The downward spiral of the US economy has had a huge impact on the horse industry. Horses are usually considered a “luxury item” and one that a family can do without. For owners who have lost their jobs or are experiencing other financial hardships, their horses are often the first thing to go. Even owners who are gainfully employed are faced with soaring prices for feed, hay, supplements, and veterinary care. Due to ethanol, farm fuel prices, and widespread drought, the cost of feed alone has skyrocketed, with alfalfa prices rising over 20% in just the last few months. Many horse owners are faced with the heart-wrenching decision between maintaining their beloved equines and providing for their families. In a situation like this, of course, the horse always comes in second. One of the major problems, however, is where do these unwanted animals go?
Horses are expensive to keep up, and according to a study conducted by the American Horse Council, more than a third of all horse owners make under $50,000 a year. The average cost of caring for a horse is five times the amount of caring for a dog. With the increased cost of fuel, food, and other necessities of life, many of these households just don’t have the disposable income any longer to care for their equines. An alarming number of horses are being abandoned or just left in the pasture to slowly starve to death. Some attendees of horse shows reportedly lock their horse trailers now to keep someone with an unwanted horse from leaving it anonymously in a stranger’s trailer.
This is a multifaceted problem. All these unwanted horses have flooded the market, driving prices to all-time lows. Sales barns and horse auctions are inundated with equines, and some sales operators have noticed the poor condition of many of the animals.
Ronald Mariotti, owner of the Enumclaw equine auction house in Washington, says, “I see a lot more skinny horses come to market; a lot more horses that are off flesh come to market. People can’t afford to feed them. They shouldn’t own them if they can’t afford to feed them.”
Mariotti has been in the horse selling business for over forty years, and he says the current market is the worst he’s ever seen. Some sellers are letting their horses go for as little as $200, while other animals aren’t even receiving bids.
Compounding the problem is that there are few buyers. Some experts partially blame the closing of the last equine slaughterhouses in America, located in Illinois and Texas, as a significant piece of the puzzle. These “killer buyers” paid up to fifty cents a pound for lame, aged, and dangerous horses that no one wanted. Now, that’s no longer an option i♠Missouri Equine Council, “Along with the economic crunch, removing slaughterhouses also removed the base price for a horse. That has led to a glut of low- to mid-price ranged horses that owners are trying to get rid of. You take away that foundation, and there’s nothing under it. It’s affected not only low-end horses, but the mid-range horses. People used to get rid of lower-end horses and upgrade to a mid-price-range horse. But if they can’t get rid of those lower range horses, they can’t afford another horse or have no room for another.”
Equine veterinarian Tom Lenz, chairman of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, has 35 years of experience dealing with horses and their owners. He says another problem with the horse population is that owners breed too many inferior animals, and suggests that only horses with special skills should be used for breeding purposes. He also explains that most Americans view horses as pets instead of as livestock.
Lenz stated, “Some cultures don’t eat pork. I don’t think we should judge whether another society is right or wrong because of the meat they eat. Besides, what difference does it make to the horse?”
Even though the equine slaughterhouses in the US are closed, the ones in Canada and Mexico are still open for business. Each year, thousands of unwanted horses are shipped to these plants from the US, but because of the high cost of fuel for such a haul, this has resulted in very low prices paid for unwanted horses. And currently, new American laws are being recommended that stop any transportation of horses from the US to slaughterhouses.
Regarding the new legislation, Lenz said, “If that legislation passes, it will really complicate things.”
This is a highly charged emotional issue, and to many horse lovers, Lenz’s views are repugnant. Sending a horse to a kill plant is not the same as humanely euthanizing the animal. Some might use “dead is dead” as an argument, but it’s not that simple. For one thing, horses are shipped for hundreds or even thousands of miles on hot, crowded trailers, enduring long periods without food and water. Horses that receive injuries on the trip receive no care of any kind. Once the animals reach the slaughterhouse, they might have to spend more days with little, if any, sustenance. They are often handled roughly and cruelly into chutes while waiting their turn to be killed. When it’s their turn, their death is not quick or painless. They are generally stabbed multiple times in the neck with a puntilla knife to paralyze them. They are still conscious when they are hoisted up by a hind leg to have their throats cut.
Many people who love their animals had rather give their horses away that see them suffer the brutality of the kill plants. They talk to friends, place ads in newspapers, and offer them to riding schools or therapy stables. Unfortunately, there are few takers. Consumers are realizing there’s no such thing as a “free” horse – even if there’s no up-front price, the cost of keeping a horse dissuades many would-be horse owners. And for those who are willing to accept a free equine, many quickly come to the plain, hard fact that they cannot afford to care for the horse and must give it up, so the cycle begins all over.
Humane euthanasia is another option, but it’s not cheap. It costs an average of $200 to euthanize a horse. Euthanasia is Greek for “good death,” and that’s the goal of the practice. In euthanizing a horse, a veterinarian gives the animal a tranquilizer intravenously. Then the horse is given an overdose of a barbiturate, making the equine’s death quick and painless, with no fear involved. Problem solved, right? Wrong. Now the body must be disposed of properly. The carcass can’t just be dragged to the woods like folks used to do. The horse’s body is now contaminated by the drug. Any scavengers that might feed on it could be killed, and the horse owner would be responsible. This list could include birds, wolves, coyotes, foxes, opossums, or even domestic dogs.
