Unwanted horses are a challenging issue without easy answers. “The more you know about it, the more difficult the solution seems,” says Tom Lenz, DVM, Dipl. ACT, who’s been searching for answers to the problem for the past 20 years. However, he adds, the equine industry has made significant progress in organizing to help domesticated unwanted horses over the past two decades, despite political and economic challenges.
Framing the ‘Unwanted’ Horse Issue
Fortunate horses live out their lives under their owners’ care and never fall under the “unwanted” umbrella. Many horses experience intervention before they become unwanted, ending up in retraining programs designed to move them into new, productive careers. Examples include racing Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses that become eventers or barrel racers.
That’s the goal of The Right Horse, an initiative of the WaterShed Animal Fund, a division of the Arnall Family Foundation, which is focused on promoting, retraining, and rehoming horses it refers to as “horses in transition.” Part of the organization’s marketing campaign involves creating language used industry-wide to describe at-risk horse populations and delineate the difference between homeless horses that need new owners and jobs and rescue horses in welfare cases, says Christy Counts, The Right Horse president.
“Horses in transition aren’t unwanted, they’re just unseen,” she says.
But not all horses are so lucky, and the language used for the past two decades has been the colloquial “rescue horses” or the more official “unwanted horses.”
In its 2010 “Frequently Asked Questions About Unwanted Horses in the United States,” the American Association of Equine Practioners (AAEP) defines unwanted horses as “a group of horses within the domestic equine population that are no longer needed or useful, or their owners are no longer interested in or capable of providing financial or physical care. Unwanted horses generally range from being normal, healthy horses of varying ages and breeds to horses that are unattractive, horses that fail to meet their owner’s expectations for their intended use (such as athletic ability), horses with non-life-threatening diseases, horses that have behavioral problems, or horses that are mean or dangerous.”
Aged horses and those with chronic lameness and health issues are especially at risk, Lenz says. These horses can end up at retirement or rescue facilities, most of which are nonprofit organizations.
Sadly, many unwanted horses suffer in hoarding situations or face starvation until—hopefully—law enforcement intervenes, says Jennifer Williams, PhD, who runs Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, in College Station, Texas, and offers consulting services for rescue and rehoming organizations. Bluebonnet’s primary focus is horses that are a part of welfare investigations, which usually comprise at least 50% of the organization’s foster program population. Cases like these involving criminal charges can stretch over months and years as they move through the court system.
In welfare cases, “there’s no typical horse,” says Williams. “They’re all breeds and all training levels.”
Most recently, Bluebonnet has also taken horses displaced by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. “These aren’t stray or lost horses,” Williams said. “They’re horses whose owners have lost their homes—everything—and have signed over their horses because they can’t care for them.”
And finally, for horses that don’t end up in rescues or rehoming programs, more than an estimated 100,000 a year go through auctions and feedlots on their way to slaughter.
A Recent History
Lenz worked in private practice and as an industry veterinarian for Zoetis prior to his recent retirement. He first became involved with the unwanted horse issue when he served on the AAEP’s executive committee in the late 1990s and as the organization’s president in 2003.
During this time, the U.K. experienced highly publicized outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or “mad cow disease”) and foot-and-mouth disease, which both negatively impacted beef production and sales in Europe. With the threat of disease in their beef supply, many Europeans turned to another traditional protein source: horsemeat.
Meanwhile, in 2005, the American Horse Council (AHC) and its allies—including breed registries and the AAEP—founded the Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC) to improve horse welfare with the mission to “reduce the number of unwanted horses and to improve their welfare through education and industry collaboration.” Lenz took part in the organization’s formation and served as its first chairperson. Its early efforts included public outreach, producing materials about responsible horse ownership, and creating an online list of horse rescues and rehoming organizations.
Also in 2005, the AHC completed its U.S. Horse Industry Economic Impact study, which estimated a population of 9.2 million horses.
As horsemeat consumption in Europe gained international attention, says Lenz, advocates petitioned U.S. Congress to stop the slaughter of American horses for European consumption. In response Congress defunded federal inspection of horse slaughter plants in 2006, effectively ending horse processing in the United States by the following year.
Williams also got involved in equine rescue around this time. She says the expansion of internet access increased public and horse industry awareness about neglect cases, slaughter, and the unwanted horse issue. “Some of the information was (and still is) good, and some of it was bad,” she says. “Twenty years ago, no one knew what a ‘rescue horse’ was. Now, everyone, even people outside the horse industry, knows what it means.”
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) estimates 1% to 2% of the U.S. horse population went to slaughter each year from 1992 to 2007. While feedlot buyers could (and still do) ship horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, the industry faced the displacement of at least 90,000 horses in the market.
And then, compounding the problem, the Great Recession hit in December 2007, lasting through 2012 and seeing 4 million American families lose their homes. From the start of 2008 through 2009, the U.S. labor market lost 8.4 million jobs, and unemployment rose from 5% prerecession to 10% in 2009.
