made the problem of and consequences for unwanted horses more prevalent. These include indiscriminate breeding, the struggling U.S. economy, the high cost of humane euthanasia and disposal of remains, and the closure of U.S. slaughterhouses. There are simply too many horses, and too few people who can afford to care for them.
Q: Why do people get a horse if they can't afford to take care of it?
A: In some situations, owners who once could afford their horses have found themselves out of a job. Savings are depleted, and they may even be at risk of losing their homes. Feeding and caring for their horses becomes a low priority.
In other cases, people simply aren’t educated enough about the cost and commitment required for horse ownership. One of the main objectives of the Unwanted Horse Coalition is to find ways to educate owners to purchase and own responsibly. Owning a horse is a luxury—and a long-term commitment.
Q: I hear so much about equine rescue facilities—don’t they rehabilitate these abused and neglected horses to help them find new homes?
A: Yes, they do. But sadly, rescue facilities throughout the country are almost all at or near capacity, meaning there simply aren’t enough resources to save every horse. In a national survey conducted by the Unwanted Horse Coalition in 2010, 63 percent of rescue facilities reported that they were at or near full capacity, and, on average, these facilities turn away 38 percent of horses brought to them. AAEP has estimated that 2,700 new rescue facilities would have to open every year to accommodate the number of unwanted horses at current increasing numbers.
Not every horse that ends up in a rescue facility can be adopted or sold. Reports from rescue-facility operators indicate that, on average, 25 percent are unadoptable due to age, health, or temperament issues. These unadoptable animals drain resources and limit the ability of rescuers to focus on horses that might be rehabilitated and rehomed. One of the proposed solutions to this problem is to adopt the small-animal model for managing populations at horse shelters, including euthanasia for unadoptable horses.
Finally, it’s sad but true that some horses must be rescued from their rescuers. Reports of neglect at rescue facilities that have run out of resources aren’t uncommon, and when a rescue facility fails, large numbers of unwanted horses may find themselves with nowhere else to go. Lack of rescue-facility regulation is a problem that needs to be addressed as part of the unwanted-horse dilemma.