Too Many Horses

9 years ago

Sure, Bald Eagles look sharp on currency but if there is one true symbol of American grit and spirit, it is the horse. And, come to think of it, when is the last time you bonded with an eagle? Americans love our horses so much that we now face a terrible reality: We have too many - way more than we can handle, and the wounded economy has raised the issue from troubling to urgent.

Just over a year ago, deep into my equine obsession, I nearly bought a horse of my own. His name was Copper, a feisty Arab I'd been riding for my weekly lessons. When the owner pitched a sale, my head just spun. I consulted family and friends, did extensive research and picked my teachers' brain for insight. I wanted Copper so bad I had nightly horsie dreams like a friggin' 9-year-old girl. Daytime brought the reality of money: Did I have enough?

For initial purchase, sure ($1500) but the monthly bills kill the dream. To keep Copper (see photo of his handsomeness) healthy and happy, it would cost me $600 a month (board, feed, tack, vet bills) and that's for lower-end care.

It came down to one late night reality-busting session with my accountant, also a close friend. "It is just too much of a stretch, financially," said Gins, as I wept with disappointment. "I know you want him but you would have to give up an awful lot and if that horse gets sick ...." She was right and I knew it. Still, I took some comfort when she said, "It doesn't mean you'll never own a horse, it just means not right now."

Flash-forward 15 months and were smack dab in the middle of a global economic shitstorm the likes of which history has never seen. I'm so relieved that I did not follow my emotional urges and buy Copper; otherwise, we would both be screwed.

With folks struggling to pay mortgages, credit cards, heating and grocery bills, keeping a horse is a luxury that many can no longer afford. Horse rescue operations across the country are overwhelmed with tearful requests to take in their animals. Meanwhile, boarding facilities are struggling to fill empty stalls. The worsening economy is forcing owners to frantically sell, find shelter solutions or even set their horses free to fend for themselves.

Last summer, the cost of hay was $3 to $4 per bale; this winter, it's averaging $10. All in all, the cost of hay, since 1989, has risen 600 percent. And beyond the rising price of feed and fuel, the problem is exacerbated by the closure of the nation's horse slaughterhouses in 2007. And with growing urban populations, the potential horse-owning population is shrinking. There are simply fewer and fewer places for horses to live.

"The legislation that banned slaughter facilities in
California where over 100,000 horses were sent annually should have
provided an alternative mechanism to deal with the continued life of
those animals in a humane manner .... The
need for a solution is vital. We cannot afford
economically or morally to ignore this problem any longer. Research is
needed to find reasonable solutions and new guidelines for the
management of unwanted horses, but funding is lacking."

--John Madigan, professor in the Veterinary Medical Teaching
Hospital, UC Davis, addressing a meeting of
California experts in animal control to discuss the issue of unwanted

Robin Finn's recent article in The New York Times quotes Mona T. Kanciper, president of New York Horse Rescue, who states flatly: "This is definitely a very bad time to be a horse."

In Arizona, Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford, has proposed a bill (HB 2178) to address the problem facing horse owners. The bill would require the state Department of Agriculture to create a registry of approved equine-rescue facilities and to make that information available both online and in its offices. (The department is responsible for seizing neglected or abandoned horses, and animals that aren't returned to owners are auctioned.)

It would also establish clean and healthy standards for non-profit equine rescue-facilities, which has some concerned that the costs of upgrading to meet these standards would cause additional financial stress on the already-strapped rescue operations.

Konopnicki's bill has won approval from the House Natural Resources and Rural Affairs Committee and heading to the floor.

Meanwhile, the wild horse adoption market facilitated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) isn't faring much better. In 2002, more than 7,700 wild horses were adopted nationwide. Last year, it was 3,700. And since October 1, only 713 have been adopted. It spells trouble for the BLM which relies on adoptions to help keep wild populations in check. Their long-term holding facilities for unadopted horses have also maxed out and there's no relief in sight.

Madeleine Pickens, the wife of Dallas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, has proposed a wild horse sanctuary in Nevada, which would add to the growing number of non-profit horse rescue operations in the country. Another option being discussed is ramping up a contraceptive program or finding other ways to reduce fertility in the wild. (For more on this issue, read 'Mustangs: Spirit of the Shrinking West' in the February issue of National Geographic.)

Either way, America has too much of a good thing. As for myself, the economy has shuttered my dreams of owning a horse and I've even ceased my lessons in anticipation of a lay-off. However, since the animals play a significant role in my mental health program, I'll be volunteering at the Colorado Horse Rescue in the spring.


Desert Survivor explored the situation firsthand when she visited an over-populated wild Horse and burro facility in Delta, Utah:

"If the horses are left out on the range, there will be large-scale ecological consequences, like trampling of springs, overgrazing, and possibly additional disease. Thinking about this issue is kind of frustrating, because there is no easy solution. But it can't be ignored just because it's difficult."

Jake Putnam, blogging on Idaho Farm Bureau News, takes a hard look at this issue in his post, 'Hobby Horses: An Economic, Moral Debate':

"Sheriffs across the state have an issue on their hands: Abandoned Horses. Just outside of Emmett two weeks ago a passerby found 15 dead horses in a rotting heap, their brands cut from the hide ...The current economic downturn has made the problem worse with too many horses on the market, crowding shelters and thousands of starving horses on the range."

Blogger Geoff Williams on WalletPop offers up a silver lining in all this with his post, 'Flagging economy hurts horses, too':

"But if there's any good news in any of this, it's that if anyone wants to own or care for a horse right now, your odds of being able to have one should be pretty good. Nationwide, there are a lot of animal rescue shelters, like this one, that are looking for foster owners who can afford to keep and care for a horse."