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Hot Equine Issues

Unwanted Horses — Companion Animals or Livestock?

By Dorinda Troutman, RMR Staff Writer


April 2008 Issue


[Editor’s Note: This is the third article in our series about the issue of how to deal with Unwanted Horses, and the related topics of slaughter, euthanasia, rendering, animal law and cruelty to animals.

     This month we discuss whether or not horses should continue to be designated as “livestock,” as they have traditionally been; or whether they should be termed “companion animals.”

     The term “companion animal” is relatively new in modern American usage, and its exact meaning is one that is open to connotation and interpretation. Does “companion animal” mean the same thing as “pet”? And if some people think of their horses as “pets,” does that mean that ALL horse owners should be required to consider their horses as pets, as well?

     In February, 2007, we published “What to Do With a Dead Horse.” In February, 2008, we covered these issues: the causes of unwanted horses; horse slaughter houses; transportation to slaughter; and horse meat. In March, 2008, we covered rendering and the rendering industry.

     Please contact us with your feedback and thoughts about this very important issue.]


Defining the relationship between horses and humans

“He’s of the colour of the nutmeg. And of the heat of the ginger.... he is pure air and fire; and the dull elements of earth and water never appear in him, but only in patient stillness while his rider mounts him; he is indeed a horse, and all other jades you may call beasts.”

 ~William Shakespeare, Henry V


     All domestic animals are considered “property” under the law, which allows people to buy and sell them, use them for many purposes, to kill them “humanely,” and to hold them captive. Animal laws are found at local, state, national and international levels.

     “Livestock” can be defined in different ways under the law. For example, in Wyoming , “livestock” is simply stated as cattle, horses, mules, asses and sheep (and sometimes, herds of bison).

     The USDA defines “agricultural” (or livestock) as “animals for food or fiber” and places horses that are used on a ranch, to work cattle, under “agriculture.” Other horses are considered “recreational.” The designation has been arrived at for the purposes of the Farm Bill for the USDA Cost Share Program.

      In their definition of “livestock,” most cities, counties and states include domesticated bovine animals [cattle], equine animals, ovine animals [sheep], and porcine animals [pigs]. Some definitions also include cervidae animals [deer], capradae animals [antelope], animals of the genus Llama, ratites [ostrich], fish or shellfish in aquaculture, and enclosed rabbits or hares raised for human food or fiber.

     Most of us think of “companion animals” as non-food pets, kept for companionship, amusement, psychological support, and affection. They include dogs, cats, cage birds, aquarium fish, and exotic species such as monkeys, tortoises, snakes, gerbils, hamsters, chinchillas, mice, rats and spiders. Horses used for “pleasure” could fall into this category.

     According to a study done in 2006 by the American Veterinary Medical Association, pet ownership rose between 2001 and 2006, including households that owned “pet horses.”

     Respondents stated that, like dog and cat owners, horse owners feel a bond with their animals. More than 38 percent of horse owners considered their horses to be family, and more than 56 percent considered horses to be “pets or companions.”

      Laura Ireland Moore, Director of the National Center for Animal Law – Lewis and Clark Law School , in Portland , Oregon , says, “It makes more sense to classify horses as companion animals under the law, as people have such an emotional attachment to them. In most animal cruelty cases, it is neglect, not bad livestock husbandry, that is the cause.”

     Moore says that the goal of the National Center for Animal Law is to train law students how to better reflect the human relationship to animals. “Laws now do not protect most animals from cruelty and neglect. These are living beings, and should not be considered property,” she explains.

     In 1998 California passed a law making it illegal to sell a horse for slaughter or transport horses to slaughter.

     As part of the argument for the law, supporters reasoned that horses were “companion animals” – equivalent to dogs and cats – and should be protected from becoming meat on a plate for people.

     Opponents to the bill argued that while a majority of horses in California were indeed companion animals with a close bond between owner and horse, a significant percentage were working animals – more akin to cattle.

     Jane Heath, Executive Director of Montana Horse Sanctuary in Helena , says, “We treat horses as companion animals all their lives – until we don’t want them anymore. They put aside all of their instincts and survival skills to be our companions, and then after all that devoted service they are treated like livestock and sent to slaughter. It’s a wicked betrayal.”

     When asked, Heath says that the Sanctuary has not seen more horses needing to be rescued since the U.S. horse slaughter houses closed. “We always have a steady stream of horses needing shelter on our waiting list — most due to economics, and not being able to find new homes.”

     These days, most people do not help raise or hunt the animals that end up on their dinner plates. Animals that provide us food are increasingly invisible and distant from our everyday lives, even in the rural West.

     During the last fifty years, our emotional attachment to dogs and cats has become accepted as the norm. When they die, we can now mourn them as much as we would a friend or family member. Many of us feel the same way about our horses.

     At the same time, food animals have been set apart from us and more and more are raised in factory-like conditions, to the extent that they are termed “units of production.” Feedlots with tens of thousands of cows, windowless warehouses with cages of chickens, and tiny cement and steel stalls for hogs are standard practice in today’s world of meat, milk and egg production. Those who care about animals may believe that this is wrong, but the general population is removed from the realities of industrial farms and slaughterhouse conditions.

     Horses are generally not thought of as “units of production.” Unlike most other livestock, horses are usually not sold in quantities or by the pound. Horses are sold as individuals and each horse’s personal characteristics greatly affect pricing.

     Traditionally, in the West, horses (and stock dogs) have been used as work companions to humans. However, as more and more large ranches are being sold off as ranchettes, small utility vehicles can be used instead of horses to drive cattle, and to carry feed and manure. Modern ranching practices are changing what horses are used for.

