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By Tom Lenz, DVM, MS

Unwanted Horse - Jul 29th, 08

Presented during the AAEP Summer Healthy Horses Workshop in Austin, Texas.

The issue of the large number of unwanted horses in the U.S. first came to light following the 2001 Foot and Mouth disease epidemic in Europe. The European consumer’s concern with eating beef resulted in an increase in their consumption of horsemeat. This change drew media attention to the fact horses were being processed for meat in the United States and exported to Europe for human consumption. Media coverage of the issue not only drew the attention of the horse owning public, but also equine breed associations, animal rights/welfare organizations, veterinary associations and the non-horse owning public. Because of focused lobbying efforts, federal legislation was introduced in Congress to prohibit slaughtering of horses for human consumption. Reports by the media and the proposed legislation fostered for the first time the realization that there is truly an unwanted horse issue in the United States that must be addressed. 

Horses processed for meat represent the lowest economic level of the horse population and typify the unwanted horse in the United States. The phrase “Unwanted Horse” was first coined by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) in 2005 and is defined as: horses that are no longer wanted by their current owner because they are old, injured, sick, unmanageable, or fail to meet their owner’s expectations. Generally, these are horses with incurable lameness, behavior problems, are dangerous or old. They also include un-adoptable feral horses and horses that fail to meet their owner’s expectations because they are unmarketable, unattractive, not athletic, unmanageable, have no color, are the wrong color, or cost too much to care for. Normal healthy horses of varying ages and breeds may also become “unwanted”. In many cases, these animals have had multiple owners, have been shipped from one sale barn, stable or farm to another, and have ultimately been rejected. The number of unwanted horses in the United States varies from year to year. In 2007,  + 58,000 horses were processed for meat in the United States, +35,000 were exported to Canada for processing, + 45,000 were exported to Mexico for processing, + 21,000 un-adoptable feral horses were kept in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) funded long-term sanctuaries, +9,000 feral horses were in the BLM adoption pipeline and an undisclosed number were abandoned, neglected or abused. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) export records on U.S. horses shipped to Canadian processing plants in 2002 through 2005 indicate 42.8 percent were geldings, 52.1 percent were mares, 3.41 percent were stallions, and the gender was not recorded on 1.70 percent. In addition, 70 percent were western type horses, 11 percent were English or Thoroughbred type horses, 3.6 percent were draft type horses, and the rest included various breeds or types of horses or mules. In general, the types of horses and their genders reflect the demographics of the U.S. horse population with no specific type of horse standing out as the quintessential unwanted horse. 

In 2007, approximately 150,000 horses were processed in the United States or exported for processing. That number is down dramatically from the 339,000 horses processed in 1989. The question to be answered is why was there an 80 percent reduction? Was it simply a surplus reduction or did the IRS tax code changes that occurred in the mid-1980s result in people selling off horses they were no longer able to depreciate? Was there a change in market demand or were these horses absorbed by rescue and/or retirement facilities? It appears the reduction in unwanted horses being processed followed the decrease in the number of horses bred and registered in the mid-1980s and represented a surplus reduction as many investors left the horse industry.   

In recent years, horse rescue/adoption/retirement organizations have, to their credit, made a conscientious and concerted effort to provide care, funding or suitable accommodations for unwanted horses in both the private and public sector. The capacity of these facilities is unknown but estimates by the AAEP indicate current rescue and retirement organizations could rescue, retire or find alternative homes for no more than 6 to 10,000 horses per year. The average rescue facility can handle 30 horses on average. Due to the long natural life span of horses, approximately 30 years, rescue/adoption/retirement facilities face a potentially long, costly care period for each horse, and have placed funding as the critical limiting issue for those striving to provide an adequate standard of care. According to the results of a study conducted by North, et al, and presented at the Annual World Food and Agribusiness Forum in 2005, the cost to maintain a horse until its natural death averages $2,340 per year. The AAEP estimates the cost of maintaining a horse per year is $1,825, not including veterinary or farrier costs. For rescue/adoption/retirement facilities, the financial costs can quickly exceed their capacity to meet the needs of an ever-increasing number of neglected, abandoned or unwanted horses. The annual costs, however, understate the total cost required because horses that would have been processed in previous years now remain in the horse population. In addition, this subset of the horse population will increase each year as more unwanted horses are added to the population. 

