Unwanted Horses

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Over 1,000,000 horses have shipped to slaughter since 2007.

There is a perfect storm that is brewing for horses. A triangulation of factors that make riding horses less popular in modern day. The factors are as follows:
1.  Today’s riders take lessons and are less connected with the horses they ride. Most riders spend time trotting around in circles in the ring, and less time allowing their horses to move forward and burn off excess energy.

2.  Horses are kept inside, fed high energy diets then brought out to open riding rings for a trot-around. Since most horses don’t have the opportunity to frolic, some simply frolic under saddle, tossing their riders in the playful exchange. “Sowing Wild Oats” has real meaning. Suddenly paying $300-$1000 per month to keep a horse doesn’t seem like a good idea when you are frequenting the emergency room with injuries.

3.   A fall from a horse took down Superman. When Christopher Reeve fell from a horse and became a quadriplegic, the average American became more aware of the dangers of riding horses. The new generation of ‘helicopter-parents’ with a little girl who loved horses opted to push for piano lessons and soccer rather than a pony and horseback riding lessons.

4.  The last part of this perfect storm is the new economy. Americans are shying away from big purchases, especially ones that require monthly feed, veterinary care, and new shoes every six weeks. Therefore, selling horses is increasingly difficult. Selling a horse that bucks off its rider on occasion is near impossible at any price. Unsold horses eventually fall into the precarious category of “Unwanted Horses.”

Given this perfect storm, it is no surprise to me that there are unwanted horses in this country, nor is it a surprise that the number of unwanted horses is growing at an alarming rate.

Estimates show that there are roughly 33,000 stalls available at rescue organizations in the United States. Therefore, if we take the best-case-scenario and the plants were to close, we would have a deficit of 67,000 stalls in year one.
The problem quickly escalates because in year two, we have another 100,000+ horses that need care and stalls; yet we still have a deficit of 67,000 stalls from year one. By the end of year two, the number of unwanted horses escalates to 167,000, year three 267,000 and year four 467,000. It is not hard to see how this number of horses will become a problem quickly.

This problem of too many horses and not enough homes is not exclusive to horses. According to the ASPCA roughly 1.2 million unwanted dogs and 1.4 unwanted cats are euthanized in shelters each year. It is a sad reality, but there are just too many animals, and our modernized, digital lifestyle makes it difficult to be a responsible pet owner.
Owning an animal of any kind takes time and money. It is a commitment that should not be entered into lightly. Yet, sadly, many do. I cringe when I read a Craigslist ad for a horse that says “Free to a good home. Must go!” I have emailed owners to warn them of what happens to “Free on Craigslist” horses. If it is an elderly horse, or unsound, I have recommend humane euthanasia – only to learn that many horse owners don’t want (or can’t afford) to spend the money to euthanize their unwanted horse.

Euthanasia and removal can be costly (over $500 in some areas). The most affordable solution is to surrender the horse to a local rescue. However, local rescues are so limited with funds and stall space, they tend not to accept horses that are unsound, older or difficult to rehome.

With no affordable option for owners who can’t afford to do the right thing, they are forced to do the wrong thing. Either a ‘Free on Craigslist” ad, sell the horse at auction or sell to a dealer, all which leave the horse in danger of receiving a one-way ticket to Mexico.

Many people complain that rescue organizations should offer euthanasia as a free service. People just don’t seem to understand that most rescues are not subsidized by the government. Rescue farms and organizations (for the most part) are privately funded through grants and the generosity of individual donors.

Many people complain that veterinarians should provide free services to rescued horses. I met with American Association of Equine Practitioners hoping to find some relief for rescues. Instead I learned the economics of veterinary medicine.

Veterinarians are caught in the squeeze of higher educational costs and lower earning potential. Graduating veterinarians are often saddled with between $100,000 and $250,000 of student loan debt. Given the average starting salary for a veterinarian in the US is $67,000, it’s not a surprise that they are not offering free services to needy clients.

My veterinarian works 6 days a week and makes $81,000. His student loan payments are $1,400 per month. Not quite the dream he aspired to when he enrolled in vet school.

We all have good intentions. In a perfect world, there would be no unwanted horses, and therefore no need to rescue them, or euthanize them, and no need to expect veterinarians to provide free services.

One thing I have learned is the world is NOT perfect.

In this imperfect world, equine rescues are struggling with too many horses and not enough money to care for them. However, it’s not just equine rescues, it is all nonprofits. There simply is too much need in this imperfect world for all the “do-gooders” to service.

It’s a jungle out there. In 2005, there were 500,000 501c3 non-profit organizations in the United States. According to GuideStar, that number has grown to over 1.8 million today.

The good news is America is full of good people doing good work. The bad news is we are all competing for donor dollars. Every rescue I work with is underfunded and overflowing with horses. It is an on-going struggle to raise money in the current environment. Donors donate because they want to save a life. My fear is that if slaughter were no longer a threat to equines, will our donors still be willing to donate to care for unwanted horse? I suspect not.

Soliciting donations to CARE for horses will be far more challenging than soliciting donations to SAVE horses.

Never mind the donors! I personally spend an enormous amount of my personal time researching, rescuing and caring for horses rescued from slaughter. If slaughter is no longer a threat then I would prefer to go back to the life I had before rescuing horses consumed my personal life! So subtract my 8 stalls from the 33,000 stalls in the United States. I am out. I will take up new hobbies, perhaps buy a boat and travel leisurely.

Without a strategy in place to manage unwanted horses, I fear that the killbuyers will outsmart us again. If the SAFE Act does pass, I predict that the horses will continue to ship over the borders. However, instead of shipping to slaughter, they will ship to auctions and the price of horse meat will increase to offset the additional documentation fees.

It could be possible that if the SAFE ACT passes, the six major horse (meat) auctions will simply move across the borders. Horses will collect at dealer lots in the USA and be transported across the border to an auction first, then to slaughter. Remember we can’t control what other countries do. Having said this, I admit I certainly hope I am wrong.

Capitalism governs North America and opportunity plants the seed for business to sprout, grow and flourish. Go put your finger over the garden hose and think about it. We need to address the growing number of unwanted horses and influence the flow of horses to auctions.