     According to the latest statistics released from the American Horse Council, 2,970,000 horses are used for recreation; 1,974,000 for showing, 725,000 for racing, and 1,262,000 for “other.” “Other” includes farm and ranch work, police work, rodeo and polo.

Benefits of Being “Livestock”

     Regardless of how a horse owner feels about slaughtering horses and using horse meat for human consumption, or whether horses should be labeled as “companion animals” or as “livestock,” changing the legal status of horses has possible adverse results for breeders and marketers of horses and for those who use them as workers on ranches.

     We asked two livestock professionals what would happen if horses were not considered livestock.

     Sandy Gagnon, Horse Specialist with the Montana State Extension Animal and Range Sciences – Montana State University, responded by saying, “If you take horses out from under the Department of Livestock, a lot of things fall through the cracks, such as brand inspection and theft, and also disease control, through Coggins tests and health certificates. At least in the Western states.”

     Errol Rice, Executive Vice President of the Montana Stock Growers Association, told us: “Being livestock is a very valuable classification. It gives protection for both horses and their owners.

     “As livestock, horses have good animal health protocols for controlling outbreaks of disease, such as West Nile Virus, with quarantines and traceability; a reliable mechanism for finding and returning stolen livestock and prosecuting thieves with felony penalties; and cruelty to animal laws already in place.”

AAEP Position Statement

     The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) and the American Horse Council (AHC) have issued a “white paper,” or position statement, on why horses should remain classified as livestock. Excerpts from the white paper follow.

State and Federal Support

     Traditionally and legally, horses have been considered livestock in the United States . Both state and federal support and money goes to the horse industry because of that, under the guidance of the USDA, and each state’s department of agriculture.

     The USDA has a responsibility to improve and maintain farm income, develop and expand markets, and protect agricultural products and carry out agricultural research. The agency provides technical expertise and money to support research into equine diseases, enforces national laws pertaining to equines, and helps with disaster relief.

Humane Laws

     State anti-cruelty laws would need to be changed to include equines in non-livestock laws.

Limited Liability Laws

     Most states have Limited Liability Laws to protect stable owners, equine event organizers, and trail ride providers from lawsuits that may come from people injured while attending or participating. Those laws state that horses (or other livestock) are potentially dangerous animals, and that everyone should be aware of that when around them. The laws would need to be changed in those states that include horses under livestock instead of singling them out.


     Under current federal and state general tax, excise and sales tax laws, commercial horse owners and breeders are treated as farmers, giving them certain tax benefits.

Benefits of Being “Companion Animals”

     The bond between horses and humans can be as intimate and rewarding as the bond between dogs and humans.

     Horses are used in therapy and to aid humans, much like seeing-eye dogs and dogs for the deaf and other human disabilities. Therapeutic riding programs have proven the benefit of interaction with horses for people of all abilities. Miniature horses are being used to aid blind people much like seeing-eye dogs have done for years, and living as much as three times as long as dogs while doing it. Programs for prisoners that use dogs and horses not only help the animals, they help the prisoners gain career and social skills.

     Not only do disabled people benefit from interacting with horses, the horses benefit as well. A 2004 study done at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine showed that when horses were used in three different therapy disciplines — equine-assisted mental health therapy, therapeutic horseback riding for children and adults, and equine-facilitated psychotherapy, all of the horses showed lower levels of stress indicators following the sessions, even after seemingly stressful incidences such as those involving screaming or seizures.

     Today, one of the major issues in animal law is the legal standing of equines — whether they are livestock or companion animals. Most laws were written to protect people or their property. Typical anti-cruelty laws protect companion animals and exclude many farming practices. In general this is good, but has been used by unscrupulous people to try to dismiss charges of cruelty against livestock.

     As companion animals, it would be much more difficult for horses to be slaughtered or sold for slaughter, and then shipped out of the country for human consumption.

     Dave Pauli, Northern Rockies Region Director of the Humane Society of the U.S. , says that designating horses as companion animals would “give more blanket protection under state anti-cruelty laws, allowing for a higher standard of documentation, making it easier to prosecute cruelty-to-horses cases.”

     Pauli recently returned from a training session with California rural firefighters, who needed to know how to rescue horses from situations where they become trapped, such as in a ravine, down an old well, or between two trees.

     Pauli explains that firefighters know horse owners in general are less equipped than livestock ranchers to set up a rescue or have needed equipment on hand such as winches, cable, large ropes, trucks, trailers, and other horse-knowledgeable people to help.

     Therefore, Pauli says, “Firefighters there respond to horse emergencies as if horses were companion animals, because if they don’t, they believe the owners may endanger themselves by attempting to rescue an animal. The firefighters were trained to rescue horses using equipment already on their fire trucks.

     “Most humane societies and animal shelters don’t offer help to horses because they are not under the companion animal ‘umbrella,’” explains Pauli. “It’s in the best interest of the horse to be classified as a companion animal.”

Limited Liability Laws

     An argument could be made that state limited liability laws would not need to be changed. The vast majority of state limited liability laws (including the eleven states where RMR is distributed) are written just for equines. A few are for either equines or livestock. This seems to indicate that most limited liability laws would not necessarily need to be changed.

How Could a Change Happen?

     Scott Beckstead, an attorney in Oregon who specializes in animal law, grew up with horses in Idaho and currently has five horses.

     When asked how horses could legally become companion animals, whether at the state or national level, he explains that it could happen “…through legislation at the state level. Oregon now has different standards of neglect for livestock and companion animals. A bill would need to eliminate, through law, all the different ways horses are now classified as livestock.”

     Beckstead also says that, “While the U.S. Congress is interested in horse slaughter, they would view changing horses from livestock to companion animals as “micro-managing,” and it is not the type of thing they would likely spend their time on.”


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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