Rescued equines enjoy a neal at Last Chance Horse Rescue in Quakertown, PA. “We need to take care of who we have here before we can bring any other animals in,” said board member Chris Baringer.
At any given moment in the United States, there are hundreds of thousands of dogs, cats, bunnies and other abandoned or surrendered domestic animals in need of permanent homes. At that same moment, thousands of horses are in the same crowded boat—abandoned, dangerously neglected or surrendered by owners who can no longer afford them, who no longer have any use for them, or who have lost interest in them. Skeptics have only to google the words “abandoned animals” to find the most desultory outline of an enormous, complicated tragedy.
While there is no shortage of animals needing permanent, safe homes, there is a daunting shortage of money, space and qualified human resources available to confront the need. As the nation’s economic uncertainty persists, its ramifications are ricocheting through communities large and small—amplifying the dangerous reality in which these animals exist. Donors are scarce. As non-profit organizations that target animal welfare issues proliferate, fewer dollars must be stretched across more organizations.
There are horse rescues, race horse rescues, rescues specializing in miniature ponies, donkey rescues, farm animal rescues; and then there are rescues and welfare groups that serve dogs and cats as well as specific breeds of dogs and cats. The internet is bulging with websites from rescue groups; these days most are pleading for donations of food, hay, money for veterinary care and to provide for more and more and more animals.
Those on the front lines of equine rescue, care and the enforcement of anti-cruelty laws point to several factors that are undermining their efforts:
- For one thing, the tide of horses that have nowhere to go is a one-way catastrophe. It rises but never falls.
- In addition, many rescue and equine welfare organizations operate without any oversight. The economics of proper horse care often undermine the best intentions of those who set up rescue organizations, leaving rescued horses vulnerable.
- And the laws aimed at protecting equines from cruelty, abuse and neglect are…to be kind…less than draconian.
Indiscriminate Breeding, Lack of Accountability Add up to Trouble
“Breeders breed indiscriminately,” Douglass Newbold says. “And how many thoroughbreds make it on the track?” Newbold is President of the Large Animal Protection Society (LAPS), an organization that investigates cruelty complaints and works with humane organizations and law enforcement to ensure the safety of horses, cattle, donkeys and other large animals. She points to the glut of Thoroughbred horses that are in need of permanent homes. Just about any day of the week, with hardly any effort at all “you could find 25 Thoroughbreds for free,” she says. Although she has nothing against the breed, she says the sheer number of Thoroughbreds that never even get to the track is an abysmal shame acknowledged by few people.
There are nearly 40,000 Thoroughbred foals born annually. According to New York’s Karakorum Racing Team (a Thoroughbred racing partnership) just one-third of those foals wind up with racing careers, leaving more than 28,000 foals in need of alternative plans. And fewer than half of the horses that make it to the track ever win a race.
Breed registries such as the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) have tried to address the over-breeding issue. When they banned embryo transfers (whereby a single mare could produce several foals per season), influential breeders challenged the ban. They sued AQHA for restraint of trade, and the case was settled. AQHA’s two-year ban on embryo transfers ended in 2002.
Rescued But Not Safe?
Chris Baringer, who is on the board of directors of Last Chance Ranch in Quakertown, says that non-profit groups like hers have to be ever mindful of the economics of their operations. “I think there are a lot of people that have a good heart, and they see animals suffering and they want to help. We need to take care of who we have here before we bring any other animals in.”
Recently a number of rescue groups, whipsawed by the economy, the volume of horses in need of help and by poorly-defined business plans, have been cited for neglect of the animals in their care. The once-rescued horses had to be rescued yet again.
Frances Langrall, who operated Happy Ending Farms, a non-profit rescue in Codorus Township, says that she realized there were too many horses on her farm. She was trying to sell several. A potential buyer, responding to an ad she placed on Craigslist, was angry that she didn’t accept the price he offered. She says the next thing she knew, the York County SPCA was on her farm. “They never seized any horses,” she says. “I just gave them as many as possible.”
She says she was trying to do everything right, but extensive coverage of the situation has dogged her and made her a pariah. “My accountant has all my receipts,” she says, “I was trying to reduce the herd, but in a nice way.” Langrall has suffered through numerous personal tragedies in the past two years, she says, but she was still struggling to keep things together and care for the horses properly. “The bottom fell out, but I was still here. I buy a ton of grain a month.” She says there is always plenty of food for the horses on her property. And she says that there is shelter for every horse.
“We stay on a strict budget and we can count on how much money we are getting every month,” Barbara Luna says. Luna is Administrator of Turning for Home, a non-profit at Philadelphia Park that exists to find second careers for retired race horses. She believes that rescue groups need to start with a strong business plan; otherwise they will never be able to fulfill their obligations to the horses for which they are responsible. “We don’t take horses we can’t use,” she says. “We run it as a business and we don’t let our hearts get in the way, although we do because they’re horses.” The horses that come into Luna’s program have all had racing careers and have been retired as a result of injury or age. They do not deal with Thoroughbreds that have never raced.