The economic situation negatively impacted the entire equine industry and added pressure to the unwanted horse problem. For most people horses are a luxury and, when faced with losing their jobs and their homes, many couldn’t care for their horses, Lenz says.
During the same period in Texas, a severe drought in addition to the recession caused a drastic uptick in at-risk horses due to lack of forage and financial resources, says Williams.
According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, an estimated 138,000 U.S. horses went to slaughter in Canada and Mexico in 2010.
And, even during stable economic times, financial insecurity and owner death or illness are two of the most common reasons for horse displacement, Lenz says.
Where We Are Now
The situation has evolved in recent years. For example, in 2014 the European Union banned the import of horse meat from Mexico, meaning fewer U.S. horses shipped to Mexico for processing.
In 2017 the AHC launched its first horse industry economic survey since 2005. The resulting “2017 Economic Impact Study of the U.S. Horse Industry,” released in February 2018, put the current U.S. equine population at 7.2 million—a 2 million decrease from 2005. Lenz points to two possible reasons for this population contraction:
1. Based on past USDA National Animal Health Monitoring Studies, an estimated 3.5% of U.S. horses over the age of six months die each year or are euthanized, and
2. Breed registrations (typically a reflection of breeding and foaling rates) have fallen sharply since their highs in the early 2000s.
“People are much more selective about breeding now,” Lenz says.
Despite an overall smaller horse population, current estimates on the number of unwanted horses range from 100,000 to 150,000, says Lenz, but he believes it could be well above those numbers, based on his back-of-napkin calculations that include breed registration data, population age, and slaughter export numbers.
“How many are in shelters and rescues?” he asks rhetorically. “We don’t know for sure.”
The AHC is seeking to better capture information about the current number of unwanted horses in the United States, says Ashley Furst, who serves as both AHC communications director and UHC director.
“We have some numbers that suggest that the industry as a whole has gotten slightly better since the recession, but (there hasn’t been) a complete rebound,” she says. “In the coming year the UHC will be working with several other equine organizations to gather data on the number of horses that are going through the rescue pipeline.”
Today the UHC runs gelding programs and microchipping clinics and collaborates with The Right Horse, whose partners include Colorado State University’s Temple Grandin Equine Center, the Dumb Friends League Harmony Equine Center, Certified Horsemanship Association, New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, and many others focused on training horses for new careers. “We’re running pilot programs like those done in cats and dogs to find new ideas and solutions that work,” Counts says. “We’re committed to this issue long-term.”
Lenz notes that many breed organization and industry members have also made strides in helping unwanted horses. Examples include:
- Full Circle programs, in which breed registries such as the American Quarter Horse Association and American Morgan Horse Association help past owners create “safety nets” for individual horses that might need future assistance or support.
- Thoroughbred Charities of America, which offers grant funding for organizations that support Thoroughbred rehabilitation, repurposing, rehoming, and retirement.
- The Unwanted Horse Veterinary Relief Campaign, organized by AAEP and supported by Merck Animal Health, seeks to ensure unwanted and retired horses are vaccinated. “Qualifying equine rescue and retirement facilities can receive complimentary equine vaccines for horses in their care, protecting the horses’ health and making them more adoptable,” says Dana Kirkland, AAEP advertising and sponsorship coordinator.
- Time To Ride, the AHC effort to connect new or returning people to the horse industry.
The Hardest Decision
Finally, humane euthanasia remains an option for horse owners whose animals have chronic illness or lameness.
For some owners, especially those already facing financial hardship, the cost of euthanasia is prohibitive, Lenz says, and those horses are at risk to become welfare cases.
Other owners struggle when facing the decision to euthanize, even when the decision is obvious to outsiders, says Williams. “Some just don’t have the emotional and mental ability to euthanize—they can’t face the decision,” she says.
The AAEP Euthanasia Guidelines read: In accordance with AVMA’s position on euthanasia of animals, the AAEP accepts that humane euthanasia of unwanted horses or those deemed unfit for adoption is an acceptable procedure once all available alternatives have been explored with the client. A horse should not have to endure conditions of lack of feed or care erosive of the animal’s quality of life. This is in accord with the role of the veterinarian as animal advocate.
“It’s about looking at what’s best for that horse,” Lenz says.
The reasons horses end up homeless vary from sickness and lameness to owner life changes and financial difficulties. Some horses become welfare cases; however, many that fall into the category of “unwanted” are actually in transition and in need of new owners and jobs.
“A lot more people are going to rescues to get horses and are recognizing their value,” says Williams.
Other horses have behavioral and temperament problems that make them difficult to place and in some cases dangerous to themselves and humans. Awareness of the unwanted horse problem has grown over the past 20 years, and the horse industry has taken strides to find solutions. But, says Counts, there’s still work to do.