"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated." Gandhi.
News of horses being abandoned by owners who can no longer care for them has been published in nearly every state. This problem came to public attention about three years ago. Abandoned horses are found roaming land around reclaimed strip mines. Some horses are turned out on Native American reservation properties. In several states, horses have been found tied to mile markers or turned loose on grassy highway median strips.
One owner took his horse out to a federally owned forest and shot it. When the horse collapsed, the owner, believing it dead, climbed into his truck and left. Several weeks later, the horse was found wandering aimlessly by someone exploring the forest. It was extremely thin and had a badly infected facial wound. Because the infection could not be controlled the horse was euthanized. A nearby town paper published an article about the incident with a description of the horse. A reader phoned in and identified the owner, who had told people the horse was stolen. His reason for the shooting: he lost his job and couldn't afford to keep the horse any longer, but couldn't stand the thought that the animal might go to someone else.
The University of California Davis (UC Davis) recently published a study in the Journal of Animal Science (1). The researchers learned that owners usually give up their horses when financial or physical problems strike. In today's socio- economic framework, privately owned horses have decreased in value. Horse owners are not adding animals to their barns and those who would like to be owners are hesitant to purchase; horses are high maintenance--expensive to keep.
Another activity that contributes to a critical excess of horses is "back yard breeding." Unknown numbers of horse owners breed their mares to stallions belonging to friends or neighbors, or to ones being advertised for breeding on sites such as craigslist. People believe it will be fun (or educational for their children) to have a baby horse running around, but horses aren't like kittens and puppies (many of which are also abandoned). Even a foal can seriously injure the person who doesn't know how to handle horses. In a year, that foal is of a serious size and may be seen as wild and dangerous if it isn't socialized to humans and properly trained. Other owners realize only too late that they now must feed two horses, not one. Dividing food for one horse between two never works and it is almost always the foal that becomes malnourished, if not both animals.
Today, a horse should not breed or be bred unless there is a specific purpose for the foals. Even so, horses bred for a purpose can contribute to an excess of the species. There are only a handful out of the thousands of thoroughbreds foaled in this country every year that make a successful career of racing.
Too many horses are produced as a result of unwise or frivolous breeding. One solution to this unfortunate situation is castration of colts (A young male horse is a colt; a female is a filly.) and stallions whose genes are not critical to the continuation or improvement of a breed. The other obvious solution is that hobby owners refrain from breeding their horses.
Why "pick on" the males? A mare cannot be easily spayed like a female dog or cat. Abdominal surgery on a horse is a dangerous undertaking and should be performed only when the need is great. A spay procedure is very expensive when performed on a mare. Costs may rise above a thousand dollars. Other birth control methods are also expensive, only 100% reliable if a mare is never pastured with a stallion and may have negative side effects. Unless there is an undescended testicle, gelding, or castration of the intact male horse does not require intrusion into the abdomen. The cost is much less: about two-hundred to five-hundred dollars. The younger the age of the horse when it is gelded, the lower the chances of complications.
The UC Davis research team learned that about 60 per cent of horses in rescue facilities are given up willingly. Most of these are sent to non-profit (501c3) placements. When a horse is surrendered to a rescue, it costs about $3600.00 a year to maintain that animal, according to the university. Horses need to eat at least one per cent of their body weight every day. That includes 25 - 35 pounds of hay. Another 15 per cent of rescue-housed horses are removed from their owners by authorities. These figures are reliable; the UC Davis study covered 144 facilities in 37 states, and involved 280 horses.
This writer regularly follows three websites where more than 500 horses and ponies are collectively offered free of charge to "good homes." There are hundreds more that are surrendered, seized by authorities, abandoned or sold and shipped across the U.S. borders to slaughter for consumption by people in countries where horse meat is frequent fare. But that's another story.
1. K.E. Holcomb, C.L. Stull, P.H. Kass. Unwanted horses: The role of nonprofit equine rescue and sanctuary organizations. J.ANIM SCI. Dec 01, 2010; 88:4142-4150.
2. Beauty's Haven Farm & Equine Rescue, Inc. Morriston, FL 32668. http://www.beautysequinerescue.org/