Current Progressive Cattle digital edition

Wild horse controversy gallops onward

Robyn Scherer Published on 01 June 2011

0611pc_scherer_1Five years after the passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which banned the processing of horses in the U.S., the debate over domestic horse slaughter remains a subject of controversy.

This past February, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) submitted a proposed strategy for the future management of America’s wild horses and burros, based on comments received from the public in 2010.

The strategy includes seven objectives, which include sustainable herds, ecotourism, pastures and partnership sanctuaries, placing excess animals in private care, animal welfare, science and research and public outreach.

“As the BLM moves forward with implementing the new strategy, we hope the public will be supportive of our efforts to manage wild horses humanely, in a thriving ecological balance with the land and its many other uses and in consideration of taxpayer resources,” said Heather Jasinski, public affairs specialist for the BLM.

Currently, the BLM manages roughly 38,400 wild horses and burros (about 33,700 horses and 4,700 burros) in 10 Western states.

According to the BLM website, “The estimated current free-roaming population exceeds by nearly 12,000 the number the BLM has determined can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses. The appropriate management level is approximately 26,600.”

Many animals are adopted or sold to reduce the herd size, with roughly 10,000 being removed per year. In 2010, 3,074 were placed in private care through adoption.

The rest are moved to short-term corrals and long-term pastures. “Off the range, 41,500 other wild horses and burros are fed and cared for at short-term corrals and long-term pastures as of February 2011,” according to the BLM.

Some of the animals that are adopted out end up in rescue organizations, which are struggling to make ends meet. The number of seized animals has dramatically risen, and there is not enough money to care for these horses.

This issue spans across the equine industry, not just wild horses. In many rescue operations, the majority of animals are riding horses that people can no longer afford to keep. The problem is further compounded by the ban on horse processing.

Most Americans consider horses to be pets like dogs, not livestock. However, horses are very expensive to keep.

A new study by the South Dakota State University Extension Service showed the yearly ownership expenses for a 1,000-pound pleasure horse at $2,581 a year, when including fixed expenses.

More than one-third of horse owners make under $50,000 a year, according to a study conducted by the American Horse Council.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, “90,000 to 100,000 unwanted horses have been sent to slaughter annually.”

Since the shutdown of processing facilities in the U.S., these animals are now sent to Mexico and Canada.

In 2005, roughly 4.7 million horses were processed in the world, with roughly 626,000 animals being from Mexico, the second highest in the world behind China with 1.7 million, according to a study published by the Animal Welfare Council, Inc. in 2006.

In actuality, less than 1 percent of the horses processed are wild horses, with the majority (74 percent) being riding horses, many of which are considered “unwanted,” meaning their current owners no longer want to keep them, according to a study published by Temple Grandin in 2006.

Ericka Caslin, the Director for the Unwanted Horse Coalition, said “Our survey in 2009 revealed most people believe the high number of unwanted horses, roughly 170,000 per year, is due to several factors: the downturn of the economy, the closing of the nation’s processing plants, indiscriminate breeding and the high cost of euthanasia.”

Due to these factors, rescue organizations are now being overstocked, and the people who run these organizations can no longer afford to feed all of the animals.

The survey also stated, “Six out of 10 rescue facilities (63 percent) report they are at near or full capacity and, on average, turn away 38 percent of the horses brought to them.

Capacity is clearly the issue, in that almost as many horses stay for life as are adopted out.”

The cost to keep a horse has dramatically risen due to high fuel and hay prices, and donations to rescue organizations are down because of the recession.

The increased numbers in rescue operations have also affected the BLM adoption program.

“The slaughter ban has created a larger number of unwanted horses with no outlet, which in turn has affected the BLM’s ability to adopt out the wild horses we have,” said Jasinski.

From the 2005 estimate to the 2010 estimate, 2,627 fewer wild horses and burros were adopted in 2010 than in 2005.

One organization seeking a repeal of the ban is the United Organization of the Horse.

“We have formed a very broad-based coalition of groups and individuals who are working hard to restore the horse industry, including working with Congress to correct the worst invasions of private property rights and the ability of the equine market to function properly,” said Vice President Sue Wallis.

“Reopening the plants would give us a viable market and a responsible, humane way to deal with horses that are: past their useful life, unsound and never going to recover, dangerous and untrainable or the owner is simply unable to keep for whatever personal or financial reasons,” said Wallis.

Other groups are also working on the issue, such as the Unwanted Horse Coalition, which works with advocates and those opposed to reopening the plants, in the hope of bringing these two sides together.

“The Unwanted Horse Coalition has a neutral position on the issue of horse processing. Instead, we want to educate about the problem and the possible solutions.

We try to get all to work together for the common goal,” said Director Ericka Caslin.

The survey conducted by the UHC revealed most people believed in four solutions to the unwanted horse problem:
• Educate owners to purchase and own responsibly.
• Increase ability of private rescue/retirement facilities to care for unwanted horses.
• Reopen U.S. processing plants.
• Increase options and resources to euthanize unwanted horses.

Even though this is a very challenging issue, many people believe it will get better. “We want to work with everyone to get this problem back under control, and create a better life for these horses,” Caslin said.  end_mark

The Bureau of Land Management spent $36.9 million in 2010 feeding and caring for wild horses, like these rounded up in southern Utah. Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management.