Unwanted Horses: How Serious a Problem?

Unwanted Horses: How Serious a Problem?
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

It tends to get lost in the shuffle because it’s not as sexy as anabolic steroids, race-fixing, or catastrophic breakdowns from a media perspective. But talk to people who work in the horse industry every day, and they’ll tell you the issue of unwanted horses is serious and so broad it impacts the entire United States, not just the horseracing industry.

Perhaps it’s time for a wake-up call.

“We need to focus our efforts on the front end of the problem rather than the rear end of the problem,” said Dr. Tom Lenz, a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners who is active with the Unwanted Horse Coalition formed after an AAEP-sponsored summit in 2005. “Honestly, the average horse owner hasn’t thought about this issue, but they need to give serious thought to changing the way they operate.”

Lenz offered his thoughts June 18 during the day-long “Unwanted Horse Forum” sponsored by the American Horse Council and the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. The forum was fairly subdued even though the lightning-rod issues of horse slaughter, euthanasia, and consumption of horsemeat colored much of the proceedings.

The USDA titled the forum “The Unwanted Horse Issue: What Now?” It was timely by accident; the United States Supreme Court two days earlier denied an appeal from an Illinois slaughter plan that challenged an Illinois law prohibiting the killing of horses for human consumption.

The meat at the Illinois plant and two in Texas that closed in 2007 was mostly shipped overseas for consumption.

According to USDA data through 2006, about 70,000 horses per year were slaughtered in the U.S., 25,000 a year were shipped to Canada, and 7,500 a year were sent to Mexico (that number jumped to 40,000 last year). There are about 20,000 un-adopted feral horses and another 6,000-8,000 waiting to be adopted. It all adds up to about 100,000 unwanted horses in the U.S. each year.

“I have no doubt there is an unwanted horse problem in this country,” Lenz said. “We cannot completely eliminate it, but we can certainly minimize the problem.”

Can't escape slaughter issue

The Unwanted Horse Coalition, which falls under the AHC umbrella and has about 25 member organizations from various breeds and disciplines, has focused on education given the fact it can’t issue mandates. The coalition published an “Own Responsibly” guide, while the AHC issued in booklet form care and handling guidelines for horse owners.

The Humane Society of the United States, which has been quite active on the slaughter issue, has an equine division and prints horse-care guides. But the HSUS position often is at odds with horse industry groups given its campaign to end slaughter.

“We are definitely anti-slaughter,” said Holly Hazard, chief innovations officer for the HSUS. “Our position is slaughter is inhumane. I think the issue really is whether slaughter is adding to our ability to create a more humane world for horses. I don’t see that’s true.”

And that’s the major split: Does the shutdown of U.S. slaughter plants help address the unwanted horse issue or make it worse?

“Is there a chance things could become worse than the scenario right now?” said Camie Heleski, coordinator of the Michigan State University Horse Management Program. “The public doesn’t always have all the facts when it comes to making decisions, and that has complicated the issue even more.”

Former Congressman Charles Stenholm of Texas took it even further. Stenholm, currently a senior policy adviser at Olsson Frank and Weeda, a Washington, D.C., law firm that specializes in regulatory affairs, served as a member of the House Committee on Agriculture for 26 years and spent a lot of time on the slaughter issue.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Stenholm said, “but everyone is not entitled to their facts.”

Stenholm, who has been a lobbyist for the three U.S. slaughter plants, said the issue of the unwanted horse as it relates to horse slaughter is in need of hard facts rather than emotion, which he said has led to anti-slaughter legislation in Congress. Stenholm said those in the animal industry “all agree today that all animals should be treated humanely from birth to death,” but there are various opinions on what qualifies as humane.

The former lawmaker said the HSUS “did a beautiful job politically” in lobbying for anti-slaughter measures. But those who disagree, he said, see a problem that could only worsen.

How about private property rights?

“At some point, you are going to have horses that have no place to go,” Stenholm said. “When you begin to address the real world, I do see a little problem. This has become a 50-state issue...Horses are livestock, folks. Be careful of arguing that horses are pets, because you might get what you wish for. Pets are not tax deductible.”

Stenholm said he is disappointed the Supreme Court, in its Illinois slaughter ruling, didn’t address private property rights in terms of horse ownership. “We’re getting on very thin constitutional ice that has serious ramifications,” he said.

States are now studying the unwanted horse and slaughter issues, and a committee was to be formed perhaps June 18 to look at the issue from a national standpoint. There are hints that the U.S. hasn’t seen the end of slaughter plants despite the developments of the past two years.

“A lot of people are beginning to take a look at this with a realistic eye,” Stenholm said. “(Slaughter) has been an acceptable practice in the U.S. since we became a country. Only recently has this become un-American. If we lose this one, it’s over.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky was scheduled to speak along with Stenholm, but moderator Richard Reynnells of the USDA announced Whitfield had a conflict that prevented him from attending his scheduled 45-minute session. Whitfield’s wife, Connie, is director of development for the HSUS.

Working on solutions

Tom Persechino, senior director of marketing for the American Quarter Horse Association, outlined potential solutions and options, such as rescue and retirement facilities, asking friends with acreage to take horses, contacting colleges and universities that have equine programs, and using horses for the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.

Persechino said it’s not practical to force breeders to limit the number of horses they breed, but it is feasible to educate them. He said the Unwanted Horse Coalition “believes teaching people to own responsibly will help lower the number of unwanted horses.”

“The proposition that there are large numbers of unwanted horses in this country in need of slaughter can be answered with a resounding no,” said Hazard of the HSUS. “There are many horses in need of the commitment of the people with a stake in the horse industry to take responsibility for reducing the numbers that are bred, educating novice horse owners about proper care and training, creating new equestrian opportunities that allow more people to become a part of the equine community, and calling for an end to the unnecessary brutality of slaughter.”

Karin Bump, a professor at Cazenovia College in upstate New York, recommended a signal organization be in charge of collecting and maintaining data so there is no confusion. That, she said, would go a long way toward unifying the disparate groups.

It’s generally believed all the groups in play on the unwanted horse issue agree 90% of the time. It’s the other 10% that puts the unwanted horse at the mercy of politics.

“I think five to 10 years from now we’ll have a pretty good grip on things, but it’s going to take some time,” Lenz said.

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