Taking the 'Un' Out of Unwanted Horses

The Unwanted Horse Coalition hopes to step up awareness and engage the entire horse industry in its “own responsibly” campaign.

The coalition, made up of industry organizations that fall under the umbrella of the American Horse Council, met June 18 in Washington, D.C., and provided an update at the AHC National Issues Forum the following day. The coalition was organized by the American Association of Equine Practitioners in 2005.

The coalition is attempting to educate current and future horse owners on responsible ownership, potential second careers, and formulating end-of-career plans for horses. It recently printed 15,000 brochures, all of which have been disseminated.

The number of horses classified as “unwanted” isn’t known, officials said, though many don’t have life-threatening disabilities.

“The majority of these horses are normal, healthy horses,” said Dr. Tom Lenz, chairman of the Unwanted Horse Coalition.

Though officials admit finding a home for every horse is improbable at best, there has been notable progress. During the Issues Forum, Gillian Clissold, a farm owner and event rider, talked of saving a horse from a slaughter auction in 1990 and the mare becoming a champion eventer. And Louise Foreman, a member of the board of governors of the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program, said the program now has 10 horses and 85 riders per week.

Patrick Mullins, past president and member of the board of directors of the Virginia Horse Council, said about 6,000-7,000 horses are used in therapeutic riding programs in the United States. He said about six programs are working with the U.S. Department of Defense to provide rehabilitation for injured veterans.

“If we can get people to start thinking like this, we can help with the Unwanted Horse Coalition,” AHC president Jay Hickey said.

In May, four more equine organizations joined the coalition to bring the number to 16. Members are the AAEP, American Paint Horse Association, American Quarter Horse Association, American Veterinary Medical Association, The Jockey Club, Maryland Horse Breeders Association, Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America, Mustang Heritage Foundation, National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, Professional Rodeo Stock Contractors, AHC State Horse Council Committee, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, United States Equestrian Federation, and United States Trotting Association.

The coalition was moved under the AHC last year so it wouldn’t be seen as a political vehicle for an agenda on the horse slaughter issue. The AHC, which has constituents on both sides of the argument, remains neutral on the issue.

J. Burton Eller Jr., deputy under secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, called the issue horse slaughter issue “the albatross around our neck.” He acknowledged the USDA is struggling with the issue and suggested the term “slaughter” creates a public perception problem.

“This issue needs to be reinvented,” Eller said. “I think both sides need to meet. We keep damming this thing up, and we’ve got a heck of a wreck down in the valley coming up. We have to get across the crevasse. It’s an issue no one wants to face.”

The slaughter issue has generated conflict within the horse industry among those who believe it’s inhumane, and those who note there aren’t sufficient programs to otherwise care for the animals.