Unwanted horses, like unwanted dogs and cats, present compassionate humans with dilemmas that are not easily solved. The numbers increase. The resources shrink. There are villains and there are victims and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Good-hearted people rush in to rescue a horse in need, and find themselves incapable of saying no to the next horse and the next horse. Soon the rescued horses need to be rescued.
People down on their luck and out of options reluctantly sell their horses at auctions, convinced that their horses will wind up with people who want to provide them with good homes. Often these horses wind up in Canadian or Mexican abattoirs, where their meat is processed for consumers in Europe and Japan.
In a perfect world, every dog, cat and horse would have a safe, loving home until a natural, painless death carried them away to whatever is on the other side of the curtain that divides each living creature on earth from the singular fate that awaits us all.
The world isn’t perfect, though. And every year, thousands of horses in America learn just how imperfect and unfair the world can be. Over-breeding, the anemic economy, aging horse owners who can no longer care for the horses they love, the protracted drought that is depleting hay and feed stocks, kids who outgrew their ponies, horses that could never live up to the expectations of their owners—all these factors have conspired to create a population of horses with nowhere to go. It’s a population that is booming, despite the periodic outrage that occurs when especially gruesome cases of abuse or neglect make headlines. And the dilemmas this population creates for horse lovers, for breeders, for owners are profound and complicated.
Is it fair to call an animal unwanted? Many people have argued about whether the term “unwanted” attaches too little importance to the thousands of horses classified that way every year. It’s easy to dispose of something unwanted, because presumably it has no value. Whereas it’s much harder, some argue, to be cavalier with something one values—something wanted. Semantics aside, the facts remain.
Previously Unthinkable, Euthanasia Option Emerges
Thousands of people wind up sending their horses—beloved companions, or animals that are considered unwanted—to auctions every year. For many of those people, the auctions are the only option, because they can’t afford the cost of caring for their horses, and they can’t find new homes for them.
While many horses sold at auction actually go to new homes, many others are loaded onto trucks for long rides to abattoirs in Canada or Mexico. The United States General Accounting Office (GAO) estimates that nearly 140,000 horses each year wind up in this predicament. “We would go to auctions and see horses in really bad condition—older horses, young horses—the kill buyers were buying them left and right and filling up their trailers,” says Judy Lynn, shelter manager at Horse Plus Humane Society in Oroville, CA. Her organization decided to try a different approach, believing that many of the people sending their horses to the auctions were so economically strapped that they had no alternatives. The option of euthanasia was even beyond their reach because they could not afford the cost. Horse Plus held their first free euthanasia clinic in November, 2008, for horses belonging to financially-strapped owners. They continue to offer monthly free clinics, along with low cost euthanasia services for horse owners who can afford to pay part of the cost.
“It’s the last act of kindness,” Lynn says. “People are very thankful.” She points out that her organization’s website has a video that helps horse owners see that euthanasia is not a terrifying prospect for horses. “It’s peaceful and done very respectfully. The body is disposed of in a very respectful manner. There’s a lot of suffering if there’s not a low-cost avenue for responsible horse people to try.” The staff and the veterinarians evaluate each horse brought to the clinic, to determine whether the horse might be adoptable. They consider each horse’s quality of life, and potential, and commit to find homes for horses that are adoptable. But they recognize that horse rescue and retirement facilities are already overwhelmed.
She says that the euthanasia clinics have not generated pushback from horse lovers. “Most of them are very thankful even if they don’t like euthanasia itself. Because they do see what the other option for the horse is. Often there’s no other avenue to get rid of a horse. With the economy it’s hard to sell or even give away a horse nowadays.”
Lynn says that Horse Plus also provides grants for people who can’t get their horses to the clinics. “Not all horses can be hauled or should be hauled. We offer financial help out of the area, to the veterinarian who is performing the service.”
