Summit charts historic course for unwanted horses

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By R. Scott Nolen

More than 25 equine industry organizations and the AVMA participated in the nation's first Unwanted Horse Summit April 19 in Washington, D.C. Hosted by the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the summit was meant to be a catalyst for identifying long-term solutions designed to improve the quality of life of unwanted horses.

"While participants came to the table with divergent views on many aspects of the issue, they were able to reach a remarkable degree of consensus," said AAEP President Scott E. Palmer. "Everyone focused on the welfare of the horse."

Numerous animal control centers, shelters, welfare organizations, and other mechanisms exist to deal with abandoned dogs and cats. Yet no such system is available to the thousands of horses relinquished annually.

Discussion surrounded the factors that contribute to unwanted horses as well as the approaches to addressing the problem. Summit participants recommended the formation of a national steering committee dedicated to addressing issues affecting unwanted horses.

Working groups to tackle specific areas, such as horse owner education, also will be developed as part of this effort.

Summit participants expressed their desire to remain committed to the process and the AAEP will help facilitate the group's future work on the issue, according to Dr. Palmer. "The unwanted horse problem cannot be solved by any one segment of the industry," he said. "The goal is to get as many people and organizations involved as possible."

Dr. Nat T. Messer, associate professor of equine internal medicine at the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine, defined an unwanted horse as a horse whose owner, for whatever reason, no longer considers the animal useful.

Approximately 100,000 horses are relinquished in the United States annually, Dr. Messer explained. Of those, 60,000 are processed at federally inspected plants, with 20,000 and 4,000 exported to Canada and Mexico for processing, respectively. Others include feral horses kept at federally funded sanctuaries and Premarin mares and their foals. 

The number of unwanted horses sent to slaughter decreased 80 percent between 1990 and 2004. Dr. Messer attributed the decline to responsible breeding and anti-horse-slaughter movement.

Unwanted horses fall into a wide range of categories. They can be healthy and of various breeds, suffer from non-life-threatening disability or infirmity, fail to meet the owner's expectations; have behavior problems, or be mean or dangerous, said Dr. Messer.

Beyond those generalizations, not much else is known about the kinds of horses that are unwanted or why they are relinquished. For instance, Dr. Messer said, it isn't clear whether there are trends in horses' age, sex, breed, occupation, and original value.

A summary report of the summit is available at the AAEP Web site.