The unwanted horse

Veterinarians, humane groups grapple with thousands of homeless or neglected horses
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The debate over whether to allow horse slaughter in the United States for human consumption abroad has brought attention to the plight of tens of thousands of unwanted horses, and the heart-wrenching challenges veterinarians, animal welfare groups, local governments, horse owners, and the public face as they deal with these animals.

A panel of veterinarians and a representative of an animal welfare organization delved into the various facets of the unwanted horse problem at the American Association of Equine Practitioners Annual Convention in Denver, Dec. 4-8, 2004. Discussions were on its scope, the impact of the Bureau of Land Management's wild horse adoption program, and the roles of veterinarians and retirement and adoption farms in developing solutions and humane euthanasia methods. The afternoon-long event was part of a larger effort by the AAEP to explore the unwanted horse problem.

Dr. Scott Palmer, the AAEP's 2005 president, explained that he feels the AAEP has been unfairly labeled as "pro-slaughter" because it opposes legislation that would make it illegal in the United States to slaughter horses for human consumption. The AAEP opposes the legislation because, as written, it does not provide for the long-term care of the thousands of unwanted horses that are currently sent to slaughter each year. Without such provisions, the association fears, these horses could wind up neglected and starving.

Dr. Palmer also pointed out that there are other categories of unwanted horses, in addition to those that go to slaughter, that must be considered.

Dr. Nat. T. Messer, the event moderator and an associate professor at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, said that while veterinarians sometimes care for these unwanted animals, they are not the source of the animals and cannot solve the problem alone.

"We need to engage other parts of the industry and find out why we are dealing with horses deemed no longer useful or horses that owners no longer want to care for," Dr. Messer said.

The AAEP is planning to host an Unwanted Horse Summit on April 19, 2005 during the American Horse Council's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. More than 30 horse industry, veterinary, and animal welfare organizations will be invited to participate in the summit.

"Just as in the dog and cat populations, there are thousands of U.S. horses that are unwanted by their owners," Dr. Palmer said. "The AAEP sees the summit as the first step in identifying the many factors that contribute to the number of unwanted horses in the United States and Canada, as well as long-term strategies for making their lives better."

Additionally, the association released a brochure, "Care Guidelines for Equine Rescue and Retirement Facilities," at the convention to aid equine rescue and retirement groups and the veterinarians that work with them. More information about the guidelines is available on the AAEP Web site,  

Searching for answers

During his presentation, Dr. Messer outlined the scope of the unwanted horse problem. He said that on average, 85,000 to 170,000 U.S. horses are sent to U.S. and Canadian slaughterhouses each year, and an unknown number are sent to Mexican slaughterhouses. There are also about 10,000 unadoptable feral horses rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management each year. A bill signed into law by President Bush in December 2004 will allow these unadoptable horses to be auctioned at public slaughter, including to slaughterhouses. This past year, cutbacks in the pregnant mare urine industry have left about 20,000 mares without homes, Dr. Messer said. A small number of horses are simply abandoned by their owners and left to die. 

Additionally, there may be more than 100,000 horses that die or are euthanatized each year on farms. Dr. Messer cited a 1998 National Animal Health Monitoring System report that stated that 135,000 horses died or were euthanatized in 1997. Assuming the NAHMS 1998 report is representative, it suggests there may be about 135,000 equine carcasses that must be cremated, buried, chemically digested, disposed of in landfills, or rendered each year.

Dr. Messer said that unwanted horses may run the gamut—they may be healthy, normal horses of various breeds; horses with some disability or infirmity; unattractive horses; horses that fail to meet their owners expectations as athletes or in some other capacity; horses with non-life-threatening disease; horses with behavior problems; or dangerous horses. Unfortunately, there are too little data on these animals to determine demographic information such as on (average) age, sex, breed, occupation, body condition, or the reason they are unwanted, he said.

Robin C. Lohnes, co-chair of the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board and the executive director of the American Horse Protection Association, gave an overview of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program and its role in the unwanted horse problem.

"BLM is to be commended for the vast improvements it has made in the adopt-a-horse program," Lohnes said.

The program has placed 190,000 horses in adoptive homes since 1978. Adopters are required to sign an agreement that they will not sell the animal for slaughter, as bucking stock, or for the processing of commercial products. The BLM also holds the title to the animal for at least a year.

