The Unwanted Horse Council Is Tackling A Growing Problem

May 15, 2008 - 10:00 PM

Organizations of all breeds and disciplines are joining the campaign for responsible horse ownership.

In recent months, attention by major newspapers has shed national light on the issue of the unwanted horse. Headlines in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, along with regional papers such as the Denver Post and others, continue to report on the apparent increase in the number of unwanted, neglected or abandoned equines across the country.

Additionally, print, electronic and television media outlets have reported that state agencies and rescue organizations are being flooded by requests for help from owners who find themselves unable to care for their horses due to a variety of reasons, including: over breeding; national economic downturn; the spike in hay prices; the drought that has affected many parts of the nation; increasing cost of euthanasia and carcass disposal; and the closing of the three U.S. horse processing facilities, which removed the floor on the value of horses.

These and other reports describe horses being turned loose, left to fend for themselves or being abandoned. It has also been suggested that rescue facilities, some already at capacity, may soon have to begin turning away needy animals.

What Does “Unwanted” Mean?

Clearly, domestic organizations and countless individual horse owners and breeders are mindful of their responsibilities to their horses. Still, some may be unaware that tens of thousands of horses end their days unwanted, unneeded or unusable by their current owners.

These “unwanted” horses come in a variety of forms—sick, injured, old, unmanageable, dangerous or even the “wrong” color or breed. Perhaps the horse has not met the owner’s expectations in performance or athletic ability, or perhaps the owners have fallen on hard economic times, rendering them incapable of financially supporting their horse(s). Perhaps a pony has been outgrown or a child has lost interest, leaving parents, in many cases, to determine the animal’s future. In many cases, these “unwanted” horses are perfectly normal and healthy.

No data currently exists on the population of unwanted horses in the United States. Nor does data exist on their age and sex, the breeds represented, how many are purebred versus grade, their most recent use, their value or what happens to them in the long run.

Tens of thousands of horses that could be classified as unwanted are sent to slaughter facilities in North America every year. While U.S.-based processing facilities were shut down by court order in 2006, U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that, prior to the ban, roughly 65,000 horses were processed annually in domestic plants. Exports to Canadian and Mexican processing facilities have increased 41 percent and 312 percent, respectively, since the U.S. ban went into effect.

The Unwanted Horse Coalition

For the past three years, a growing number of horse industry leaders have been working on this topic through the Unwanted Horse Coalition, a broad affiliation of equine organizations that have joined together to educate the domestic horse industry and the American public at large about this issue.

Under the leadership of Scott Palmer, DVM, then president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, 25 equine industry organizations and Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) gathered during the American Horse Council’s 2005 annual meeting in Washington, D.C., for the first Unwanted Horse Summit. The summit brought together key stakeholders to start a dialogue on the plight of the unwanted horse in order to develop consensus on the most effective way to work together to address this issue.

“While participants came to the table with divergent views on many aspects of the issue, they were able to reach a remarkable degree of consensus,” said Palmer. “Everyone focused on the welfare of the horse.”

The outcome of the Unwanted Horse Summit was the formation of a national steering committee, which would become the Unwanted Horse Coalition and within a year would be operating under the auspices of the Washington, D.C.-based American Horse Council, the national trade association for the domestic equine industry.

“[Representatives from] the organizations felt that the problem of unwanted horses was a problem facing the entire horse industry and that the industry must find an effective solution,” said Jay Hickey, AHC President. “The issue of unwanted horses faces all breeds and all activities in the horse world. Putting this initiative under the umbrella of the AHC seemed a natural fit.”

Hickey continued, “Owner education is the focus. Legislative advocacy is not. We want to identify specific, constructive, achievable and doable goals, but our real goal is to put ourselves out of business!”

Each member organization designates a representative to serve on its behalf, as well as participate in committees established to deal with communication, research, funding, and steering/administration. In order to facilitate direct communication with the rescue community, the UHC added an ad hoc Rescue Advisory Committee last spring. 

“The Unwanted Horse Coalition includes equine organizations that are concerned with the number of unwanted horses in the United States,” said Tom Lenz, DVM, and chairman of the UHC. “Members represent numerous facets of the industry who are dedicated to supporting this endeavor through their knowledge, vision and dedication to furthering the education of the equine community.”

Spread The Word: Own Responsibly

Lenz emphasized that education is the most important part of the UHC. “Everyone must commit to a lifetime of continuing education,” he said. 

Over the past two years, the UHC has produced and distributed a variety of educational and promotional materials as part of its “Spread the Word” campaign on horse ownership and education, including brochures, booklets and flyers, as well as public service announcements and advertisements.

“We want people to learn how to own responsibly,” said Hickey. “That’s our motto. If current and future horse owners are responsible and thoroughly research their options before they commit to buy, breed, or sell a horse, there will be fewer unwanted horses.”

