Majestic in form, gallant in bearing, horses have for centuries been admired for their intelligence, power and grace. But today, these noble animals are often described in far less becoming terms: overabundant, unwanted, and abused.
Alison LaCarrubba, the veterinary clinical instructor who heads the equine ambulatory section of MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says it all comes down to the decidedly unromantic forces of supply and demand.
“It used to be that you could buy an entry-level horse at auction for about $700, but now you can buy that same horse for $50,” she says. “It is still expensive to feed and keep a horse, however. And there aren’t a lot of options when that cost becomes too great. We’re seeing more and more horses that are not getting enough to eat, and we have been looking for solutions to the problem.”
One way forward, she says, is reducing what she describes as indiscriminate breeding. LaCarrubba is part of a national effort to offer low- or no-cost sterilization clinics aimed at turning stallions into geldings. The first local “Operation Gelding” clinic, held at the University’s Middlebush Farm last fall, was sponsored by the Unwanted Horse Coalition, a broad alliance of equine organizations organized by the American Horse Council, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. The clinic involved more than 20 students working with LaCarrubba and MU vets. Eleven horses were castrated.
“Although it was only 11 horses — I wish it were more — we had some really good feedback from students, and the clients also were happy,” LaCarrubba says. She’s already working on plans for another clinic later this year.
LaCarrubba acknowledges such events represent “just a small effort to tackle a growing problem.” The good news is that she’s far from alone in looking for answers.
As far back as 2005, the Kentucky-based American Association of Equine Practitioners, an international organization of veterinarians who work with horses, hosted a summit to explore what many members believed to be a growing crisis in “unwanted horses” — a phrase coined at the summit. Unwanted horses were defined as those that “are no longer wanted by their current owner because they are old, injured, sick, unmanageable, fail to meet their owner’s expectations — for example, in performance, color or breeding — or their owner can no longer afford them.” The summit also gave birth to the Unwanted Horse Coalition.
The timing of the 2005 summit was not accidental. The start of that decade had been something of a watershed moment for the horse industry, due chiefly to the emergence of a loud, sometimes angry debate over the ethics of slaughtering horses for meat.
For years, few members of the American public had any idea that horse meat was consumed by humans. This began to change in 1996, after a link was established between the consumption of beef infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease,” and dozens of European citizens who contracted the deadly human form of BSE, “variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.”
That outbreak was followed in 2001 by a devastating epidemic of Foot and Mouth disease in Britain. At the height of the outbreak, images of great mounds of burning cattle corpses—animals culled from herds that had just days before been grazing contentedly in the idyllic English countryside—flooded the media, shocking horrified beef consumers. Sales of horse meat, long considered a viable beef or pork substitute in Europe and Asia, quickly spiked. Some of this meat was sourced from the United States, where the supply of unwanted horses had for years catered to international demand.
Media coverage of horse-meat sales turned the spotlight on this nation’s previously out-of-sight, out-of-mind horse processing plants. Perhaps not surprisingly, many Americans were scandalized.
Call it Black Beauty Syndrome, says Nat T. Messer, one of LaCarrubba’s colleagues in the MU School of Veterinary Medicine and a nationally recognized expert on the history and dilemma of unwanted horses. “People here don’t want to eat Black Beauty or Silver or Trigger,” he says.
In the United States it is legal to eat horses but, as Messer suggests, one is unlikely to find USDA-inspected horse steaks at the local grocer. This goes beyond mere matters of taste. Riding the wave of unease following the public’s “discovery” of horse processing plants, horse lovers and animal advocacy organizations began lobbying state and federal legislators to outlaw horse slaughter. In 2007, state legislative actions closed the last three U.S. equine slaughter plants, two of which were in Texas and one in Illinois. That same year, Congress voted to end funding for USDA inspection of equine slaughterhouses, effectively making it impossible for horse processing plants to operate legally in the United States.
This does not, however, mean that American horse flesh is not still showing up in boucheries chevelalines and other overseas meat purveyors.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, worldwide production of horse meat in 2007 totaled 1,040,450 tons, or roughly 5 million horses. While the percentage coming from this nation is small — in 2009, according to the USDA, some 150,000 U.S. horses were slaughtered after being transported to plants in Canada and Mexico — animal advocacy organizations are pushing for federal legislation that would outlaw all transportation and sale of horses for human consumption.
