There are currently 9.2 million horses in the US, and 2 million people own horses, according to the American Horse Council, with a $102 billion impact on the country's economy. In the best of times, a horse can expect several owners during its average 30 year lifespan as the majority are sold within five years of purchase. Just as with all other livestock, the bottom dollar price of a horse was regulated by the current price per pound. In late 2007, legislation was passed that banned the use of horse meat sold for human consumption and closed the three horse slaughter plants in the US, effectively eliminating the horse's monetary value.
Perhaps it is because of the long lifespan that few consider the dilemma of disposal of a 1200 pound horse. Even fewer comprehend the dilemma of what do to with rank, mean, dangerous horses as well as those that are unusable due to chronic lameness or illness. Despite popular belief based on the propaganda spun by anti-slaughter activists, horses sold to "kill buyers" were no longer marketable. As a checks and balances system, this kept the horse market stable and growing with safe, healthy, valuable animals on the market.
The horse slaughter industry continues to exist - outside of the humane regulations that were in place in the US slaughter plants. Now, lame, ill, old and dangerous horses endure cruel and inhumane transport and slaughter in Mexico, where the method of killing is repeatedly stabbing the horse in the back until its spinal cord is severed. No matter what legislation is passed now, there is no way to control what happens to horses in another country.
The result is even less palatable. Horses are left to starve in pastures or turned loose and abandoned. The recent economic downturn has compounded the existing problem as well. Home foreclosures, rising costs of fuel, feed and hay along with costly veterinary care have priced the horse right out of affordability. Millions of horses are for sale, but no one is buying. Instead of a humane end, horses now suffer a long, slow death of starvation.
A recent Time article highlights the conditions of unwanted horses and the impact of the slaughter ban; and how people within the horse industry perceive the current state of affairs: "People who protest slaughter ought to have a bunch of these old horses starving to death in their back yards."
It is ironic that both the Humane Society and PETA were at the forefront of the anti-slaughter movement. As overseers of the pet populations, their main course of choice for population control is euthanasia. Dogs and cats that fall into their hands are euthanized whether they are healthy or ill, even those animals that they purportedly rescue from inhumane circumstances. And, neither agencies have elected to participate in the current horse crisis they helped create, either with intervention or alternatives. What wasn't an over population problem now is a major problem.
Some feel that, in order to shore up the bottom in the horse market, low quality, unregistered horses need to be eliminated to restore the value of well bred, well trained horses. While professional breeders have already cut back on breeding, reducing the future availability of quality horses, "backyard breeders" have continued to breed sub standard animals. One solution would be to regulate horse breeding and limit allowance to those that own quality, registered horses. An inexpensive, cost effective gelding of sub standard colts within its first year of life would reduce a good number of the unwanted horse population.
It is imperative that horse education programs expand. Since the initial cost of a horse has dropped so low, many are buying horses with no idea how to handle, care for and feed them. With the high cost of hay and feed, new owners quickly realize that the initial cost of a horse is minor compared to maintenance costs. On top of this, many new owners find that horses are not like a car that sits out in a driveway waiting to come to life when the key is turned, and become discouraged if not injured. In the end, less than 20% of new horse owners still own a horse five years later.
With the current economy coupled with the elimination of horse slaughter, it is crucial that everyone involved take responsibility for horses, whether it be not breeding, advocating for solutions or educating new horse owners. If the goal was to protect a national symbol, what does this say to the rest of the world about how we take care of the things we have vowed are important to us?
Note: The colt in the photo died three weeks later of starvation. He is one of 25 horses that I witnessed starving to death. I can attest to the extreme suffering.