There are a number of current options for horses that are unwanted or no longer considered useful. Some can be retrained for another use. This is common in racehorses that often find second careers in dressage or hunter jumper competition. Some are donated to university animal science departments, law enforcement agencies, veterinary teaching hospitals or therapeutic riding programs. In addition, unwanted horses can be placed in long-term rescue/retirement facilities or adopted out. As has been discussed earlier, many are simply euthanized or sent to processing plants. Whenever there are large numbers of unwanted horses, there is always concern for the welfare of these horses. The reality for many unwanted horses is that they become a burden and are abused or neglected. 

For those responsible horse owners who do not want to burden others with the disposition of a horse that is old, lame or no longer useful, the option of euthanasia and carcass disposal is available. The term euthanasia is derived from the Greek terms eu meaning good and thanatos meaning death. A good death occurs with minimal pain and at the appropriate time in the horse’s life to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering. Traditionally, justification for euthanasia has been based primarily on medical considerations, as well as future quality of life issues for the horse. However, euthanasia, at the request of the owner because they no longer want or can care for a horse, may become more common. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2000 Expert Panel on Euthanasia Report, there are three acceptable forms of euthanasia for horses: an overdose of barbiturate anesthesia, gunshot and penetrating captive bolt. Sodium pentobarbital is the most commonly used barbiturate for euthanasia in the horse and, when administered intravenously, depresses the central nervous system, causing loss of consciousness and deep anesthesia progressing to respiratory and cardiac arrest. The primary advantages of barbiturate overdose are speed of action and minimal discomfort to the animal. The major disadvantages are that administration of the drug requires rapid, intravenous administration, which means the animal must be restrained. In addition, prolonged muscular activity, gasping and vocalization can occur following drug administration and prior to death, which can be alarming to the owner. Because the carcass will contain high levels of barbiturate and must be considered an environmental hazard to wildlife and domestic carnivores, disposal options are limited. Physical methods of euthanasia include gunshot and penetrating captive bolt. When properly applied, both cause trauma to the brain resulting in immediate unconsciousness and a painless, humane death. The advantages of both gunshot and penetrating captive bolt are that they cause immediate brain death and the carcass is not an environmental hazard. Disadvantages include the fact they require skill and experience, and may be aesthetically unpleasant for observers. 

All states as well as many counties and municipalities regulate the disposition of animal carcasses. However, approved methods vary widely with animal species and regulatory authority. Therefore, it is important the attending veterinarian and/or owner know the specific regulations in their area regarding disposal of horse carcasses. There are a number of carcass disposal options available including burial, composting, incineration, rendering and bio-digestion. Burial regulations vary, but generally require three to four feet of dirt cover the carcass. Many states mandate the burial site be at least 100 yards from wells and streams. Backhoe service costs to bury the horse on the owner’s property vary with the area of the country but usually range from $250 to $500. Landfill is an alternative to burial in some states, but not all municipal landfills will accept horse carcasses, especially those that have been euthanized with barbiturate overdose. Costs vary but average around $80 to $500. Rendering is another option and involves cooking the carcass to destroy pathogens and produce useable end products such as meat, bone and blood meal that can be used in animal feeds. This is an environmentally safe method for disposal of dead livestock and is available in approximately 50 percent of the states. Rendering companies will generally pick up euthanized animals and, depending upon the state, charge from $75 to $250. Incineration or cremation is one of the most biosecure methods of carcass disposal, but is costly. Depending upon the area of the country and the cost of propane fuel, incineration of an average sized horse costs between $600 and $2,000. A method of carcass disposal that has recently gained popularity is composting, which is defined as controlled, sanitary decomposition of organic materials by bacteria. If done properly, it takes as little as six weeks to as long as 9 months to compost an intact horse carcass. When properly performed, composting is safe and produces an end product that is a relatively odorless, spongy and humus-like substance that can be used for soil supplementation. A relatively new method of carcass disposal is bio-digestion. Bio-digesters use alkaline hydrolysis to solubilize and hydrolyze the animal’s carcass rapidly and have become popular with veterinary colleges and industrial research facilities. They are a less expensive, more environmentally friendly alternative to incineration and can turn a horse carcass into a pathogen-free, aqueous solution of small peptides, amino acids, sugars, soaps and powdered bone. 