One reason these organizations object to equine slaughter is because, in their view, the process is inhumane. “It is extremely cruel,” says Chris Heyde, deputy director of government and legal affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute. “Horses are bred to be high-strung, reactionary animals. Their response to fear is flight.” This, along with horses’ long necks, makes them harder to handle than cattle, he says. In the kill boxes, minimally trained workers shoot horses with a captive bolt to their foreheads, he adds. If the aim is off, horses endure multiple shots.
Slaughter follows another practice animal protection groups deem inhumane: transport. According to USDA regulations, shippers must separate stallions and other aggressive horses from the rest of the shipment, give each horse an opportunity to eat and drink for at least six consecutive hours immediately prior to loading, and confine horses in a vehicle no longer than 24 hours without food and water.
These protections do not go far enough, says Keith Dane, director of equine protection at the Humane Society of the United States. He argues that a lack of regulatory oversight allows some unscrupulous shippers to “cram as many horses as possible” into trailers, “and when you cram 40 to 60 horses, all unknown to each other, together, they fight, kick and bite.” He adds that such abuses are more likely to rise during fuel price spikes. “With gas prices being higher now, shippers are looking to maximize their profits and minimize their costs,” Dane says.
Officials from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service cite findings from a comprehensive 1998 study by Temple Grandin, a noted animal behavior expert and professor at Colorado State University, to bolster their assertion that, while some injuries inevitably occur during transport, most are not serious. Overcrowding is not tolerated, federal regulators say. Shippers who seek to evade humane treatment regulations are prosecuted.
As to unwanted horses, advocacy groups say, availability of slaughter actually contributes to the unwanted horse population. Holly Hazard, the chief innovations officer for The Humane Society of the United States, made that case at a 2008 USDA-sponsored forum entitled “The Unwanted Horse Issue: What Now?”
“Horse slaughter is, in part, a cause of, not a solution to, the mismatch of horses to responsible homes. The availability of slaughter has led to a prevailing culture and attitude within the horse community that horses are disposable, and not worth any significant investment. They are, therefore, often condemned to a lack of care, responsibility or training that often ensures their deadly fate. As long as there is a ready killer buyer market for any horse who falls out of favor, the standards of care will be artificially low.”
Later in her address she added: “The reality is that the total number of horses going to slaughter each year represents only one percent of the total horse population in the United States. This percentage of horses could easily be reabsorbed by existing resources.” Three years later, Hazard says, “This continues to be [the Humane Society’s] position.”
Messer shares Hazard’s concern for horses but disputes her reasoning. For a start, he says, there’s no financial incentive to breed horses for slaughter in the United States That’s because the cost of raising a foal far exceeds the price paid for slaughter horses.
More to the point, he says: “You can’t expect every mating of a mare and stallion to be a success. There are always going to be horses that don’t meet owners’ expectations. We have to arrive at what an acceptable number of culls are because we can’t expect all animals to make the grade.”
Messer disagrees, too, with the contention that the market could “easily” absorb the one percent of horses currently going to slaughter. That small percentage actually represents an annual average of around 100,000 horses.
Take away slaughter, he says, and “we’re going to run out of the capacity to care for these animals in a humane way. There’s not going to be enough money. There’s not going to be enough people. And the loser in the end is the horse.”
Currently, horse owners who no longer want, or are no longer able to care for a horse face limited options. They can try to sell it or give the animal to a friend or family member. Failing this, they might try donating the horse to a therapeutic riding program, veterinary college or police department. A last resort is euthanasia.
According to an American Association of Equine Practitioners’ study, the average fee for euthanasia by a veterinarian is $66, not including fees for carcass disposal. Owners who live within traveling distance of a rendering plant can take a carcass there for an average cost of $75 to $250, and some landfills will accept a horse carcass. Incineration has an average cost of $2,000.
Unwanted horses can also go to rescue and retirement organizations, but there is a debate about whether these facilities could handle the influx that would follow a total ban on American horse slaughter.
In a December 2009 presentation to the Farm Animal Council of Saskatchewan, a Canadian agricultural organization, Tom Lenz, past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and a former chairman of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, cited figures from an American Horse Council study to estimate that had the horses sent to processing plants in 2008 been rescued, the cost would have been $343 million.
“This annual cost, however, understates the total cost required because unwanted horses that would have been processed in previous years will now remain in the horse population,” wrote Lenz, a 1975 graduate of MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Faced with such daunting figures, some observers — LaCarrubba among them — are fearful that, rather than being a step toward solving the unwanted horse problem, a total slaughter ban would make the problem much, much bigger.
