Hi everyone, my name is Alex Varisco, and I am a senior at St. Andrews University studying communications and equine business management. I ride on the St. Andrews Intercollegiate Dressage Association Team, and one of my favorite aspects of this program is its emphasis on shaping future equestrian leaders in the equine industry. Whether one has intentions of riding professionally or simply owning horses for pleasure, we all play a role in the lives of these horses we love and care about. Perhaps the most eye opening part of my studies has been researching and discussing current events and issues in the equestrian world.
A hot topic in our classroom conversation, the ever increasing “unwanted horse” is an issue I chose to research for class when prompted to identify five challenges in the equine industry for discussion. Like many others, this issue affects me on a personal level, not only because of my love for horses and equestrian sports, but also because I own an off the track Thoroughbred and support the comeback of the breed in the equestrian sports world. After my investigation of this important industry challenge, I believe the researched information presented proves we must take initiative as future contributors to the equine industry and help resolve the issue of the unwanted horse in America.
The concern of unwanted horses has brought about much debate in the equine industry. First, I learned it is difficult to find an exact number of unwanted horses in our country, because of the broadness of the term’s definition. An “unwanted” horse could range from a backyard pony the owners can no longer afford to care for to a Thoroughbred off the track who could not be appropriately rehomed. Still, officials in our industry searched for a statistical number to measure the seriousness of this issue; in 2007 the Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC) estimated there were 170,000 unwanted horses in the USA. (thehorse.com) This number was determined more than ten years ago now, and the UHC website states in 2015, it grew even more. According to the UHC, the equine rescue centers and other facilities specializing in rehoming and rehabilitating unwanted horses are also suffering. Their website states, “In the UHC’s 2009 Unwanted Horse Survey, 63% of equine rescue/retirement facilities reported that they were near or at full capacity and, on average, turned away 38% of the horses brought to them.” The estimated cost to rehabilitate a rescued horse back to health can easily exceed $1,000. (unwantedhorsecoalition.org)
Information from the UHC website pushes me to question the reason why so many horses go unwanted in the United States. In an article published by thehorse.com, president of the Bluebonnet Equine Human Society in College Station, Texas, Jennifer Williams, stated the definition of an unwanted horse, defined by the American Association of Equine Practitioners as, “one that an owner cannot care for because of financial, emotional, or other reasons. Horses can also become unwanted if they become too old or injured to provide value—either financial or emotional—to their owners.” (thehorse.com) Williams also believes factors such as overbreeding, poor training and lack of education contribute to the increasing numbers of abandoned and abused horses. We have moved away from a society in need of horses for transportation or working the land, to a country where the welfare of the horses depends on our recreational activities. (thehorse.com)
Nevertheless, despite organizational efforts to save unwanted horses like the UHC, it is imperative to address what alternative courses must be available to those equines that are sadly, “not savable.” This brings us to the very heated topic of horse slaughter in the United States. In September of 2007, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit finalized the ending of horse slaughter for human consumption in the United States, by agreeing the ban of processing horse meat in the state of Illinois was constitutional—where the last operational horse slaughter house in the US existed. (horsechannel.com) Bills against the processing of horsemeat were passed not only to preserve equine welfare in the U.S. but also because it was determined to be hazardous for human consumption. Senator Mary Landrieu and Senator Lindsey Graham were both active in reinstating the ban on the USDA from inspecting horsemeat for sale and consumption in the 2014 Agriculture Appropriations bill. (horsechannel.com) Senator Mary Landrieu stated, “I am relieved that horse slaughter is now banned in the United States, protecting the American public from the very serious health and safety risks posed by horse meat. Slaughtering horses is inhumane, disgusting and unnecessary, and there is no place for it in the United States. I appreciate Sen. Graham’s partnership to ban this cruel practice, keep our food supply safe and save taxpayer dollars.” (horsechannel.com)