"Not every horse owner is prepared to keep his or her horse forever," Lohnes said. "So the reality is, since the majority of those 190,000 animals have been incorporated into the general horse population, they do face the same potential threat of being unwanted."

Historically, the BLM has marketed wild horses and burros as symbols of the American West, she said.

"An indirect result of this market branding is that individuals caught up in the romanticism of owning a wild mustang may not be very knowledgeable about horses or the responsibilities of horse ownership," Lohnes said. "In many of these cases—not all—the adopters are completely unprepared to handle and care for a wild horse or burro, much less one that has retained its survival instinct and, for the most part, retained its lack of trust for humans."

Many of these horses end up going without proper care for extended periods, she said. The BLM is currently looking into alternative marketing strategies that emphasize the wild horses and burros' attributes, such as strength, endurance, and hardiness.

Ultimately, many adopted wild horses and burros may end up in slaughterhouses or competing with other unwanted horses for resources, she said.

Dr. Doug Byars, who recently retired from his post as head of internal medicine at the McGee Medicine Center of the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, emphasized the importance of establishing standards of care for retirement and adoption farms. Dr. Byars said that although these programs are an important step toward solving the unwanted horse problem, not all facilities meet even minimum standards of care. Some well-meaning individuals may lack the appropriate facilities, funding, or expertise to properly care for these animals.

"We want these horses to end up with caring caretakers," Dr. Byars said. "Ignorance is a plight these horse can fall into."

He noted that the American Horse Protection Association maintains a list of approved retirement and rescue farms, and that the Thoroughbred Adoption Retirement Association and other Thoroughbred-related charities provide resources for unwanted Thoroughbreds.

"Sadly, despite the efforts of all these equine welfare advocates, the need for placement opportunities for unwanted horses far exceeds the capacity of all these farms put together," Dr. Byars said.  

The veterinarian's role

To Dr. Lydia F. Gray, the "unwanted horse" is a misnomer. As the executive director of the Hooved Animal Humane Society in Woodstock, Ill., she deals mostly with animals that are wanted by their owners, but the animals are improperly cared for, neglected, or abused. She said there can be many reasons owners neglect their horses, including ignorance, apathy, a financial or personal crisis, or mental illness. But there are things veterinarians can do to help in theses situations. 

"I think equine veterinarians are in a unique position to recognize neglect or the potential for neglect in horses," Dr. Gray said.

She explained that equine veterinarians have access to the animals and may have had a long relationship with the horse owner, and their advice is respected by horse owners.

Dr. Gray said veterinarians have three options when they recognize signs of neglect. They can try to educate the owner. They can report the owner to the appropriate authorities. Or, they can do nothing.

She said if veterinarians wish to educate the owner, they should be honest and work with the owner to diagnose the problem and develop a plan to solve it.

"You have to be on (the owner's) side," she said.

If the owner cannot or will not accept these attempts, Dr. Gray urged veterinarians to report the owner to the proper authorities, such as the local humane society, animal control, the state department of agriculture, or local law enforcement.

Dr. Gray said some veterinarians are hesitant to report neglect because they fear losing clients. She urged that veterinarians not interfere with investigations when they are initiated. Sometimes a veterinarian's word is enough to stop a neglect investigation.

"I don't think equine veterinarians realize the power you have—you are the experts," she said.

Dr. Gray encouraged all veterinarians to become familiar with their local animal welfare laws and agencies before they encounter a neglect situation.  

A difficult choice

Dr. Thomas R. Lenz, the immediate past president of the AAEP, gave an overview of acceptable euthanasia and carcass disposal procedures. 

He referred equine veterinarians to the AAEP Euthanasia Guidelines and the 2000 AVMA Expert Panel on Euthanasia report, which the AAEP has endorsed.

"Our responsibility to the horse owner is to aid them in making the decision," Dr. Lenz said.

Dr. Lenz urged veterinarians to explain to clients the method they will use and what will happen.

Additionally, Dr. Lenz recommended that veterinarians become familiar with local and federal laws that regulate carcass disposal, because in most states, veterinarians are legally responsible for the carcass.

"You are ultimately responsible for that carcass," Dr. Lenz said. "It's very important that the carcass not pose a threat to humans or wildlife."