Unwanted horse survey sheds light on issue's causes, extent

Published on August 01, 2009
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Results from a survey on unwanted horses identified the problem's magnitude as "staggering" and called for a unified commitment to develop as many productive solutions as possible.

The Unwanted Horse Coalition's 2009 Unwanted Horse Survey sought to get a better grasp on the issue to answer any lingering questions and identify possible solutions (see JAVMA, Jan. 15, 2009).

Recent estimates put the number of unwanted horses in the United States at about 170,000
each year.

Two questionnaires, focused specifically on the problem of unwanted horses, were designed; one for horse owners, and a second for industry stakeholders.

In a matter of weeks, more than 27,000 responses and thousands of write-in comments poured in. About 20,000 of those responses came from horse owners. The results were released the second week of July.

Rescue and retirement facilities reported they are turning away horses—39 percent are at full capacity and another 30 percent are near capacity. Horse owners said the number of horses euthanized is increasing, and so is the number of abused and neglected horses as confirmed by hundreds of eyewitness reports of horses turned loose, abandoned, or left to starve.

"Speculating there is an alarming rise in the numbers of unwanted horses is one thing. Hearing that alarm sounded and confirmed by thousands of responses from all across the country is another," states the survey's executive report. "The results of this study help to document the magnitude of the problem and its effects—and are surprisingly consistent nationwide, with little to no variance by region."


"Euthanasia has been proposed as a viable option for unwanted horses rather than discarding them at a sale barn. However, if most veterinarians are resistant to euthanizing a healthy horse, especially if the processing option is removed, then people will have an even tougher time in dealing with a horse they no longer want or can afford, especially if they cannot find a buyer for the horse."


An owner's dilemma
It appears the unwanted horse issue has touched nearly every facet of the horse industry.

Only 12 percent of horse owners reported that they hadn't been faced with the decision of selling, donating, or euthanizing; however, more than half of them indicated they were unaware of the options of donation or euthanasia.


Dr. Nat T. Messer, professor of equine medicine and surgery at the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine and American Association of Equine Practitioners representative on the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee, said, "It simply goes to show that education efforts have not reached enough people, despite valiant efforts by many groups including the Unwanted Horse Coalition."

Horse owners also indicated that sales of unwanted horses have doubled in the past year, while donation and euthanasia—although minimally used—have seen a similar increase. Of those who sold a horse in the past year, most said it was simply because they were in the business of buying and selling horses. The second most cited reason—the horse did not meet expectations—followed close behind.

Most likely to be sold were show or competition horses, which reflects their market value, according to the survey's executive report. Horse owners indicated they received a broad range of revenues from sales of their horses: 32 percent took in $1 to less than $1,000, 38 percent took in $1,000 to $3,000, and 30 percent took in $3,001 to $80,000.

Dr. Tom Lenz, immediate past chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners' Animal Welfare Committee and current chair of the UHC, said there is a movement among breeders to cut back, but it's driven more by the basics of supply and demand and the economy than the unwanted horse issue.

"When studying this issue, we know that we'll never be able to completely eliminate unwanted horse numbers because horses will always age, sustain career-ending injuries, or not meet their owner's expectations. However, we can decrease their numbers through responsible breeding and ownership," Dr. Lenz said.

The primary reason reported for donating a horse is that it did not meet expectations. Second was that the owner no longer had a use for the horse. Thoroughbreds were listed as the horses most likely to be donated, often for retraining purposes.

Dr. Lenz said he was surprised that racehorses were more likely to be donated than others.

"This may be because Thoroughbreds are bred for racing and are often high-spirited horses. They're not suited for a lot of other jobs—maybe as event and hunter jumpers—but you can refit many horses from other breeds to be a trail horse, workhorse, kid's horse ... It may also be because the Thoroughbred industry has developed a relatively good retraining and retirement program to deal with their horses that can no longer race," Dr. Lenz said.

The overriding factor given by horse owners for euthanasia was that the horse was sick with a terminal illness. Other reasons indicated were that the horse was injured, too old, or unmanageable, or that the owner could no longer afford to keep it. Horse owners reported horses used for recreational riding were more likely to be euthanized.

The average cost of euthanasia and carcass disposal in the past year was $385, as reported by horse owners, whereas the average cost of donating a horse was reported to be more than $1,000. Euthanasia costs include veterinary expenses and $300 to $500 for carcass removal. Donation costs often include those for health records, one- to three-months' feed, transportation to adoption site, and fee for adoption.

Dr. Lenz said that traditionally, most horse owners haven't thought about euthanasia as an option for a horse they no longer wanted.

"They think about buying and selling horses. You euthanized a horse only because it had a terminal illness such as colic, was old, or had serious behavioral problems."

