The first Unwanted Horse Summit was called a success, though participants acknowledged devising ways to deal with tens of thousands of horses a year would take cooperation and compromise from all segments of the equine industry.
About 25 organizations were represented at the April 19 summit, organized by the American Association of Equine Practitioners in a fashion similar to that of the Medication Summit in 2001. The Unwanted Horse Summit was held in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the American Horse Council National Issues Forum.
The issue of unwanted horses is uncomfortable and emotional in part because of the slaughter factor. The issue of slaughter was addressed at the five-hour summit, but AAEP president Dr. Scott Palmer said it didn't dominate the proceedings.
"It definitely came up," Palmer said. "There was no effort made to avoid the issue, but this was the Unwanted Horse Summit, and I'm extremely proud to say we stayed on track."
Dr. Rick Arthur, who represented Oak Tree Racing Association, said those in attendance discovered more commonality than differences. Like the Medication Summit in Tucson, Ariz., the meeting was closed to invited guests, most of whom accepted the invitation.
"It reminded me very much of the meeting in Tucson," Arthur said. "Hopefully, it can be as successful as that."
The Unwanted Horse Summit, like the Medication Summit, was moderated by Jack Schlegel, who now must prepare a report on the meeting. Participants will review the report, which in turn will shape a plan on how to handle unwanted horses. Tentative plans call for another meeting, perhaps in December during the AAEP convention in Seattle, Wash.
Palmer said a national steering committee would be formed to address problem areas. "We recognize the success of this effort is dependent upon in part involving as many people as possible," he said.
Arthur said focusing on the issue of unwanted horses would go a long way toward addressing the hot-button topic of slaughter.
"If the problem of the unwanted horse is solved, there won't be a slaughterhouse issue to deal with," he said. "The question is whether the problem will be eliminated sooner rather than later."
The summit was preceded by an open session on the unwanted horse. Though the number of horses slaughtered in the United States has declined by 80% since 1990, equine industry representatives acknowledged there aren't easy answers.
The numbers show about 60,000 horses slaughtered at federally inspected plants in the United States each year, with another 20,000 shipped to Canada, and 4,000 to Mexico, according to Dr. Nat Messer, associate professor of equine medicine and surgery at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. The total number is down from about 300,000 in 1990, he said, but the problem still exists.
"I'm not sure the entire horse industry has bought into that concept," Messer said. "There are hard questions I think need to be addressed."
The reduction in the number of slaughtered horses is attributed to responsible breeding, market demands, changing attitudes, and the anti-slaughter movement, Messer said. Even if slaughter weren't an issue, there are complications related to many methods of carcass disposal, he said.
Messer questioned if the system now in place--rendering plants, burial, and cremation, for instance--could handle 200,000 dead horses. He said the cost of rendering 80,000-100,000 carcasses in 2004 was about $15 million, while the cost of caring for the horses would be about $200 million.
Messer said it would be necessary to develop "suitable accommodations" for horses should slaughter be outlawed, and that euthanasia is a much better option than neglect.
Dr. Temple Grandin, an associate professor at Colorado State University, called for more communication and knowledge about the subject. Grandin, who spoke to the group via simulcast, suggested some alternatives to slaughter could be worse for horses, such as neglect and overwork.
"Going down to Mexico and getting death as a result of underfeeding is a death worse than slaughter," Grandin said.
Anne Russek, who was in the audience, said enforcement must be stepped up to protect horses headed to slaughter. As for the overall issue of slaughter, she said: "I don't believe capitulating to the lowest common denominator in the horse industry is the answer to the problem."
Grandin claimed a lack of responsible breeding and the racing of horses at an early age has contributed to the unwanted horse population. She said slaughterhouses would become obsolete if the industry made some internal changes and focused on economics rather than legislation. She said efforts to put pressure on beef and pork producers have been successful.
"Money talks," she said. "One of the most effective ways of making change take place...is economics."
Dr. Tim Cordes, a senior staff veterinarian for the United States Department of Agriculture, focuses on humane transport of horses to slaughterhouses and holding violators accountable. "The best way to talk to this industry is through its pocketbook," he said.
Dr. Jennifer Williams, president of the Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, and Dr. Carolyn Stull of the University of California-Davis touched on rescue and retirement options. They cited growing interest but noted it remains difficult to find suitable homes for horses.
Stull cited an incident in Southern California in which 700 neglected horses were found on a 2,000-acre ranch. The horses were removed, she said, "but it absolutely exhausted our system in California."
Williams said she has found 109 tax-exempt rescue organizations in the U.S., but said there are thousands of private farms that take in small numbers of horses. Horse rescue, she said, can be emotionally difficult and subject to burnout. She also said warned of "fad" rescuers that may not be in it for the long haul when they realize the challenges.