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Survey: Rescue organizations turning away 38 percent of unwanted horses

Economic downturn highlight, exacerbates ongoing problem

July 15, 2009
By Edie Lau

Results of a survey released last week by the Unwanted Horse Coalition show that sales of unwanted horses by owners have doubled in the United States during the past year, while donations and euthanasia are up 50 percent.

The nation’s rescue and adoption facilities, many at or near capacity, are turning away an average of 38 percent of the horses brought to them, according to a summary of survey results.

Extrapolating from answers given by 61 respondents who represent facilities that rescue, retire, retrain or adopt otherwise unwanted horses, the coalition calculates that the estimated 430 such organizations in the country collectively can house about 18,000 animals and have had to turn away approximately 11,180.

At the average cost of $2,300 to feed, house and provide veterinary care for each horse, the coalition estimates that it would cost $25.7 million a year to support just the animals that are turned away.

While the survey did not yield a total number of unwanted horses in the country — chiefly because rescue organizations lack a national association that could track such data — the coalition estimates conservatively that there are roughly 100,000 unwanted horses each year. The figure is based on the number of animals that in recent years have been sent to meat-processing facilities in this country and abroad, said Dr. Tom Lenz, chairman of the coalition.

Lenz said the sheer numbers suggest that any solution to the problem of unwanted horses will have to be multi-pronged.

“The American public in general has a strong attachment to horses even though they don’t know much about them,” Lenz said. “They’re two to three generations off the American farm. They love horses but don’t know anything about taking care of them, so some of their expectations aren’t realistic. They think we’ll just rescue all these horses. Well, it costs too much to feed them and take care of them. You can’t rescue them all.”

The top five approaches favored by survey participants were:

* Educate owners to purchase and own responsibly. 

* Increase ability of private rescue/adoption facilities to care for unwanted horses.

* Reopen U.S. plants that process horses for meat.

* Increase options and resources to euthanize unwanted horses.

* Restrict breeding to reduce surplus of horses.

Of the 23,151 survey participants, 88 percent were horse owners. Stakeholders — including equine veterinarians; industry professionals such as trainers, breeders and boarding facility operators; and trade media — were the second largest group. Also participating were 422 individuals interested in horses who are not horse owners or industry professionals.

The Unwanted Horse Coalition, founded in 2006 and operating under the aegis of the American Horse Council, sponsored the survey to document what’s been widely reported anecdotally since the economy spiraled downward last fall: that with incomes shrinking and horse-feed costs rising, the population of unwanted horses is fast increasing.

The survey confirmed common wisdom. Far and away the top reason respondents gave for horses becoming unwanted was “could no longer afford the horse.”

Nearly all participants said they perceived that the number of unwanted horses is on the rise, whereas less than one-third felt that the issue of unwanted horses was a big problem three years ago.

Lenz noted that the perception of unwanted horses as a big problem may be due in part to greater awareness of the issue. From that perspective, the economic slump has provided a silver lining, in that it’s called attention to a problem that existed even when times were good, he said.

The question of whether too many animals are being bred is a debate that predates the current recession, Lenz added.

Beyond the state of the economy, another factor influencing the number of surplus horses is the closure of horse-meat processing plants in the United States. Lenz said the facilities exported the meat to markets in Europe and Asia. In 2007, three such facilities were shut down, leaving none in operation in this country, he said.

Two of the plants were located in Texas. Lenz said animal activist groups succeeded in having the facilities closed under a state law dating to the 19th century that made it illegal to eat horse meat.

The third plant, located in Illinois, was closed by a new statute prohibiting the processing of horse meat for human consumption, Lenz said.

Unwanted horses from the United States continue to be sent to meat-processing plants in Mexico and Canada. Citing figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Lenz said 106,000 horses were exported to those countries for processing last year. By comparison, in 2007 when the U.S. plants were still open, 140,000 horses were sent for processing, Lenz said.

“That’s a 34,000-horse drop,” Lenz said. “The issue is, what happened to those horses? They’re not all being rescued. So I think that’s why you see so many stories in the press about abandoned and neglected horses.”

Lenz said one option for unwanted horses is euthanasia. Although an all-too-common solution to eliminate unwanted dogs and cats, euthanasia for healthy horses has been rare historically.

“I’ve been a veterinarian for 34 years and I can’t ever remember euthanizing a horse because no one wants it,” Lenz said.

And if someone requested it? “I’d have to think about it,” he said. “Most of us care a lot about horses. It would be pretty hard to see a nice-looking horse, and someone says, ‘I don’t want this horse. I want to kill it.’

“I’ve had people want me to euthanize like that,” Lenz added, “but I’ve always found a home for them.”

But given the growing surplus of animals, Lenz said the horse community will need to consider developing low-cost euthanasia options for people who cannot afford to keep their animals.

Horse owners reported to the coalition that the average cost of euthanasia, including carcass burial, was $385, compared with $1,000 to “donate” an unwanted animal. Lenz said many horse sanctuaries require a veterinarian’s examination before they will accept a horse. The facilities also may require that the person giving away the horse transport the animal to the facility and pay several months' board.

The coalition’s Internet-based survey took place November 2008 to January 2009, and was conducted by an independent market research company. An executive summary of the results is posted at .

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.


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