That may be changing now as the number of unwanted horses remains high. In turn, the situation may put equine veterinarians into new territory they may not want to face.

Dr. Lenz said the Colorado Unwanted Horse Alliance surveyed veterinarians in the state about euthanasia and found that 60 percent would not euthanize a horse for the convenience of the owner.

"Middle-aged to older rural veterinarians were more likely to agree to euthanize a horse because the owner no longer wanted it, whereas younger veterinarians in suburban or urban practices were more resistant," Dr. Lenz said.

He continued, "That's a big deal. Euthanasia has been proposed as a viable option for unwanted horses rather than discarding them at a sale barn. However, if most veterinarians are resistant to euthanizing a healthy horse, especially if the processing option is removed, then people will have an even tougher time in dealing with a horse they no longer want or can afford, especially if they cannot find a buyer for the horse."  

Contributing factors, proposed solutions  

The economic downturn, the closing of the nation's processing facilities, changes in breed demand or indiscriminate breeding, and the high cost of euthanasia and carcass disposal were listed by all participants as the top contributors to the problem of unwanted horses. They also noted the inability to sell horses or a lack of buyers, the age of the horse owner and being physically unable to care for the horse, and the lack of responsibility or attitude of the owner.

Dr. Messer, using figures from the Department of Agriculture, estimated that more than 100,000 horses go unwanted every year and have been for the past 12 to 15 years, adding "But the closure of the slaughter plants in 2006-2007 has eliminated an avenue for disposing of unwanted horses. That is also about the time that the economy went in the tank, and feed and fuel prices increased, which compounded the problem. In 2008, over 150,000 unwanted horses were exported for slaughter, so there was a significant increase in unwanted horses due to the economy."

Dr. Lenz mentioned a 2005 survey from the American Horse Council showed 46 percent of owners have a household combined income ranging from $25,000 to $75,000.

"With people losing jobs or having to cut back on expenses, the luxury of owning a horse often becomes too expensive. But because the horse market is so depressed today and many horses have little or no value, it's difficult to sell horses, and that's why you see horses turned lose or abandoned—people can't afford to keep them or afford to get rid of them," Dr. Lenz said.

Four solutions in particular were deemed most appealing by respondents. These were to educate owners to purchase and own responsibly, increase the ability of private rescue and retirement facilities to care for unwanted horses, reopen U.S. processing plants, and increase options and resources to euthanize unwanted horses.

The options listed as least appealing were to expand legislation or regulation to control horse ownership, secure federal funding for carcass removal, increase awareness of animal welfare, or secure federal funding to expand horse adoption.

"Right now, there are probably many who feel the government doesn't need any extra, costly projects to fund, and, so, why should there be an entitlement program for horses when the ones for people are going broke," Dr. Messer said.  

Moving forward

The Unwanted Horse Coalition board of directors discussed the survey's results at the American Horse Council's annual meeting June 16 in Washington, D.C. Dr. Lenz said they agreed to move forward on three initiatives.  

First, the UHC plans to act as an intermediary for best practices on the unwanted horse issue. Dr. Lenz mentioned that a number of organizations have put in place programs to mitigate the problem. The American Quarter Horse Association's Greener Pastures program, for example, allows AQHA members to indicate on a horse's registration certificate that if the horse ever becomes unwanted, unusable, or simply ready for retirement, the member will—if possible—assist in providing or finding a suitable home. The Jockey Club matches funds donated by members to Thoroughbred charities to retrain and find homes for horses that are no longer suitable for racing.

"We're going to gather that information and distribute it around the industry so every breed, association, or discipline can duplicate it. There's a lot of great work going on, but not a lot of folks know about it," Dr. Lenz said.

He also mentioned the UHC hopes to develop another survey, this time to gather information on rescue and retirement facilities throughout the country.

"There's not a national organization of rescues. No one knows how many there are and how many are tax-exempt, and if they provide rescue, retirement, or retraining, or are sanctuaries. We're going to look into a state-by-state survey using local state horse councils," Dr. Lenz said.

Finally, the UHC plans to add representatives from the rescue and retirement industry to its board of directors. Two facilities will be selected and serve indefinitely.

"We'll allow their folks to sit on the coalition free of charge because we need their input and know they have not joined the coalition because of the membership fee, which they've elected to put toward rescuing horses," he said.

Notably, the most important and difficult accomplishment in solving the unwanted horse problem has already been achieved—awareness. Dr. Lenz said the survey revealed that three years ago, only 22 percent of respondents thought the unwanted horse problem was a big issue. Today, more than 90 percent of those surveyed felt it is a major problem. 

The 35-page executive report of the Unwanted Horse Survey is posted on the UHC's Web site.