The Latest on Unwanted Horses
The term “Unwanted Horse” was first coined by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) in 2005. Unwanted horses include both unadoptable feral horses and domestic horses that are no longer wanted by their owners because they are geriatric, incurably lame, not athletic, unmanageable, cost too much to maintain, unmarketable, or fail to meet their owner’s expectations.

Most of the American public was unaware that there was a subset of horses that become unwanted until the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) outbreak in Europe in 2000 and the foot and-mouth disease epidemic that occurred in the United Kingdom in 2001. Both outbreaks were responsible for temporarily changing European consumers’ preference from beef to horse meat due to concerns with beef safety. This change drew U.S. media attention to the fact that many unwanted horses were being processed in the United States and their meat exported to Europe. The result was pressure from the American public and animal activists’ groups to pass federal legislation to prohibit the processing of horses in the United States for human consumption. Because horses processed for human consumption epitomize the unwanted horse, they continue to be a part of the discussion, but normal, healthy horses of all breeds and disciplines can become unwanted.

At the 2005 American Horse Council meeting, leaders from across the industry came together to discuss options for resolving the unwanted horse issue. The result was the formation of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, which was placed under the umbrella of the American Horse Council. The goal of the organization was to raise awareness of the unwanted horse and provide a medium for the exchange of information about adoption, proper care, alternative careers, and responsible ownership. In 2018, it was agreed that awareness had been accomplished, so the Unwanted Horse Coalition transitioned to the United Horse Coalition with a goal of “providing information for existing and prospective owners, breeders, sellers, and horse organizations regarding the long-term responsibilities of owning and caring for horses, as well as focusing on the opportunities available for these horses through industry collaboration.”

Particular attention has been given to education regarding the cost of care, proper husbandry, training requirements, expectations and life-ending decisions. In addition, since 2001 virtually every horse breed and discipline has developed a program to identify unwanted horses and to provide options for retraining, rehoming and post-career care. These include the American Quarter Horse’s Re-ride Adoption program, the U.S. Trotting Association’s Full Circle Program, The American Horse Council’s Time to Ride Initiative, and several programs in the Thoroughbred industry including the TB Aftercare Alliance, Take the Lead Program, and Retirement Check-off Program. A new unwanted-horse advocacy group, The Right Horse Initiative, brought years of experience in finding homes for shelter dogs and cats to the horse industry.

The horse industry will never completely eliminate unwanted horses. Horses will always age, sustain career-ending injuries, or not meet their owners’ expectations. However, I’m optimistic that the future is brighter for these horses, because the horse industry has turned its attention to the issue and continues to develop strategies to both reduce the number of unwanted horses on the front end through responsible care and breeding as well as the back end through rescue/retirement programs, retraining for alternative careers, and low-cost euthanasia options.

CONTACT: Tom Lenz DVM, MS, DACT Louisburg, KS

This is an excerpt from Equine Disease Quarterly, Volume 28, Number 4, funded by underwriters at Lloyd’s, London.