Slick Packaging, Empty Promises
Newbold laments the plethora of rescue groups on the internet that are virtual businesses with no actual commitment to or history in rescuing and caring for horses. “Many of these websites are very slick,” she says. “But there’s no follow-through, no accountability.” She says that in many cases, horses are sold off from the rescues to people who wind up taking the animals to auctions within days, and recouping the money they paid for the horses at the rescue. “It’s completely unmonitored, and they prey on very vulnerable people,” she says. “And who among us is not vulnerable?” she asks, when confronted with the picture of a suffering animal.
“We are at this moment involved in an investigation of a case—a major rescue,” she says. The case is so controversial and large that she says she cannot reveal any information. Her reason for mentioning it in the first place is that she believes people think that every large animal rescue is the same as every other one. “Some of them do not have great intentions,” she explains, “others are hoarders, and that’s a disease in itself. They can’t take care of the ones they have.”
LAPS is not a rescue, Newbold explains. “We cannot take anybody’s horse. We work with the owners of animals,” she says, to improve conditions for animals and ensure that they are cared for properly. She is adamant that consumers need to understand that not all equine rescues are equal.
“These people ask ridiculous amounts of money and never ask where the animal is going to go.” She says that there is still a market—albeit diminished—for horsemeat. “I can tell you, death is not the worst thing that can happen to a horse.” She says that disreputable rescue groups do nothing other than provide another conduit to deliver horses to the kill buyers. “Some of the horses that are purchased from rescues wind up at the auction houses within a week, and then they’re facing a trip to Mexico or Canada.”
Protected by Law?
Newbold, of LAPS, says that her organization has five badged humane agents who investigate cruelty cases in Berks, Chester, Lancaster and Delaware Counties. It is a vocation rife with frustration, exhaustion and sorrow. “We enforce the anti-cruelty laws in Pennsylvania,” Newbold explains. “Unfortunately the law allows horses to be kept in pretty crappy conditions.” She says that the law only requires owners to provide a three-sided shelter, food, water and access to veterinary care for their horses.
There may be laws meant to protect equines, but enforcement and accountability are often open questions. Five months ago the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report on the status of American horses since the closing of slaughter plants in the US in 2007. They interviewed State Veterinarians from the 17 states with the largest populations of horses. Pennsylvania is one of those states. None of the veterinarians had actual data to support their observations, but all of them suggested that the closing of slaughter plants, coupled with economic factors, had led to declines in the welfare of horses in their states. All of the veterinarians said that their offices had neither the resources nor the authority to collect hard data on equine welfare. They explained that welfare issues generally fall under county jurisdictions.
The 68-page GAO report is long on anecdote and short on hard data. It is obviously well-intentioned, but it falls short of providing a foundation on which to build sound policy. In Pennsylvania alone, the equine industry is a multi-billion dollar business. At its heart there are living creatures that depend on thoughtful leadership and conscientious stewardship. The patchwork of law enforcement, humane organizations and rescue groups is frayed and in need of a heavy dose of accountability.
Learn the Facts
Each year thousands of horse owners either lose interest in one or more of their horses, or they lose the jobs that helped them pay for the care of their horses. At the same time, thousands of horses bred for racing can’t compete. And there are horses bred to achieve certain conformation, color, or other characteristics. Then when the vagaries of genetics trump the desire for perfection, thousands of otherwise perfectly sound horses prove to be undesirable to those who bred them. Regardless of the underlying cause, thousands of horses enter a crowded, competitive marketplace where there are lots of sellers but a diminishing pool of buyers.
The same economic realities facing people who have to give up their horses are depressing the market for horses. And let us not forget that a horse’s life span is 20+ years. Each year, the number of horses in need of new owners is compounded. Horses need food, water, land, shelter, routine veterinary care, regular hoof care. Providing all of that for one horse is a huge responsibility. Imagine the rescue organizations facing the challenge of providing basic care for a population of horses that grows larger every day. The emotional and economic costs are staggering.
As with any large, diverse pool of opportunities, the equine marketplace attracts a lot of players—not all of whom are motivated to do what’s best for the horses. Some of them are inept, some misguided, and some are unvarnished crooks. And the internet is bulging with mis-and-dis-information. People who are interested in the welfare of horses need to spend less time surfing the internet and more time talking to real people. Real people. Like veterinarians, horse owners, breeders, competitors in racing and showing, and the people who operate responsible welfare and rescue organizations.
The internet is a mother lode of opportunity. It’s easy to put up a website, load it with pictures of sad, vulnerable animals in need of rescue, and then hide behind the medium’s anonymity. “Many of these websites are very slick, very sophisticated. But there’s no follow-through, no accountability. It’s completely unmonitored, and they are preying on very vulnerable people,” says Douglass Newbold, President of the Large Animal Protection Society (LAPS). She did not name any specific websites, but she pointed out danger signs that wary consumers should recognize.
