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By Cindy Hale

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

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There it was on the front page of my local newspaper: a photo of a tall, bony chestnut mare, found abandoned in a weedy field. It was unknown how long she’d been there, picking through dandelions and foxtails for sustenance. She was rescued only because a herd of Herefords had busted through a wire fence and wandered into the same weed patch. When Riverside County Animal Control officials came to round up the cattle, they discovered the mare.

According to the report, the friendly mare walked right up to the uniformed agents. They happened to have some spare dog leashes on hand so they buckled them together to create a makeshift halter, and led the big red mare into the trailer. She walked right in.

Once they got her back to the county facility, a vet conducted an exam. By checking her lip tattoo they figured she was a 15-year-old Thoroughbred. Though thin and full of burrs and stickers, it’s predicted she’ll respond to treatment and either end up being adopted out or sent to a foster home.

I’m not sure what’s going on with abandoned horses in your area, but out here it’s rampant. In 2006 my county collected 20 abandoned horses, meaning they were wandering loose on public land, and once captured remained unclaimed. This year they’re up to 74. And it’s only mid-September.

There’s no denying that the economy is pushing the plight of the unwanted horse. Unemployment and home foreclosure statistics in my county are among the highest in the nation. The first non-essential item that’s put up for sale is the backyard horse. Problem is, there aren’t many buyers. The financially solvent folks who are horse shopping are typically looking for high-performance show horses or so-called Cadillac trail horses. All the mid-level auctions that functioned as marketplaces for nice family horses have pretty much disappeared. So when the nice auctions are shuttered and your ads get no response, where do you turn when you need to get rid of a horse?

Unfortunately, something ugly has happened. There was much rejoicing a couple of years ago when the equine slaughterhouses in the United States were closed. Hooray! No more unwanted horses would be killed in America! But in reality more horses than ever are being sent to the killers. They’re just being shipped to Canada or worse, Mexico.

These double-decker transport trucks aren’t magically filling up on their own. Despite rules, laws and regulations, the knackers have learned how to work the system. The unwanted horses they’ve plucked from ranches, low-end auctions and naïve backyard owners simply roam a feedlot for a while before making the long trek north or south. So all that patting on the back we did for shutting down the horse slaughter industry in America? A lot of good that did.

I wish I had an easy solution to the unwanted horse problem but I don’t. But I have a few suggestions. First, we need to continually emphasize the high cost of maintaining a horse. It’s not the purchase price that stuns people, it’s the upkeep. Second, we need to stop breeding so many horses. The era of producing a few fancy horses for fun and profit are over. Get a different hobby. Next, we should encourage more horse owners to seek hands-on advice from professionals. Then, if and when a horse does have to be re-homed, it’ll be much easier to place than one that’s developed bad habits from poor riding or was never fully trained in the first place. Finally, we have to be more candid about humane euthanasia. It is a reasonable option when a horse has become so aged, ill, lame or unruly that it’s impossible to find it a good home.

While no one enjoys ending a horse’s life, that has to become a more acceptable choice than turning it loose in a weedy field to fend for itself. Whenever I present this idea, though, I often hear the response, “But it’s so expensive to put a horse down.”

Yes, it is. Out here, the total cost for the vet and removal of the carcass is about $350. That’s a hefty bill if you’re trying to keep a roof over your head. Yet I still believe that if we promote responsible horse ownership potential buyers will begin to plan ahead. They’ll know to set aside some funds not just for a rainy day, but for a deluge. If we work together I do believe we can improve the plight of the unwanted horse. If you have any other ideas or comments, I’d like to hear them. Just click on “Submit a Comment” below.

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Reader Comments

Kayla    Longmont FARM, CO

10/12/2011 1:19:26 PM

This was a great article!

CINDY HALE    HORSE CHANNEL, CA

10/3/2011 2:39:00 PM

I REALLY APPRECIATE THE TIME AND THOUGHT THAT WENT INTO ALL THESE COMMENTS. OBVIOUSLY THIS IS A TOPIC THAT NEEDS TO BE DISCUSSED REPEATEDLY.

VERONICA, YOU PRESENTED SEVERAL SIDES AND VIEWPOINTS OF THE SLAUGHTER ISSUE. AS YOU POINT OUT, SOME BREED ASSOCIATIONS SEEM TO REWARD BREEDING MORE AND MORE HORSES. THEY THEN PROFIT OFF THE REGISTRATION FEES OF THOSE FOALS. NEEDLESS TO SAY, THERE AREN'T HOMES FOR ALL OF THESE HORSES; ESPECIALLY NOT IN THIS ECONOMY.

Shasta    Vegreville, AB

9/30/2011 1:39:31 PM

this was very good, and i found it the best because it has a easygoing opinion that is not offending to some people. well written.

Veronica    Salem, OR

9/29/2011 11:09:05 PM

Excellent blog, Cindy, especially on a difficult issue to address. I admit to being very conflicted about the subject. Apologies in advance for the length of what follows.

**If** slaughter were humane for horses, I would probably be less against it. But it is not. From transporting to ill-fitting cattle halters to the run-through chutes to the kill floor, none of it is "designed" for horses; it's designed for slower-moving animals who have had far less contact with humans.

We owe better to our horses.

Humane euthanasia can and should be made more affordable, along with disposal. So-called low-cost euthanasia clinics have been held with success; there should be more, perhaps under the auspices of city/county animal control.

Laws forbidding transporting out of state (which is on the books in California) or out of the country (which is before Congress) are useless without enforcement. Many of us thought that when the European Union and Asia began forbidding meat from animals that had been given Bute and other medications, the market for U.S. horse meat would dry up. But it's clear none of the horses -- alive or dead -- are being tested, since pretty much every horse has, at some time in its life, been dewormed, vaccinated, had Bute or any number of other drugs on the banned list.

Registries should STOP rewarding people for breeding more horses. The AQHA is the leader of that pack, handing out incentives to its biggest breeders right and left. The more heinous sin on the AQHA's part is being perhaps the most PRO slaughter registry in the world, the "leadership's" opinion being how else will all those breeders producing hundreds of foals a year be able to get rid of their culls?

That's an unspeakable attitude.

While the Thoroughbred breeders and owners are not guilt-free, at least the Jockey Club and the tracks themselves are trying to help the horses.

The Jockey Club has Thoroughbred Connect, where owners can find second homes for their retiring horses; breeders, owners and trainers can place stickers and other notifications on a horse's papers to help ensure it "comes home" after its racing days; there are dozens and dozens of industry-supported retraining, rehoming and retirement programs; many tracks now expressly forbid and will ban owners and trainers who sell horses for slaughter; several states now take out a small, set percentage from bets and purses to support TB retirement programs.

So while the TB world is not perfect, it does far, far more for its horses than the AQHA, Paint, Arabian, Appaloosa, Standardbred ... well, you get the idea ... registries do for theirs.

It's on all of us to do more, do better. People need to stop breeding low-quality horses. They need to give the horses they do have A JOB. They need to get training on their horses so they have a use other than filling a dinner plate in France.

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