Although the idea of euthanasia clinics is emerging slowly, it’s likely that they will soon become more commonplace in the ongoing effort to ensure that there are compassionate options for horses and their owners when hard times—or the realities of aging—arrive, as they inevitably do. There’s not a lot of evidence other than anecdotes about whether or not more horse owners are electing euthanasia for their horses. The Colorado Unwanted Horse Alliance did conduct a survey among the state’s veterinarians, and found that many veterinarians were getting more calls for euthanasia, and that many veterinarians believe that neglect of horses is increasing. But fewer than half of the veterinarians invited to complete the survey did so.
The auctions often remain the only option for some horse owners. Others choose a truly catastrophic path. They abandon their horses in fields or woods—a scenario that is happening with alarming frequency. Lori McCutcheon, who operates Last Chance Ranch, a horse rescue in Quakertown, says that she hears from colleagues all over the country that abandoned horses are creating enormous burdens for rescue organizations.
Last summer two abandoned horses were found in downtown Philadelphia, emaciated and rummaging through litter. And in November, ten horses were found in a warehouse in Detroit, MI. These incidents, “canary-in-the-coal-mine” moments for horse lovers, are hard to ignore. Wherever these horses came from, what were their owners thinking? Were they appalling sociopaths, naïfs who thought the horses could survive on their own, or truly desperate people who had run out of options?
Safety Net Frayed
The Unwanted Horse Coalition, part of the American Horse Council since 2006, is a consortium of organizations—from the American Association of Equine Practitioners to the United States Polo Association—committed to numerous efforts aimed at reducing the number of unwanted horses. Erica Caslin, the Coalition’s Director, says that education is a key strategy. “What we do here is teach people to own responsibly. We educate people about rescuing horses, adopting instead of going out and buying a horse.” She says the Coalition works with breed organizations, to push the message of responsible ownership.
“We promote responsible breeding,” she explains. “We have a program called Operation Gelding, offering organizations the opportunity to hold gelding clinics, to address the issue of indiscriminate and backyard breeding.”
The Coalition offers booklets and brochures that outline the scope of the unwanted horse problem, and that provide guidelines to help prospective horse owners understand the responsibilities and commitments involved in caring for horses. They have also produced a book for people interested in starting a horse rescue, or in improving the management of existing rescues. “With the influx of horses coming into the rescues, we need to help our rescues become better businesses,” she says.
One of the resources the Coalition provides is itself a startling reminder of just how fragile the safety net for horses is. Their website includes links to several hundred facilities throughout the United States and Canada that accept horses. But the website links to many of the organizations are dead. Several of the organizations are training facilities, that don’t provide services other than lessons and boarding. Others offer therapeutic horsemanship programs. One link to a facility in Kansas goes to a page that simply says “We R Closed.” Caslin says that she is a one-person operation, and that the links are placed on the Coalition’s website by the owners of the facilities. She says it would be virtually impossible to keep the list current, given the limits of personnel and time, and the demands of the job.
European Union Import Rules Change the Game
Everyone who cares about horses will face new realities this year as the European Union begins to enforce regulations about horsemeat imported to member nations from Canada and Mexico. Those regulations will prohibit large numbers of American horses from entering the food chain, because required documentation will not be available, or because the horses have been treated with pharmaceuticals that would permanently exclude them from the food system. Thus nearly 140,000 horses that are shipped annually to Canada and Mexico from US auctions will likely have no place to go.
While nobody can predict the future, it is clear that thousands of horses in America are already in desperate situations. And the resources for protecting them are inadequate. There is no safety net commensurate with the number of horses in need. There are programs that encourage responsible ownership, and the racing industry has foundations dedicated to providing long term care for retired racehorses, and the breed organizations encourage members to ensure the safety of the horses they no longer want. But there are no reliable data about the number and conditions of the horses that are not covered by those programs. The GAO’s 2011 report that detailed the number of horses shipped from the US to Canada and Mexico every year concluded that incidents of abandonment and neglect are increasing, even as the resources available to investigate and mitigate these incidents are disappearing.