The number of unwanted horses in the U.S. is increasing. Partially due to the tough economy, in conjunction with the closing of equine slaughter facilities in the U.S. in 2007, this is a worrying trend for equine rescues and sanctuaries that are already at or above capacity and not receiving compensating increases in funding. A recently released report in The Journal of Animal Science, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis (UCD), estimated that the number of unwanted horses in the U.S. totals 100,000, a number originally proposed in two 2008 studies.
The UCD researchers surveyed non-profit equine rescue organizations and sanctuaries across the U.S. in an effort to determine the capacity of these facilities to house and care for the large number of unwanted equids. They also sought to determine why these horses are relinquished and what becomes of them. 144 organizations from 37 states provided details on 280 horses that were relinquished between 2007 and 2009.
The survey results indicated that the majority (79.3%) of unwanted horses are classified as light breeds, with Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses making up the bulk of the group. One half of the reported cases were relinquished for health reasons, including illness, injury, lameness, or poor body condition. Other horse-related issues included trainability or suitability problems and behavioral vices. However, many cases were the result of owner hardships, including financial hardship, physical inability to care for the horse(s), or lack of time to care for the horse(s). Other cases were seized by law enforcement agencies for neglect or abuse. The majority (56.1%) of horses arrive at these facilities without any identification.
The majority of non-profit organizations that are trying to keep up with the deluge of unwanted horses are struggling. In this tough economic climate, 78.4% of organizations report that funding is the greatest challenge. Adequate housing, promotional activities and personnel to care for horses were other cited reasons. Individual donations and personal funds make up the bulk of the major funding sources for these facilities. Almost all of the responding organizations (95%) reported that they do not consider federal, state, and local grants as major funding sources. Other financial sources include fundraising, private foundations, corporate sponsorship, sale of miscellaneous items and adoption fees.
Most of the responding organizations care for between 10 and 20 horses. Of the horses cared for by the rescue organizations polled, 3 of every 4 were adopted or sold between 2006 and 2009. Annual maintenance costs for a single relinquished horse are estimated at $3,648 per year. Funding and capacity are increasingly limiting the abilities of these facilities to accept new animals and many are forced to turn away new cases. Currently operating equine rescues and sanctuaries cannot accommodate the estimated 100,000 unwanted horses in the U.S. each year.
Aside from the depressed economy, other factors have contributed to this situation. The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that between 1997 and 2006, approximately 68,000 horses were slaughtered in the U.S. each year. U.S. equine slaughter facilities were closed in 2007 and although export to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico is an option for unwanted U.S. horses, it is fraught with controversy. This, coupled with the increased lifespan of horses resulting from advances in veterinary care and nutrition and the continued breeding of horses which some say is more than the market can absorb, compound an already challenging situation.
This report is based on the published study “Unwanted horses: The role of nonprofit equine rescue and sanctuary organizations” that appears in the December 2010 issue of The Journal of Animal Science.
Consider making a donation or volunteering your time to a local Sacramento area equine rescue organization. Every little bit helps.