Unwanted horse issue needs attention now, says expert

February 24, 2009

Dr John Madigan, right, leads discussion on unwanted horses at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Authorities can no longer economically or morally ignore the problem of unwanted horses, says a professor in the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis.

John Madigan was addressing a meeting of experts from throughout California in animal control, veterinary practice and the humane community to discuss issues surrounding unwanted horses.

The meeting was called by the International Animal Welfare Training Institute, a new organisation within the School of Veterinary Medicine which aims to create science-based solutions to animal welfare issues.

"One thing is clear to me," Madigan told the meeting. "Any legislation that banned end of life for horses in a slaughter facility where over 100,000 horses have been sent annually should have provided an alternative mechanism to deal with the continued life of those animals in a humane manner."

The current economic downturn had only exacerbated a problem that has been building over several years, he said.

"The need for a solution is vital. We simply cannot afford economically or morally to ignore this problem any longer. Research is needed now to find reasonable solutions and implement new guidelines for the management of unwanted horses, but funding is lacking even for those basic studies."

Nearly all attendees at the meeting indicated that unwanted horses - those that can no longer be cared for with adequate feed, housing and basic health care - are flooding horse rescue facilities, sanctuaries and animal control facilities.

"It's a crisis," said Madigan, director of the institute. "Previously, unwanted horses were taken to an auction, purchased for meat export and sent to a horse slaughter facility.

"Legislation, passed by those who felt concern about the transport conditions for the horses and disliked the concept of the end of life for a horse at a slaughter plant for export for human consumption, has now put the unwanted horse on the doorstep of each county in the state of California," he said.

Madigan said statistics indicated as many as 80,000 to 100,000 horses are reported each year as unwanted, among the estimated nine million horses in the United States.

Jeff Smith, a Lake County veterinarian and past president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, said: "It's not just horses. We have unwanted dogs and cats at shelters every day in every county of the state.

"Many of those animals have been humanely put down as part of the solution, even with extensive efforts geared at adoption, spay and neuter and responsible owner education efforts."

The meeting covered a range of topics, from how to keep repeat offenders from owning more animals to public education.

The need for gathering more data was discussed, as well as areas in need of research, which included problems around carcass disposal.

"A thousand-pound horse that is euthanised presents a significant issue with regard to handling the remains of that animal given current regulations which prevent burial on a person's property, even a large ranch," Madigan said of the situation in California.

Funding is lacking even for those basic studies that would contribute strong data to enable lawmakers to set new guidelines on carcass disposal.

After the meeting, Gregory Ferraro, director of the Centre for Equine Health, said that responsible breeding and finding new jobs for working horses were important community strategies to prevent unwanted horses.

"If solutions are not found to both stem the flow of excessive equine births and more effectively absorb current horse populations into recreational and sporting use, the horse will face the very same fate as the thousands of abandoned dogs and cats already overcrowding America's animal shelters.

"The need for a solution is vital. We simply cannot afford economically or morally to ignore this problem any longer."

Tracey Stevens-Martin, the institute's deputy director, said: "Three top objectives that came from the group were the need for appropriate legislation, education and funding for humane options."