An online directory of facilities that accept horses can be found on the UHC website, providing a central source of information on facilities, programs, and private individuals that offer a place for unwanted horses. Facilities are listed by state and, to date, include more than 160 different organizations. The directory continues to grow daily, adding organizations from traditionally “horsey” states like Kentucky and Florida, to a recent inquiry from Fairbanks, Alaska.

The website directory serves as a bridge between people who are seeking alternatives for their horses and the many people who will provide the alternatives. The information provided in the directory advises owners about the type of facility, contact information, tax exempt status, horse capacity, years of operation, number of staff, and whether it follows the AAEP Care Guidelines for Rescue and Retirement Facilities. Facilities also have the opportunity to write a separate description of their program, purpose, and philosophy.

The directory serves to help owners understand and consider their options.

“Everyone in the horse industry must work together in order to make progress on this issue,” said Hickey. “Responsible, knowledgeable owners are our one of our best resources.”

To this effect, he recommends that horse owners have a plan in the event that a horse does not work out for its intended use.

He encourages owners to consider end-of-life decisions, including veterinary decisions, euthanasia, and disposal, before buying or breeding. Have a plan in place in the event an emergency arises.

Horsemen can also help by supporting adoption, rescue and retirement facilities, Pony Clubs and other youth organizations with expertise, time, and/or financial assistance. Get involved in the education of newcomers to your respective discipline organization.

The UHC website contains information on how to distribute educational materials in your community. By educating existing and potential owners, breeders, sellers and horse organizations about the long-term responsibilities of owning and caring for horses, and focusing on opportunities available for these horses, the coalition hopes to help horses before they become unwanted.
Next Steps

“It may be too soon for the horse industry to declare this a national emergency,” Hickey said in reference to the recent media coverage. “The reports involve a few states, but clearly there are enough signs for the industry and horse owners to step up their efforts to educate themselves about potential solutions.”

The steady growth of the UHC in membership and general interest is a strong indication of the importance of this issue to the industry and to horse people across the country. The UHC, which started out with 11 member organizations, has more than doubled its membership since 2006. Countless individuals and organizations have offered their services on the grassroots level, spreading the word by supplying educational materials to Pony Clubs, 4-H, agricultural extensions, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, rescue groups, riding schools, and even a dude ranch.

Clearly, there is no easy fix. “It is up to everyone involved to make use of their expertise and knowledge by communicating what it means to own responsibly and take it to the entire horse community,” said Hickey.

Options For Owners With An Unwanted Horse

A variety of options are available to horse owners who find themselves unable to continue caring for their horse(s). Many options are based on specific criteria, such as health, soundness, age and temperament. Not every horse is suitable for every job, and clearly each individual situation should be taken into consideration when researching options.

Sales And/Or Leasing

Selling a horse is obviously a way to relinquish responsibility to another party. When an owner decides to sell privately (either alone or through an agent), he or she has more control over the process than if he decides to sell at an auction. In private sales, the owner may have the option of adding a buy-back clause into the bill of sale, also known as right of first refusal. Auctions, although a quick way to sell a horse, cannot guarantee that the animal will be available for buy back later.

Leasing horses is a popular way to experience “ownership” as well. There are many different lease arrangements, depending on the needs of the interested parties. Leasing also provides an opportunity for newer horse enthusiasts to see just how a horse will fit into their lives.

Facilities For Horses

Numerous facilities exist across the country to provide a variety of different services and/or new vocations for horses. These include retirement farms, equine rescues, equine sanctuaries, therapeutic riding centers, colleges and universities, mounted patrol units (at local, state and federal levels) and prison systems.

And, of course, there are even people who may be looking for a lawn ornament. Finding a new home for a horse in these types of facilities is not always an easy job. There are questions every owner should ask before giving up control of their horses, depending on what type of facility is under consideration.

In her white paper, The Current State Of Rescue, Dr. Jennifer Williams, president of Texas-based Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society and a member of the UHC Rescue Advisory Committee, offers ideas on screening potential facilities.

  •       Ask questions
  •       Review corporate documents (if applicable to said facility)
  •       Visit the facility
  •       Review all policies
  •       Check references


One of the most difficult and emotionally draining responsibilities of horse ownership is determining the appropriate time to end a horse’s life. Justification of humane euthanasia, as defined by the AAEP, should be based on medical considerations as well as current and future quality of life issues. Some, but certainly not all, factors to be considered in evaluating the necessity for intentional euthanasia are:

  •       Is the horse’s condition chronic, incurable, and resulting in unnecessary pain and suffering?
  •       Does the condition of the horse present a hopeless prognosis?
  •       Is the horse a hazard to itself or others?
  •       Will the horse require continuous medications for pain relief and suffering for the rest of its life?

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are only three acceptable methods of euthanasia for horses: barbiturate overdose given intravenously by a veterinarian, gunshot and penetrating captive bolt.

“Minimizing fear, anxiety, and apprehension must be considered in determining which method is the right one,” said Tom Lenz, DVM, who has written extensively on this topic. “Each has its advantages and disadvantages, in addition to different associated costs.”

Category: Controversy

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