Drought is a hard time for horses

Times Staff Writer

Joe Penn, a Kentucky horse and mule auctioneer, is not a sentimental man -- not once he enters the stockyard. He knows that the value of many horses is measured in pounds of flesh.

But this winter, the horses are thinner than usual, and Penn finds himself wondering what becomes of the creatures with bare ribs and flat rumps, the ones that now sell for as little as $10.

“I wonder,” Penn said. “And then I tell myself I probably don’t want to know.”

In many parts of the United States, horse owners are struggling to feed their animals after a severe drought doubled -- even tripled -- the cost of hay. The drought has exacerbated a glut in the low end of the horse market, brought on by years of over-breeding and the recent economic downturn.


Horses that once cost $500 are selling for $50. On Equine .com, a website for horse classified ads, hundreds of horses -- some malnourished, but many well-fed -- are offered for free.

Local officials are seizing large numbers of horses, and rescue organizations are taking in more than ever, according to Keith Dane, director of Equine Protection for the Humane Society of the United States.

Last year the U.S. Equine Rescue League, which operates in Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina, took in 186 neglected or abused horses -- nearly double the usual number.

With many rescue centers full, fewer options are available for unwanted horses. Some are sold at stockyards -- to good Samaritans, or “killer buyers” who truck them to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada. Others are euthanized, or left to perish in barren fields.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Kathy Grant, who runs a rescue center in drought-stricken eastern Tennessee and takes as many as five calls a day from desperate horse owners. “The back roads are where you find them -- all skin and bone, just hanging their heads in the pastures, dying.”

Local officials have seized malnourished animals in states such as Florida and Washington. In a particularly extreme case in Randolph County, N.C., officials found eight dead horses scattered across a field and 11 horses that they say were malnourished and crammed into a small pen with no water and little hay.


The overpopulation of horses stems from the large number of people who have become horse owners in recent years. The industry flourished as baby boomers enjoyed disposable incomes, and breeders took advantage of scientific innovations such as frozen semen and embryo transfers. The Washington-based American Horse Council, a national association representing the horse industry, estimates that Americans own more than 9 million horses in 2005 -- up from about 6 million horses in the mid-1990s.

“Nothing is planned. People are just putting mares and stallions out together and letting them do their thing,” said Jennifer Malpass, chairwoman of the U.S. Equine Rescue League, who believes irresponsible breeding programs have led to more unwanted horses.

Owning a horse has become a more expensive proposition as the economy falters and large stretches of the nation have experienced moderate to exceptional drought. In the Southeast, which was particularly hard hit, below-freezing temperatures in April damaged the hay crop’s first cutting. Scorching summer heat killed off grass that the animals would normally graze on until November. Some farms began using hay as early as June.

Though some horse owners stocked up on hay for the winter early on, others did not have the money or the space to store hundreds of bales. About 34% of horse owners have a household income of less than $50,000, according to the American Horse Council.

The basic cost of feeding a horse is about $2,300 a year. In North Carolina, the hay shortage is so severe that the state’s agricultural department is trucking in bales from Canada.

Some argue that the problem was fueled by the closure of the nation’s slaughterhouses. Horse slaughter for human consumption effectively ended last year, after courts upheld state laws banning horse slaughter in the last that allowed it: Texas and Illinois.


“People were naive enough to think if we closed down the slaughterhouses, the problem of unwanted horses would go away,” said Nat Messer, associate professor of equine medicine and surgery at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who opposes bans on horse slaughter. “The unwanted horses are still out there.”

About 100,000 horses were slaughtered in the United States in 2006, according to the Department of Agriculture. Since the plants closed, Messer said, many horses face long, grueling journeys to plants in Mexico and Canada, where some experts say the animals experience considerably less humane treatment. Although higher fuel costs mean it is not profitable to transport many of the undernourished horses, exports have tripled to Mexico, where knives are repeatedly jabbed into the horses’ spinal cords.

The Humane Society is lobbying Congress to pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which would outlaw the transport, purchase, sale or donation of any horse to be slaughtered for human consumption.

Such a prospect worries Cynthia Bellis-Jones, a teacher who trains horses at her Paris, Ky., farm. She says she already sees more undernourished horses at her local stockyards: “I’m really on the fence on this. I don’t like the idea of slaughter, but starvation sits even worse with me.”

Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society, said there was no evidence that extending the ban on horse slaughter to anyone who exports horses for that purpose would lead to an increase in the population of unwanted horses.

“There are not going to be 100,000 unwanted horses just because the slaughterhouses are closing. That’s just completely fanciful,” he said. He noted that horse slaughter declined steadily in recent decades -- from 342,000 in 1989 to 42,000 in 2002 -- without any marked increase in neglect or abuse cases.


Although horse slaughter began to climb after 2002 -- and doubled in four years -- Pacelle said there were still many options for horse owners. “You can euthanize, you can hold on them longer, you can give them to a rescue group or sanctuary,” he said.

Those who decide they can no longer feed their horses face tough decisions. Though most experts agree that paying a veterinarian to euthanize a horse is more humane than slaughter, it’s also more expensive. Some horse owners cannot afford $200 or $300 to put down a horse and dispose of the carcass.

Many hope that breeders will scale back now that the economy is faltering and the slaughterhouses have closed. In the meantime, organizations such as the Kentucky Horse Council have begun training county officials to identify horses with protruding ribs and hip bones, flattened rumps and dull coats.

Some animal lovers are already taking pity on unwanted horses.

Upon moving to Kentucky last year, Christopher Takacs, 50, a guitar sales distributor from California, was so moved by the plight of an abandoned racehorse that he built a barn. In the last six months, Takacs, who had not owned a horse before, has taken in eight and set up an equine rescue center that he hopes will eventually house 40.

Until then, he says he has no choice but to turn down requests. As many as 16 horses in a neighboring county might have to be put down, he said, because they have no pasture or hay.

“I just couldn’t take them,” he said. “I can’t afford to feed all the horses of Kentucky. I wish I could.”