Groups that promote adoption of the horses they’ve rescued should require adopters to sign contracts binding them to inform the rescue group of any potential sale or change in the animal’s status. Too often, Newbold says, unsavory rescue organizations are basically trading in horses. They get money for the horse they’ve “rescued,” and the person who buys the horse turns around and sells it at auction—many times in a matter of days or weeks.
Recently there have been reports of rescue organizations overwhelmed by the cost of caring for the horses they’ve rescued. The result has been further suffering and dislocation for the horses. Barbara Luna, Administrator of Philadelphia Park’s Turning for Home program, says that success starts with a solid business plan. “We don’t take horses we can’t use; the only ones we don’t take are the ones that have severe injuries, and if two veterinarians say that they can never be safe to ride.” The ones that cannot be rehabilitated or made safe are euthanized. “We run it as a business. We don’t let our hearts get in the way, although we do because they’re horses.” Her program finds owners and new careers for retired Thoroughbred race horses, and is financially supported through contributions from jockeys and horsemen at Philadelphia Park. “We stay on a strict budget and we can count on how much money we are getting every month.” She understands the dilemma and the desire to rescue as many horses as possible. “Sometimes it’s difficult for people to be good horse people and also to be good business people,” she says.
There is no central organizing group that monitors the performance of the rescue groups on the internet. There is no legal framework under which they must operate. So it is up to individuals to sift through the verbiage and pictures and get the truth. Start by contacting the rescue group directly. Ask specific questions about the animals in their care: Where did they come from? How long does an adoptable horse usually stay in the custody of the rescue? If the horse was purchased at auction, how much did the rescuers pay for him? What kind of adoption fees or charges are there, and do they vary by horse? Ask about horses that have been adopted out, and ask about formal procedures for follow-up to ensure the adopted animals are getting proper care. Find out how long the organization has been operating, and who the principals are. Ask if you can speak to other people who have adopted horses from the group. Has a veterinarian checked the horses? If so, see if you can speak to the veterinarian.
Embrace Reality. Manage Outrage
Can one person change the policies of breed organizations, or persuade major breeders of race and sport horses to reduce the annual foal crop? Probably not. But people concerned about the welfare of animals should speak up. Talk to horse owners about over breeding, and about what happens to all the horses that are surrendered or abandoned by their owners. This is an issue that begs for communication and compromise. People who love horses and people who earn their living with horses need to work together to solve the problems horses face as a result of human involvement in breeding and selling.
The numbers speak for themselves. For many who have been involved in welfare one of the most incendiary issues is euthanasia. “Death is not the worst thing that can happen to horses,” LAPS’ Newbold says, contrasting humane euthanasia with the realities many unwanted horses face: life in a muddy, cramped paddock, with inadequate nutrition, virtually no human contact, no regular veterinary care, no routine blacksmith care, no hope for any improvement. She says that many people are unwilling to face the fact that horses deserve better—and that better just might be death with dignity.
It’s wrong to rule out euthanasia as one part of the solution, unless there is an alternative that is realistic. Nobody wants to hear about hundreds of thousands of horses being euthanized; or to actually make euthanasia decisions. And clearly there are not enough dollars to care properly for all the horses that have been abandoned and surrendered. Solutions can’t be built on the hope that enough money will come in from somewhere.
Make Some Noise Where It Counts
It is striking that the 17 State Veterinarians surveyed by the General Accounting Office could only offer anecdotal information about the status of horse welfare in their states. The GAO was researching how the closing of slaughter houses affected the status of equines in the United States. The State Veterinarians said that they don’t have enough resources to collect actual data.
So, who provides the anecdotes for the data they do have? At best, they provide an incomplete picture. At worst, the anecdotes are agenda-driven and meant to drive specific policy decisions. Policy at the state level cannot arise out of anecdotes. And national policies cannot be driven by haphazard data collection. There’s too much at stake. People who care about these issues should write to their legislators, pointing out how important it is to create policies that are meaningful and relevant to actual conditions, and suggesting possible ways to address the problem.
In Pennsylvania, home to one of the country’s largest equine populations, there is no requirement for county-level humane officers to file reports with the State Veterinarian on equine welfare, neglect and abuse cases. The equine industry is a huge, diverse business in the state, and there should be more oversight of the welfare of the horses at the center of that industry.
Lead by Example
Horse owners should set and maintain the highest standards for the care of their animals. They should treat their horses with compassion and respect, and ensure that their basic needs are met. They should speak up when they witness abusive behavior toward horses. There should be no compromise on this issue. Horse owners should also speak out about issues of animal welfare, and listen respectfully to other points of view.
The community of horse owners—and people who love horses—must get into this discussion, thoughtfully and authoritatively. They should get command of the facts and speak up on behalf of their horses and the horses in their community. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that “to many, the words love, hope and dreams are synonymous with horses.” What would the world be like if all horses could count on a healthy dose of love, hope and dreams?