Some say it’s already happening. There has been much talk about the “unintended consequences” of closing the U.S. slaughter plants, with many in the horse industry, including LaCarrubba and Messer, arguing that the move has led to a spike in horse abuse and neglect as owners have had more trouble getting rid of their unwanted horses. So far, however, USDA data show that slaughter exports to Canada and Mexico have increased roughly enough to balance the loss of the U.S. plants. This is a crucial piece of data, Heyde says.
“The kill buyers are still buying the same number of horses,” he says. “The only thing that’s changed is the location. So that whole argument [that the slaughter ban has increased equine abuse and neglect] is moot.”
For her part, LaCarrubba has no doubt that the incidence of abuse and neglect has increased over the last 10 years. She says the economy is much to blame.
“As far as the question of why there are more abused and neglected horses now, aside from the closure of slaughter plants, around the same time that [the plants closed], our economy tanked,” she says. She explains that between 1998 and 2005, the industries built around horse ownership were thriving, and the population of horses nearly doubled from 5.9 million to 9.2 million. The number of horses going to slaughter, meanwhile, had gradually declined from an annual average of more than 300,000 in the 1980s to a low of 42,303 in 2002.
Then came the Great Recession. Many horse owners found themselves with smaller incomes but the same, or higher, equine expenses. The result, LaCarrubba says, has been “a glut of horses” on the market. And, perversely, as prices have gone down, so have sales picked up among the worst of all possible buyers — those who underestimate the time and expense of horse care.
“I can’t tell you how many times I've been in a horse owner’s back yard [to care for a sick or injured horse] and the horse owner says: ‘I don’t have $100 to pay you. I don’t even have $20,’ ” LaCarrubba says. When she asks, “How did you buy a horse two days ago?” The answer is, “Well, it just cost 50 bucks!”
“So they have no concept of what it takes to care for a horse,” she says.
This is where pretty much everyone concerned about horse welfare is in agreement: There needs to be more education about the demands of horse ownership, and additional preemptive efforts to keep horses from becoming unwanted. The Unwanted Horse Coalition, which takes a neutral stance on slaughter, has launched an “Own Responsibly” campaign to educate existing and potential owners, breeders, sellers and horse organizations. In addition, the coalition initiated Operation Gelding, the program that LaCarrubba used to offer MU’s free castration clinic.
Modeled on The Gelding Project, a coalition effort that launched in 2009 in Minnesota, Operation Gelding provides funds, information and forums to assist groups that wish to sponsor low- to no-cost castration clinics. Nineteen Operation Gelding clinics were held across the country between October and December 2010, with a total of 206 horses castrated. With help from the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the Unwanted Horse Coalition awarded $50 per horse gelded.
The potential impact for each castration is major, LaCarrubba says. “The story we hear all the time is, ‘My neighbor’s stallion got out and bred my mares,’” she says. “That’s not an uncommon thing. Usually, that’s two or three [mares], but potentially any stallion can breed dozens of mares each year.”
Ericka Caslin, director of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, says the effort to stop indiscriminate breeding is an effort all sides can support. “If we had unlimited funds, who knows how many we could castrate?” she says.
An average cost for a horse castration in Columbia is between $100 and $150. For Mizzou’s clinic, LaCarrubba was also able to secure a donation of drugs from drug-giant Pfizer. She had hoped to get more financial support from the local horse industry, but her calls for donations brought in no funds. She did, however, hear from community equine veterinarians who would like to help with future clinics.
While the first clinic was strictly an MU effort, with all participating vets from the University, in the future, LaCarrubba hopes to hold the clinics in other cities and use local vets. “People who don’t have enough money to castrate their animal often don’t have access to a horse trailer,” she says, noting that it’s easier to borrow a trailer for shorter trips. “That’s why we need to move our show somewhere else each time: so we can get people from that particular area.”
The most obvious benefit of the clinics is preventing unwanted foals, but castration also produces a gentler horse that is easier to ride, more trainable and more marketable — in short, more wanted.
Funding for future clinics is still being sought; the Unwanted Horse Coalition has run out of its initial funds for the project but hopes to secure more. Meanwhile, LaCarrubba and Messer are hopeful that individuals and groups with an interest in the horse industry will recognize the opportunity to make a good investment.
“I think as more of these are done around the country, it’s going to develop a momentum," Messer says.