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Hot Equine Issues

Unwanted Horses…Some questions answered  

By Dorinda Troutman, RMR Staff Writer 


February 2008 Issue


     The staff at Rocky Mountain Rider has been talking about the issue of “Unwanted Horses” for the past few months and the problems that are caused by this issue.

     Horse rescue organizations are reporting that they have more horses than they can care for. Stories of abandoned horses are being passed around the internet. The closure of three horse-only slaughterhouses last year has helped to create polarization between people who are against horse slaughter and/or horse meat for human consumption, and the people and organizations that are pro owner’s rights.

     How much of the “Unwanted Horse” issue are exaggerations fed by heated emotions and what are the significant truths?

     We thought that we would share some of our own questions with our readers, along with the research that we have done to help answer them. We may not be able to find definitive answers to all questions, but we aim to show both sides of the issues so that our readers may be able to form their own conclusions.

     This is the first article of a series of articles due to the length of the subject.


What is an Unwanted Horse?

     An Unwanted Horse may have one or more of the following: is too old to use, has an untreatable disability, is in unmanageable pain, exhibits dangerous behavior, is too expensive to keep, is too much work for its owner to keep, or is no longer being used or desired.


What causes Unwanted Horses?

     Unwanted Horses are the result of many factors including: the economics of the horse industry; the overall horse population; the costs of keeping a horse; and the general health of the national economy.

     The U.S. horse population experiences a dramatic yearly increase. In 2004, the American Horse Council’s statistics numbered U.S. horses at 9,223,000, and stated that this was an increase of 300,000 in just over a year.

     The cost of keeping a horse is rising steeply, even for those owners with supplemental pasture, who give their own shots and wormers, and trim their own horses’ hooves.

     The average price of horse hay in Montana and Wyoming in 2007 was about $4 to $6 per 40-to 70-pound bale (bought by the ton or in the field) and rising. An adult horse eats about two percent of its body weight per day (20 pounds or about a third to half a bale of hay per day for a horse weighing 1,000 pounds). Hay, grain, supplements, salt and mineral can run between $700 and $1,250 per horse per year. Add in bedding, boarding, immunizations, dental care, worming, hoof trimming and shoeing, and the total cost of keeping a horse each year may easily come to more than the original cost of the animal.


What options are there for Unwanted Horses?

     When there are more horses than are wanted, the worth of each horse also goes down. Many horses become literally unsaleable.

     A sound, gentle and healthy horse can sometimes be donated to a therapeutic riding association, a private party or a

4-H member.

     A horse may sometimes be donated to a veterinary school, but the animal may then be used for medical experiments and disposed of at the school’s discretion.

     Sadly, if the monetary value of a horse is low or nothing, some owners change their attitude for the worse in how much they are willing to pay for food, veterinary care and upkeep. Animal abuse, neglect or abandonment can be the result.


What is the most humane option?

     Sometimes the kindest choice for many Unwanted Horses is to be chemically euthanized by a veterinarian. This is normally a painless, gentle, low cost option, and the veterinarian can advise as to disposal of the body.


Can horses be sold for slaughter?

     We share with the majority of our readers one huge concern about horse slaughter—that all horses should be treated humanely and that the process is quick and painless.

     Most of us would not wish that our horses die at a slaughterhouse. However, hardship or other circumstances can mean that a horse is sold to go to a slaughterhouse.

     Proponents of having horse slaughter plants in the U.S. argue that as long as there are Unwanted Horses, and a demand for horse meat, there will be horses bought by the pound for meat, legally or illegally.

     According to the USDA, more than 92 percent of horses which are slaughtered are neither old or obviously unhealthy; and that it is an industry driven by the price of horse meat.

     Many organizations, including the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) feel that taking away the owner’s right to send Unwanted Horses to slaughter is bad for the horse industry and for the humane treatment of horses in general.

     The AVMA argues that USDA inspectors closely monitored how horses were treated and that killing was done under direct veterinary supervision in U.S. horse slaughter facilities. They state that the USDA does not have jurisdiction in other countries and so horses may be more subject to being inhumanely transported and killed outside of the U.S. They argue that putting an end to slaughter will cause more horses to be sent out of the country to be slaughtered, or to be abandoned and abused. This last argument has become true.