If an owner cannot afford for his animal to be euthanized but believes that shooting an unwanted horse is more merciful than shipping it off to Canada or Mexico to be killed, then they’re left with disposing of the body. In many locations, horses cannot be buried, and even if it’s legal in certain areas, hiring someone with a backhoe to do the work is cost prohibitive. This is not a hole you want to dig with a shovel.
So why not just surrender the unwanted horse to a shelter or equine rescue group? Great idea, but many shelters are full and are no longer accepting any horses. They simply can’t afford to feed them. Many shelters and rescue operations depend on private donations to provide funds for caring for their animals, and citizens who are strapped financially cannot afford the luxury of donating money to charities. For those shelters and groups that receive local and state funding, things aren’t much better. Many of these funds have been cut, or in some cases, revoked altogether.
A good example of this problem is found at the Horse North, Inc., a horse rescue operation in Michigan. Previously, the outfit turned away maybe 10 or 12 horses a year, but now they’re turning away more than 30 in a single month. They just don’t have the funds or the room to adequately care for all the horses being surrendered by owners who can no longer afford them.
Another Michigan rescue, Horse Haven, is turning away even more unwanted horses. According to horse Haven President Barbara Baker, “Right now, we don’t have the space to take them, or the funds.” Baker says they turn away about 100 horses a week, and owners often leave in tears as they realize they may have to euthanize their pet horse.
And these problems aren’t unique to Michigan. The problem is found all over the US. In Georgia, which has not been hit as hard as Michigan by the recession, people who can’t afford to feed their horses often just stop feeding them. According to Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, “We often find the animals in deplorable conditions. Sometimes there is gross neglect, which can be prosecuted as a felony. We’ve got some cases now that fit into that category.” Georgia has seized more than 200 horses in the last year.
“That’s more than we have in any year since I’ve been commissioner,” Irvin added. He cites the reasons as the effects of a drought, along with the economic collapse, stating, “When pasture land deteriorates, some owners don’t have the resources to buy supplemental feed.”
It’s obvious that there are no easy solutions to the problems associated with the horse industry and the economic meltdown, even for owners who truly try to do the “right thing.” Some options are off the table, and others have serious drawbacks.
It’s not only horse owners who have been impacted, either. Other players in the horse industry are feeling the pinch due to the slow economy. Instructors who offer riding lessons are seeing fewer students, even after many have lowered their fees. Horse trainers and boarding stables are experiencing the crunch, too. Store owners who sell feed, tack, and other supplies say their businesses are suffering. Attendance at horse shows and other equine events is down.
In many states, the horse industry is a large slice of their economy. Agribusinesses, in particular, are supported directly by the horse owners. Farmers who produce grain and hay depend on equine owners buying their products. Horse people who show their animals or compete in other equine events are counted upon to purchase equipment unique to their specific discipline and to buy special clothing for competitions. Even the timber industry is affected. Sales of wood for fences, barns, and shelters have decreased, as have wood shavings used for bedding and stalls. States that have always considered their horse races, shows, and horse sales as part of their tourism trade can no longer count on these events to contribute substantially to the economy.
Think of all the people who are employed by these various aspects of the horse industry. As horse-related businesses lose money, workers will be laid off or terminated. For example, for every twelve horses at a racing stable, there’s one employee, on average. For a stable that handles show horses, there’s one employee for every twenty horses, on average. When participation decreases drastically, it’s not only the stable owners who are hurt; it’s also the “little guys” – the employees.
To shed some light on the importance of the horse industry on the US economy, take a look at the statistics for just a few states. In California, for example, horse-related goods and services generate $4.1 billion and employ over 311,000 workers. In Florida, the horse industry contributes $3 billion and provides 440,000 jobs, directly and indirectly. In the Thoroughbred capital of the world, Kentucky, horses generate $2.3 billion and provide 194,300 jobs and positions. The list goes on and on. The declining horse industry, of course, is not the cause of the slow economy; instead, it’s a victim and a symptom.
The Horse Industry and the US Stimulus Initiative
Although the horse industry is suffering along with the rest of the economy, help is on the way. According to the American Horse Council, the Economic Stimulus package signed by President Obama includes some benefits for horse owners. These include two tax incentives that expired in 2008.
The first, Section 179, allows owners to count up to $250,000 of expenses used to purchase horses, farm equipment, and other related costs, as long as they were placed in service in 2009.
The second incentive continues the first year bonus depreciation of 50% for horses and related property that are placed in service in 2009.
These incentives might not affect the average horse owner, but they will help keep many horse-related businesses like racing and breeding stables in operation and indirectly give regular horse owners and the horse industry as a whole a financial boost. Hopefully, these incentives will keep the average value of horses from further deflating and will have an overall positive impact on the horse industry that will “trickle down” to everyone involved with equines.The