Nary an hour goes by that we average citizens aren’t faced with a reminder of today’s terrible economy. Gas and gold are about the same price, grocery bills are ghastly and every aspect of life is more expensive. Horses are feeling it, too, and often in the worst ways. Rescue outfits and animal welfare agencies say things are bad and likely to get worse.
Concrete statistics reflecting an increase in equine neglect and/or abandonment are not available, but such cases are clearly on the rise. The economy is an obvious culprit, as is the related rise in hay costs. And some point to the closure last year of America’s last three slaughter house plants (in Texas and Illinois) as partly responsible for more unwanted horses.
Gina Perrin at Heavenly Horse Haven can’t bear to open her e-mails. The rescue outfit in Riverside County’s Anza gets pleas to take in horses and other animals every day. Located in the rural desert area, Perrin first saw the mortgage crisis taking its toll in the form of abandoned horses and pets. “I started seeing the increase back when all the bad refinances began to happen,” she says. “I think a lot of people were caught in a fantasy, playing ranch owner. They waited until the last minute to realize what was going on.”
Two of Heavenly Horse Haven’s newest arrivals came from an abandoned ranch where the electricity had been off for two weeks. The horses had been without water or food for five days, Perrin says. “My vets tell me they have never seen so many starving horses.” She relays tales of horses that used to live on two flakes a day, now subsisting on a half-flake.
With 22 horses already at Perrin’s ranch, she can “only take in the most desperate cases, even though everybody wants to give them to me.” The fact that horse sale prices have gone the way of home prices is a big contributing factor, observes the trainer and Haven operator. “A year ago, you saw ads for registered Paint horses for sale for $6,000. Today, the same horse is for sale at $1,500.” She thinks many horseowners have been caught off guard. “People just bred and bred horses and now, with hay at $20 a bale, they find themselves with 20 horses they can’t afford to feed.”
The economy is a double whammy for rescues. They’re getting more calls for help and having a harder time raising funds to support those they step in to save. At one of California’s oldest rescues, Redwings Horse Sanctuary in Salinas County’s Lockwood, president Pat Bissett acknowledges that donations are down. She is grateful, however, for the Sanctuary’s well-established base of generous supporters, including the individual who leases them their land. She worries about rescue facilities that have opened in the last five years, fearing that their base of donors may not be deep enough to get them through the hard times ahead.
With approximately 85 horses, Redwings is functioning at its maximum capacity, but Bissett predicts it will be forced to take in more otherwise hopeless horses in the near future. “We just ordered hay for the year and we got a really great price: $40,000 including the delivery.” Right now, she adds, many pastured horses still have grass to graze on. “What’s going to happen when that dries out?” she asks. “I am more concerned with horses that are going to be abandoned. That’s when we normally end up taking horses in. When Animal Control or the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) steps in, we’ll be taking some of those. I cannot put a number on how many we can take in, but we will make room.”
Animal welfare agencies distinguish between abandonment and neglect. Abandoned horses are typically turned loose, or left on property that has been vacated. Occasionally, there are happy endings in which a stray horse gets loose from its owner and can be returned to a good home. In neglect cases, the horse is still with its owner, but not getting the care it needs. Sometimes these cases are easily solved by educating a new owner about proper care.
Lieutenant Tammie Belmonte of Riverside County Animal Services advises concerned people to call investigators at the first signs of neglect. Officials typically want to get the reporting party’s contact information, in case more details are needed, but the source of the report is kept confidential. Ironically, her department often receives calls about horses at rescue outfits because the callers don’t realize that the horses arrived there in terrible shape.
Captain D.J. Gove of the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA estimates that equine neglect cases have increased by 50 percent in the last year. Interviews with these horses’ owners indicate that it’s the unpredictable expenses of horse keeping that are taking owners over the edge, rather than the day-to-day costs.
In the western side of Riverside County, there have been 14 cases of stray horses in the first half of 2008, compared to half that last year. (Two horses were reunited with their owners.) “We can’t say whether this is a direct reflection of the economy,” says Belmonte. “The next six months will tell us a lot.”
Like most governmental animal services divisions, the Riverside agency cannot accommodate owners who want to relinquish livestock, including horses. Many departments accept small pets, but the cost and space required to keep horses makes that impossible for most agencies.
Riverside Animal Control officers are capable of euthanizing horses if need be and owners can request that service. Every effort is made to avoid that outcome, Belmonte emphasizes. “If it is a reasonably healthy animal, we are going to try to give it every option that we can.” Calling a rescue operation is typically the first step, but with most already strained to capacity, not every horse can be saved.
Perrin at Heavenly Horse Haven frequently finds herself playing God. “Often I’m in a situation where the horse will be put down if I don’t take it,” she says. She will usually consult with a few sympathetic veterinarians for evaluations of each horse’s potential for a decent quality of life before making a decision. “Most people don’t want to know how many animals are put down.”
Even when euthanization is the most humane choice, not everyone can afford it, notes Belmonte. “People have a hard time, emotionally, putting their horse down. When you add $200 to $250 to euthanize it and another $200 in disposal costs, not everybody can do that.”
Perrin hates the thought of any horse meeting its end in a slaughterhouse, but she thinks it might be a kinder fate than that met by some of the cases she’s witnessed and heard about lately. Belmonte also believes that the closure of American slaughterhouses plays its part in the form of fewer options for those looking to get rid of horses they don’t want or can no longer afford. “The auctions aren’t taking them because they can’t get rid of them,” she says. Even though state law prohibits the commercial transport of horses for such purposes, horsemeat packing plants in Mexico and Canada remain potential destinations for some California horses. The added layer of difficulty in getting horses there, however, appears to have reduced this possibility.
Rescue operators and agency representatives are hard pressed to see a silver lining in today’s situation, but there may be lessons to be learned. “Some of my horses are poster children for people to realize this is what can happen when your daughter wants a horse but then turns 15 and doesn’t want it anymore,” Perrin says. “Maybe it will get the word out that horses can live 30 years. You can’t just get a horse and think you’ll sell it when you want to. Even a slight injury or lameness can prevent that. The horse is your responsibility.”
Legitimate rescues are very careful about vetting out prospective adopters or foster owners for their horses. Some simply don’t adopt out their horses for fear they will return to the pipeline of unwanted equines. Heavenly Horse Haven does re-train suitable horses for adoption to the right homes. Perrin hopes that increased awareness and interest in adopting a rescue horse may be an upside to the current situation.
Donating money, time, feed or equipment to a reputable rescue facility or sanctuary is a great way for concerned individuals to help horses hard hit by the bad economy. And long term planning should be part of responsible horsemanship, Perrin asserts. “People should starting thinking right now what they would do with their horse if they become unable to care for it later on.”