However despite activists’ efforts, the latest bill passed by congress does not prevent horses from being shipped to slaughter in other countries like Mexico and Canada. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) website describes the inhumane conditions of the shipping and slaughtering process of horses in these countries: “Horses bound for slaughter (who may include pregnant mares, foals and horses who are injured or blind) are commonly shipped for more than 24 hours at a time in crowded trucks without food, water or rest. The methods used to kill horses rarely result in quick, painless deaths for these animals and sometimes they even remain conscious during dismemberment.” (aspca.org) The ASPCA also estimated that between the years of 2012 and 2016 an average of 137,000 American horses were shipped into Mexico and Canada for slaughter each year. The Safeguard American Food Exports Act was introduced to congress in January of 2017, in hopes of preventing the export of horses out of the country for slaughter. (aspca.org)
It is of many opinion euthanasia is the more humane option for ending a horse’s life if it can no longer be cared for appropriately rather than the alternate routes of abuse, neglect, abandonment or slaughter. According to the ASPCA website, euthanasia is defined as, “a gentle, painless death provided in order to prevent suffering, slaughter is a brutal and terrifying end for horses.” (aspca.org) I, like many others, agree I would rather not see any animal suffer; yet, I must also play devil’s advocate for a moment. In my research, I discovered the average cost to have a veterinarian euthanize one’s horse is at minimum $250. (avma.org) In my opinion, if an owner cannot afford to feed or take care of a horse properly, or simply does not care enough to care for it, it does not seem likely they would be willing to pay such a large fee to rid of it humanely. What is the alternative? In many of these situations, horses end up on slaughter trucks bound for Mexico or Canada.
Are we only hurting the horse industry further by forbidding slaughter in the United States? On one hand, if the US were to re-open slaughterhouses with strict regulations, perhaps we could prevent many unwanted horses from suffering an inhumane death in horsemeat processing plants in other countries. On the other hand, there are many facts demonstrating horsemeat is unsafe for consumption, and it is definitely not a commonly accepted practice in our country. Yet, we cannot ignore the abuse, neglect and abandonment of horses continuing on in our industry. What do we do with all of these horses? The UHC website provides some alternatives to slaughter and animal cruelty: sale, auction, trade or lease; retirement; donating to therapeutic riding centers, college or university equestrian programs, veterinary programs or mounted police units; training horses for a second career; or euthanasia. (unwantedhorsecoalition.org) There are also some animal rescue centers and shelters that offer euthanasia services at a low cost or for no fee at all. For example, in 2008 the NorCal Equine Rescue center in Oroville, California offered a low-cost euthanasia clinic for a specified time for owners “who, due to economic or other reasons, are unable to care for their horses.” (thehorse.com) The service fee was only $25, much lower than $250, provided by the rescue’s Final Act of Kindness program for horses unsuitable for adoption.
As a hopeful contributor to the equine industry, I hope to help take steps toward solving this major issue by helping rehabilitate and repurpose unwanted horses as my own business. There are several programs in the industry working towards eliminating the unwanted horse, such as the Thoroughbred Incentive Program, which encourages the re-homing of Thoroughbreds off the track for competition and recreational riding activities. (tjctip.com) Without horse slaughter in the United States, I believe it is the duty of the leaders in our industry—veterinarians, professionals and more—to provide humane options for the rescue and rehoming of unwanted horses. I believe the industry is taking slow steps in the right direction. With the use of social media and new technology, we can educate and make aware more people about this major issue in our industry. We must educate the equine community about horse safety, equine care, the economical investments owning a horse brings, and the importance of safe breeding practices. All of these important topics could prevent the circumstances that bring about a horse to become “unusable” or “unsafe.” This is also the duty of equine professionals, who should be focusing on such areas in their lesson programs and providing guidance to other horse owners. Veterinarians also play a large role in this initiative, helping rescue centers provide humane options for rescued horses, such as low cost euthanasia and gelding of stallions. With all of these tactics, I believe we can take even larger steps toward saving these animals we love and care for so passionately! A horse does not have to cost the same amount as a house to be a loving, compatible and loyal equine companion. It is our duty to do right by these animals and provide them all a second chance.