     Joe Vodica, of Central Wyoming Livestock in Glenrock , Wyoming , echoes that sentiment, as do managers at auction yards in Missoula , Montana , and Twin Falls , Idaho . Vodica says that prices from a year ago of about 50 cents a pound are down to 20 cents a pound for “killer” (“canner” or slaughter) horses, and he sees fewer horses going through his facility since the U.S. slaughterhouses were closed.

     “About 1,100 head went through in 2007, down from about 1,300 head in 2006,” he says.

     Vodica says that buyers for slaughterhouses in both Canada and Mexico purchase horses at his auction.

     “They go both ways. They all have straight (not double-decker) trucks and treat the horses well. It would make more sense to have plants in the U.S. , though,” he says.


     Opponents of horse slaughter plants inside and outside the U.S. argue that just because horse slaughter is lucrative and tempting, like illegal drugs, we shouldn’t turn our backs to the inhumane practices that can be inherent in transporting, and then keeping and killing horses for slaughter, in spite of humane treatment laws.

     Access to the internet and to videos taken at slaughterhouses showing inhumane practices has inflamed the public, and helped to push action against slaughterhouses by judges and lawmakers.

     Opponents argue that many horse thieves make easy money by selling horses for slaughter; that unsuspecting owners sell their horses at auction, not realizing the horses may be bought by contract buyers for slaughterhouses that collect horses across the country, and that the manner in which horses are transported, held and killed can be inhumane. A portion of the opponents also feel strongly that horses are “companion animals” and should not be slaughtered.

     Opponents of both horse slaughter and transportation for slaughter to other countries, who are proposing a ban on these practices, include the Humane Society of the United States , National Horse Protection League and the Animal Welfare Institute.


What about horse meat?

     The U.S. has never been a country that consumed a lot of horse meat. There have been times in the past when eating horse meat was acceptable and sold openly by butchers. But it was never as popular as it is today in France, Quebec or Belgium where horse meat is more sought after than ever because of the threat BSE from beef.

     Due to a low fat content and superior flavor, a few countries such as Japan consider horse meat a delicacy, especially when raw. Poorer countries, such as Mexico , have traditionally utilized any unneeded animals for food. Mexico now has a low annual consumption of horse meat compared to other meats, but consumption of horse meat is increasing there, as well.


     American culture and a strong beef lobbying industry has kept horse meat a specialty meat in the U.S. , and for the last 50 years, unacceptable table fare.

     Canned dog food became popular beginning in the 1930s. Originally it contained cheap horse meat as a main ingredient, which had often been gotten from brutal roundups of wild mustangs in the West.

     In 1952, Velma Johnson, later known as “Wild Horse Annie,” began a compaign in Nevada to stop mustangs from being harvested for commercial purposes.

     By 1959, a law passed by Congress prohibited the use of motorized vehicles and airplanes to hunt wild horses and burros on public land. In spite of this law, by 1971 the population of wild horses had diminished drastically, and the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed, to protect and manage the animals.

     Currently, there is virtually no horse meat in canned dog food, except for possible small amounts of “meat by-products,” from some manufacturers.

     Until recently, there were three Belgian-owned, USDA-inspected plants just for the slaughter of horses in the U.S. ; two in Texas and one in Illinois . Approximately 90,000 to 100,000 horses were slaughtered each year in these plants. However, state laws have been passed to prevent horse slaughter for human consumption, and a federal judgment stopped USDA health inspectors from inspecting horse slaughterhouses. This effectively shut down the plants.

     Horse meat from those plants was sold to zoos and wild animal parks and shipped out of the country, mainly to Europe and Japan , to be used for human consumption.

     Amanda Eamich, spokesperson for USDA Food Safety Inspection Service, says slaughtering horses in plants designned just for horses has been “a business decision made by plant owners, and not something the USDA regulates.”

     In part, this may be due to a horse’s anatomy and a plant’s physical limitations. Horses were bolt shot in the head and then hung by one hind leg to be bled out from their jugular vein before being butchered. They needed be hung from a much higher rail than cattle, due to their longer bodies, necks and heads.

