Unwanted Horses: Rescue and Sanctuary Organizations Unable to Keep Up

Each year there are about 100,000 unwanted horses in the United States, too many for the registered equine rescue and sanctuary groups to handle, according to a recent survey by researchers at the University of California, Davis. They found that the 236 registered rescue and sanctuary organizations could only help about 13,400 horses a year.

"Nonprofit equine rescue and sanctuary organizations have an important role to play in caring for and finding new homes for unwanted horses, but they are not a panacea (a cure-all) for the issue due to their limited capacity," said Kathryn Holcomb, MA, a PhD student at the University of California, Davis.

Holcomb and her colleagues surveyed 144 organizations in 37 states to find out why so many horses are unwanted and who is taking care of them.

"I was impressed by the dedication of the people involved with equine rescue and the sacrifices they make in time, and the limited money and resources available to provide care for these horses," she said.

According to the researchers, these nonprofits do not have the land, staff, or finances to handle all the unwanted horses. On average, they are supported through donations and personal funds, can care for only 10-20 horses at a time, and rely on volunteers to help. Between 2006 and 2009, only three out of every four horses relinquished to one of the nonprofit organizations surveyed was adopted or sold, and many organizations had to refuse horses due to lack of resources.

She supported the idea that breed registries and equestrians' associations help by dedicating a small amount--for example, $1--of the registry fees or membership dues to help fund equine shelters. "The Thoroughbred racing industry has such a program with rehabilitating these horses to new roles," she said.

But the best way to solve the problem is to limit the number of unwanted horses, Holcomb concluded, and suggested these methods: 

  • Reduce indiscriminate breeding;
  • Educate new and existing owners on the responsibility associated with horses throughout their lives;
  • Take responsibility for matching horses to rider ability and expectations;
  • Use behavior science to reassess handling/training methods that might contribute to problems; and
  • Use animal welfare science to ensure that the way we house, use, and care for our horses promotes their mental and physical well-being.

The survey found that the most frequently-cited reasons for relinquishing a horse are financial hardship, owner's physical inability or lack of time to care for the horses, and seizure by law enforcement agencies for alleged neglect or abuse.

"Owning a horse requires a considerable, long-term commitment and responsibility that should be fully understood and accepted at the time of purchase and throughout the horse's life," she said.

The study, "Unwanted horses: The role of non-profit equine rescue and sanctuary organizations," was published online ahead of print in August in The Journal of Animal Science and is available at no cost through the journal's website.

The abstract is available on Pubmed.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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