Rescue: The Plight of Unwanted Horses

Not only families suffer from the faltering economy

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Rosie, a Belgian, as she was when she arrived at the Ausable Equine Center in 2004. She shows signs of severe malnurishment, atrophy, and rain rot, a fungus that makes fur and skin fall off.

While the average family with household pets such as cats and dogs are not very expensive to care for, horse owners have been hit hard by the recession. The cost of keeping a horse, roughly $2,300 a year, has become more of a burden to owners due to the rising cost of hay, medical care, and other expenses. When this burden becomes more than a family can handle, they are faced with some very difficult choices.

“Sometimes people have to choose between feeding their family and feeding the horse”

It’s a calm, warm Saturday morning at the Ausable Campsite where about a dozen horses wait to take riders through a wooded trail. Travis DeValinger, manager of the Ausable Equine Center, explains that the recession has led to tough decisions for some families with horses. “Sometimes people have to choose between feeding their family and feeding the horse,” DeValinger says.

When a family cannot afford to have their horse, they have few options. They can sell their horse, give it up for adoption, euthanize, or attempt to get by without the best care. Reports of neglect surface all-too-often when an owner is incapable or unwilling to provide the care for their animals, resulting in severe hardship, pain, and sometimes death of the animal. Other owners who cannot care for their animals anymore, and cannot pay to give them a better life, will often resort to drastic measures.

"...left out in pasture to starve."

Some people, DeValinger explains, abandon horses in the woods to fend for themselves completely, or tie them to stranger's trailers at auctions. In more tragic cases, they sell them to Canadian or Mexican slaughter houses to be butchered for their meat, take them out back to be shot in the field, or leave them out in the pasture to starve.

Travis points to a beautiful black quarter horse named Johnny Cash. His black coat is scarred by his life before with barbed wire fences and the hot brand his original owners gave him. He had been left in the field to forage and was not given adequate medical care, resulting in his hooves being bent in causing him to take on an awkward gait. Later, he was put on the auction block to be sold for his meat. A gentle and friendly horse, he now munches on hay while children play with his mane.

"In 2000, horsemeat cost about $.45 to $.50 per pound, but according to the S.P.C.A., horsemeat now can sell for $20 to $40 a pound."

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Nelly, a Belgium, shows scars of her past life; a scar from where her previous owners kept a bridle on her too tight, for too long, had rubbed her face raw.

Recently, the horse slaughter industry in the US has shut down, cutting off the usual method of disposal of unwanted horses. Due to the abundance of unwanted horses, the average price for a horse has dropped significantly. The price of a horse depends on the horse’s breed and condition, but the majority of horses sell for about $1,000 to $3,000. However, prices of horses now have dropped obscenely, many times dipping under a hundred dollars. This makes an enticing bid for Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses, which can now buy good quality horsemeat for a fraction of it’s worth.

Another effect of the closing of the processing plants in the US is the rise in the price value of the meat itself. In 2000, horsemeat cost about $.45 to $.50 per pound, but according to the S.P.C.A., horsemeat now can sell from $20 to $40 a pound. Add in the factor that the death of a horse is a tax deduction even for slaughterhouses, and the ability for a slaughterhouse to make extensive profits is immeasurable.

Most horses that go on the auction block for slaughter have nothing wrong with them. Joe, a strong massive stud who stands taller than the rest, was put up for auction when his owners could no longer have him. He, unlike most horses at auctions, was going to sell for a high price because of his massively strong muscles in his legs and hindquarters. Luckily, he was saved from slaughter when DeValinger bought out the highest bidder.

Although selling a horse at auctions to slaughter facilities sounds grotesque, money issues force hundreds of owners to sell their horses this way. Adoption costs, for the person giving the horse up for adoption, can go as high as $1,200 with legal and veterinarian procedures. Euthanasia, which is rarely used on any horses without complications due to age or terminal illnesses, can cost up to $485 outside of carcass removal and disposal costs. Even to donate a horse to a center or facility would cost about $1,000 due to veterinarian exams, boarding, and transportation costs.

"Rehabilitation can take anywhere from a few months to two years or more, depending on the severity of damage done to the horse."

Many rehabilitation or rescue centers have been receiving more than usual numbers of horses, some operating at full capacity. Horses, mostly abused, sick, injured, or neglected, come to the center to heal and to be adopted by good owners. Rehabilitation can take anywhere from a few months to two years or more, depending on the severity of damage done to the horse.

A perfectly good horse can become very sick if neglected, and very disturbed if abused.

Natalia DeValinger, barn manager at Ausable Equine Center, recalls how some horses you find are just "dead in the eyes" from so much neglect and abuse. Although these horses can be practically lifeless and sick, or sporting destructive habits such as kicking or biting, almost all have hope of being rehabilitated. Although methods for rehabilitation vary between centers, Natalia and Travis practice a resistance-free training method that so far proven very effective. For many of the abused horses, a bit of time in the pasture to relax and reset themselves, paired with daily human grooming and interaction and proper medication, has let to amazing turn-arounds.

"For a colt of 3 months,” Natalia explains, “You shouldn’t have been able to pick her up.”

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Anne, as she appeared when she arrived at the Ausable Equine Center.

Although a horse is a strong animal, its health can easily change from the slightest ailment, so dealing with cases of sick animals can be just as tedious and tense. Rosie and Annie, two horses purchased from a man downstate, suffered from rain rot, a painful and gruesome fungus that attacks the horse under the skin.

“Her skin was falling off," Natalia explains. "Her coat and fur just came right off”. Both were also obviously malnourished, clearly evident by the atrophy of the hindquarters and the forms of bones sticking from every part of their bodies. Rosie was about 500 lb underweight, and Anne was significantly smaller than she should have been. “For a colt of 3 months,” Natalia explains, “You shouldn’t have been able to pick her up.” Inconsistent medical care had created holes in Rosie’s hooves, allowing for the infection to move under her skin, destroying lymph passages, cells, and enlarging the lymph nodes in the legs.

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Anne in 2009

The Center had to move slowly to get both females back to good health, slowly feeding the two a forage-based pellet and hay everyday in small portions for a few months until they could safely consume a regular weight-ratio amount of food. Today, Rosie is now a healthy 1800 lb, and on a yearly therapy of antibiotics. Anne, now four years old, is a far cry from the sick and scrawny 3 month old she was before.

Many of the horses taken in at the Center are used as riding horses, taking couples and families out for a walk in the woods. Today a family has arrived with two daughters, Kayla, 8, and Jodie, 7, now cooing over a white horse, dubbed Sinatra. Their grandmother, Susan Prescott, a long-time horse lover, smiles as she watches the girls, and recalls when she was young and went riding with her family. “It was difficult for Grandma and Grandpa to save that money for me,” she says. But every weekend, they made sure to take her out riding. “It’s a great family outing, good for birthdays,” she continues, “and this is our gift to our grandchildren for their birthdays”.

"...horses can finally make the transition from unwanted, to wanted."

The horses wait patiently as the group mounts and takes off down the path. Just by looking at them, no one would guess that Joe and Sinatra were destined for slaughter, or that Johnny Cash was neglected and malnourished. Meeting Rosie and Anne, one would be amazed by the abuse and exent of their resulting health problems, and even more amazed by the leaps and bounds regaining not only their health, but their trust in people as well. Due to Travis and Natalia's patience, understanding, and respect for the animals, horses are given new hope and a new life. Thanks to the Ausable Equine Center, and others like them, horses can finally make the transition from unwanted, to wanted.




Have you been aware of the problem of unwanted horses in America?