     Currently about 30,000 to 40,000 horses per year are bought at auction in the U.S. and shipped to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, where laws governing humane treatment may not be in effect or as strictly enforced as those in the United States.

     The AVMA horse euthanasia policy states that there are three humane methods of killing a horse: a gun shot to the brain; a bolt shot (a bolt is shot into the brain and then automatically retracted back into the gun) and by lethal injection (which makes the carcass poisonous).

     Some other countries use a stun gun to stun the animal before hanging it up and cutting the jugular. In Mexico , horses in slaughter plants commonly have their spinal chord cut just behind the head before being hung up and bled to death.

     Two major accidents involving double-decker trucks carrying dozens of horses to slaughter or to sell for slaughter in the past year have highlighted inhumane transportation methods, and a recent video of botched horse killing practices at a Mexican slaughterhouse contributed to the latest federal law proposed in a bill by U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, Louisiana, aimed at stopping the shipment of horses exported for slaughter for human consumption.

     Scott Schneider, Deputy Communications Director at Senator Landrieu’s office, says, “The Senator has been a life-long horse lover and wishes to put an end to cruel and inhumane practices in the horse slaughter industry by banning transportation to other countries for human consumption.”

     Landrieu’s bill would also impose federal prohibitions against any reopening of U.S. horse slaughterhouses, and prohibit the interstate transport of gaited horses that have been “sored,” an inhumane practice to make gaited horses step higher in shows.

     In early December 2007, the American Quarter Horse Association released a statement against Landrieu’s bill, stating that the bill may have “far reaching effects on our members and their ability to buy and sell horses. Members may sell horses unaware of the buyer’s intent with the animal and to where it may be transported, possibly resulting in legal ramifications for the seller.”

     Landrieu immediately responded with a statement saying her bill applies only to violators who “knowingly” break the law; not to innocent bystanders.

     Barbara Linke, Director of Public Policy at AQHA, says, “We remain against the Landrieu bill. We are primarily pro member’s rights to do with their private property what they wish. We are not pro slaughter, but that was a humane option for Unwanted Horses. We are concerned about abandoned and Unwanted Horses, and are working on finding solutions.”

     The AVMA states that Landrieu’s bill will be a difficult law to enforce, as buyers could lie and describe horses moving across a border to slaughter as “riding, breeding, or pleasure” horses.

     Schneider responded by saying that any federal crime is always up to the Justice Department to prove and that this would be no different. “It’s just like illegal drugs. It is against the law to have them and the Justice Department enforces that law.”

     When California banned horse slaughter in 1998, reported horse thefts declined and reports of animal abuse and horse neglect did not increase, reports the AVMA, which states that they believe (without supporting evidence) that horses were likely shipped out of California before they were sold for slaughter.

     The AVMA states that as long as there is a market for horse slaughter, and a supply of Unwanted Horses, there will be ways of filling the demand.


Is there help for Unwanted Horses?

     A broad alliance of equine organizations, including national breed clubs and veterinary associations, have joined together under the umbrella of the American Horse Council to form the Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC), based in Washington, DC.

     The UHC aims to help educate the horse industry about the Unwanted Horse issue; to help people own horses responsibly; available options for Unwanted Horses; and end-of-life choices.

     The UHC has developed a list of questions to consider before buying or breeding a horse, and what to do if an owner can no longer care for a horse.


     The UHC website also has a list of facilities that take Unwanted Horses:


     The Mustang Heritage Foundation is dedicated to increasing adoptions of wild horses and burros.


     The National Horse Protection League’s mission is to protect horses from slaughter, abaondonment, dangerous working, breeding and racing condiditions and irresponsible owners:


     Veterinarians for Equine Welfare is an organization made up of veterinarians concerned about education in horse welfare and Unwanted Horse issues:


     Watch for the next article on Unwanted Horses in a future issue of RMR.

     Future articles will cover such issues as: Abandoned and Abused Horses; Horse Cruelty Laws; Companion Animal or Livestock?; Horse Rescue Organizations; How to Humanely Euthanize a Horse  and Disposal of Body; Rendering Plants; etc…..


Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;


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