A review of the unwanted horse issue would not be complete without a discussion of anti-slaughter legislation and efforts the industry has undertaken to address the unwanted horse issue. The 1996 Farm Bill gave the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regulatory responsibility for humane transport of horses to processing plants. APHIS oversees the requirements on access to food, water and rest during shipment, as well as the types of horses that cannot be shipped. These include horses unable to bear weight on all four legs, unable to walk unassisted, blind in both eyes, foals less than six months old and pregnant mares that may foal during the trip. In addition, the regulations phased out the use of double decker trailers in 2006 and require origin/shipper certificates accompany each shipment. In 2001, Congresswoman Morella of New York introduced a bill prohibiting the interstate transport of horses to slaughter. The bill was never taken up by the full House, however, it did spark debate within the horse industry about the benefits or problems associated with euthanasia and processing of unwanted horses. The debate about the proposed legislation struck an emotional chord within the horse industry and the general public. Proponents argued the ban on slaughter would eliminate pain and suffering of those horses shipped to processing plants and the surplus of unwanted horses that would result could easily be absorbed by the horse industry. Opponents to the bill argued that banning the slaughter of low-level horses would result in increased neglect, abuse and abandonment of unwanted horses, as well as unintended consequences that would negatively impact the health and welfare of the nation’s horses. They also pointed out the bill did not provide funding, an infrastructure or enforcement authority to address the welfare of unwanted horses no longer processed for meat. The bill limited equine euthanasia options and did not address carcass disposal environmental concerns. There was also concern that if the processing plants overseen by USDA veterinarians were closed, horses would be transferred longer distances without APHIS oversight and processed at foreign processing plants not under USDA’s jurisdiction or U.S. humane standards for animal treatment and handling. In 2003 and 2004, Rep. Sweeney of New York introduced H.R. 857 to prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption and a similar bill was introduced on the Senate side, S. 2352 by Senator Ensign of Nevada. Neither bill moved out of committee. In 2005, H.R. 503 was introduced into the House and proposed to amend the Horse Protection Act by prohibiting the sale or transportation of horses to be slaughtered for human consumption or other purposes. A similar bill, S. 1915 (The Virgie S. Arden American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act) was introduced by Senator Ensign of Nevada in the Senate. In 2006, H.R. 503 was reintroduced and passed by the House but was not taken up by the Senate. In 2007, Congressman Whitfield of Kentucky reintroduced H.R. 503 in the House and S. 311 was introduced in the Senate by Senator Landrieu of Louisiana. To date, both bills are in committee. 

Concern that the debate over legislation to prevent processing of horses for meat was driving a wedge between key groups within the horse industry and the welfare of unwanted horses was not being addressed, the AAEP hosted a meeting in Washington D.C. in the spring of 2005. Participants from breed associations, veterinary organizations, sport/discipline groups, welfare/humane groups and rescue/retirement organizations gathered to discuss the issue of unwanted horses.  

As a result of the meeting, the Unwanted Horse Coalition was formed and moved under the umbrella of the American Horse Council. The mission of the coalition is “to reduce the number of unwanted horses and improve their welfare through education and the efforts of organizations committed to the health, safety and responsible care of the horse.” The goal of the coalition is to provide a medium for the exchange of information about adoption, proper care, alternative careers and responsible ownership. This is done through a website, print material, educational forums and public service announcements. Education of horse owners about responsible ownership, proper care and the results of haphazard breeding are key elements of the initiative. Particular attention is given to education of potential owners about the cost of care, proper husbandry, training requirements and expectations. In addition, information about life-ending decisions and the need to euthanize rather than neglect or sell is provided. The coalition’s website can be found

The unwanted horse issue is complex and will not be resolved overnight. Hopefully, the united efforts of key equine stakeholders to develop effective strategies to improve the quality of life of unwanted horses and reduce their numbers will be successful.