March 20, 2013

No easy horses

A series about problems, solutions and public perception issues facing the U.S. horse industry.

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt / ASAS Communications

Part 1: What happens to horses today?

The closing of the last U.S. horse harvest facility in 2007 was portrayed as a victory for animal well being. But since then, horse owners have struggled to safely and affordably dispose of unwanted horses.

Horses are still harvested for their meat, but with the closure of U.S. facilities, they face new threats to well being. Research shows that rescue groups do not have the resources to handle the unwanted horse population.

Without the option to send horses to U.S. facilities, many horse owners rely on harvest facilities in Mexico and Canada. Data from the USDA Market News Service show that 11,080 horses were transported to Mexico for harvest in 2006, and that number jumped 311 percent in 2007. The number of horses exported to Canada doubled from 50,000 in 2006 to 100,000 in 2007. A new harvest facility even opened in Saskatchewan to handle the increased supply.

According to data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the shift to foreign harvest facilities increased the average trip for horses by 200 miles. Longer transport times can lead to health issues like stress and dehydration. In 2000, Ted Friend, Faculty Fellow and Professor of Animal Behavior and Well-being at Texas A&M University, reported that horses with access to feed and water show signs of fatigue after 28 hours of transport. Without access to water, horses were unfit for travel after 28 hours.

This data helped shape USDA “slaughter horse” transport regulations. However, horses are out of USDA control once outside the United States. Regulations are similar in Canada, but many animal well-being experts are concerned with well-being standards in Mexico. In a 2012 paper for Animal Frontiers, Carolyn Stull, an Animal Welfare Specialist at UC Davis, writes that humane transport and humane stunning methods “appear much less developed, implemented, and enforced in Mexico.”

Because of these concerns, some animal scientists believe horses should not have to make the journey to Mexico. Perhaps horses would be treated more humanely if harvest facilities reopened in the United States.

Without a U.S. market for unwanted horses, many horse owners are desperate for options. The closing of U.S. facilities came at the same time as the economic recession. Caring for a horse averages $3,876 a year, but costs are much higher if a horse needs special training or veterinary care. When the economy declined, many horse owners could no longer afford the expense. Some horse owners could not find buyers for their animals or could not afford the expense associated with euthanasia and abandoned them. Since 2007, California, Texas and Florida have reported increases in horses abandoned on private or state land. According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “State, local, tribal, and horse industry officials generally attributed these increases in neglect and abandonments to cessation of domestic slaughter and the economic downturn.”

Abandoning a horse may seem like a humane alternative to harvesting its meat, but abandoned horses face serious threats in the wild. Experts from the Bureau of Land Management say survival is tough for domesticated horses, and many horses die from dehydration or starvation. They can also be attacked by predators like mountain lions. If a horse does find a wild herd, other horses may ostracize or even kill it. Domesticated horses can also introduce unfamiliar diseases and wipe out entire wild herds.

Before harvest facilities closed, some thought horse rescue groups could easily absorb unwanted horses. Six years later, rescue groups cannot keep up. After a 2010 survey of 144 nonprofit equine rescue organizations, researchers from UC Davis reported that 83.9 percent of rescue groups had seen an increase in requests to accept horses since January 2008. The researchers cited the closure of harvest facilities and the economic downturn as possible reasons for this increase.

Because horses can live up to 30 years, it is easy for rescue groups to hit capacity. According to the researchers, “For every 4 horses relinquished to a nonprofit organization, only 3 horses were adopted or sold between 2006 and 2009, and many organizations had refused to accept additional horses for lack of resources.”

The closing of U.S. horse harvest facilities had unintended consequences for animal well-being. Horse owners have fewer options, and rescue groups have not absorbed the surplus of unwanted horses.

Part Two of this series explores possible solutions to the unwanted horse problem.


“The Unwanted Horse Issue: What Now?” proceedings from the 2008 USDA forum

“HORSE WELFARE: Action Needed to Address Unintended Consequences from Cessation of Domestic Slaughter,” from the U.S. Government Accountability Office

“Dehydration, stress, and water consumption of horses during long-distance commercial transport,” by T.H. Friend

“The journey to slaughter for North American horses,” by C.L. Stull

“Two incidents of abandoned horses concern BLM specialists,” from the Bureau of Land Management

“Unwanted horses: The role of nonprofit equine rescue and sanctuary organizations,” by K. E. Holcomb, et al.

“Guide to First-Time Horse Ownership,” from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension