COLUMBIA - Rosy Erganian, a therapeutic riding instructor and horse owner from Rocheport, has a barn full of horses that are unwanted by their previous owners.
A couple of these horses were likely headed to slaughter had Erganian not bought them at an auction frequented by slaughter buyers. And yet, she said she thinks that a horse going to slaughter has a better fate than the unknown future many now face.
Tom Lenz will speak about unwanted horses at 6 p.m. Monday at the Animal Science Research Center on the MU campus. The talk will take place in room S147 of the center, located on East Campus Drive.
Options if you can no longer take care of your horse
• Sell your horse
- - Second career would be selling your horse to someone who would use the horse for showing or recreation.
- Pasture mate
• Lease your horse
- Partial or full lease
• Donate your horse to a worthy organization
- Therapeutic riding program
- Police department
- Equine department of a college or university
- Horse Rescue Group
- Horse retirement facility
- Veterinary clinic
• Have your horse euthanized by a licensed veterinarian
Information from the Unwanted Horse Coalition Web site. For more information go to: unwantedhorsecoalition.org
Horse Facts Nationally
• There are 9.2 million horses in the U.S.
• 4.6 million Americans are involved in the industry as horse owners, service providers, employees or volunteers.
• 2 million people own horses
• The horse industry has a direct economic effect on the U.S. of $39 billion annually.
Horse Facts in Missouri:
• The Missouri horse industry produces goods and services valued at $718 million
• 125,100 Missourians are involved in the industry as horse owners, service providers, employees or volunteers.
• There are 281,000 horses in Missouri.
Information from the American Horse Council Web site.
"It's a lot less humane to let a horse starve all winter than to take them to slaughter," Erganian said. "Slaughter is a necessary component of our industry, and we should establish rules to let horses going to slaughter be handled in a humane way."
This year is even scarier, she said, because the prices of hay and grain are so high. A lot of horses will be in trouble this winter because of the feed costs, the poor economy and limited places to take a horse an owner can no longer feed.
The troubling question of what to do with an unwanted horse has been exacerbated, some say, by a bill proposed in Congress that would have ended horse slaughter for human consumption. The bill didn't pass, but it prompted the only two states with slaughter plants, Illinois and Texas, to ban horse slaughter. Missouri has not banned horse slaughter in the state, but no facilities currently exist. The effect of those bans has rippled through the horse industry.
Neglected and abused
Informal research has shown that horse rescue facilities are full from the overwhelming number of unwanted horses, said Tom Lenz, a veterinarian and chairman for the Unwanted Horse Coalition. The Unwanted Horse Coalition is an organization of breed registries, rescue facilities and equine disciplines that are dedicated to decreasing the number of unwanted horses. Lenz said he thinks horses may be neglected and abused more often as a result of the limited number of options for horse owners that need a place to take their horse. He points out that there has been a drastic increase in the number of horses being hauled to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.
This trend is likely to accelerate because the prices of feed and fuel are up and are expected to continue to climb through the winter. Nearly all aspects of the equine industry are suffering financially, Lenz said.
"There is definitely a higher volume of unwanted horses and no place for them to go," said Sharon Marohl, president of the Missouri Equine Council. "The Unwanted Horse Coalition was created under the American Horse Council to help deal with this problem nationwide."
No bottom point
The unwanted horse problem has come about largely because there is no longer a base price for a horse, Marohl said. The base price is the amount for which a horse could be bought for slaughter, the price per pound. It used to be if the horse was worth 50 cents a pound, that was its base price, and if you didn't want your horse to go to slaughter, you would price your horse above that price, she said. That base price no longer exists with the shutdown of the plants in Illinois and Texas.
"We are now seeing more ads for free horses," Marohl said. "People have given up trying to sell them and are now trying to give them away. I'm afraid we've only seen the tip of the iceberg right now. It takes a 1,200-pound horse a long time to starve to death. So, you can say what you want about slaughter, but it's certainly quicker than starving to death."
The Missouri Equine Council has maintained a policy on equine welfare, Marohl said.
"We're in favor of humane, regulated slaughter," Marohl said.
The Humane Society of the United States has been promoting antislaughter legislation.
"We work so hard on this issue because it's very inhumane and traumatic for the horses," said Stacy Segal, equine protection specialist for the society. "There is no way to humanely slaughter a horse."
The method is the same as for cattle, called captive bolt, which instantly renders the horses brain-dead by a penetrating rod, Lenz said. The three methods that are deemed acceptable by the American Veterinary Medical Association's expert panel on euthanasia are captive bolt, gunshot and overdose of injectable barbiturates.
But many veterinarians say the process was humane from the beginning. Horse slaughter plants were required to adhere to the American Veterinary Medial Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners approved method. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had also approved this method, Lenz said.
"Regardless of what the animal rights people say, the horses in the U.S. were slaughtered in a humane way," said Nat Messer, professor of veterinary medicine and surgery at MU. "Now, we've made it so the unwanted horses have to be exported for slaughter, which is much more inhumane than anything that happened in the U.S."
If the unwanted horses aren't exported for slaughter, they are sent to a rescue facility. Many of these rescue facilities are full to capacity.
"We are overwhelmed with phone calls for people that can't take care of their horses anymore, so we've started an adoption program," said Rhonda Stephens, founder and director of the Shannon Foundation in St. Clair.
Joining the rescue
In the last couple of months, Sandy Whitaker from Willow Springs has received several calls from people out of state with up to 30 horses that needed homes. Whitaker is new to rescuing horses. After looking at a couple of Web sites, she was shocked to see how many people wanted to get rid of their horses. She filled out an application and was approved to take some horses, but she said she can't afford to take more than the seven she planned to take.
Part of the problem is that it costs at least $1,825 to keep a horse per year, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners. That's not including hoof care, veterinary and health care bills. The total cost of keeping a horse easily mount to $5,000 yearly.
A major consideration in the expense of keeping a horse is the cost of hay, grain and fuel, which makes the situation worse.
"The plants being closed and the price of hay, grain and diesel fuels have created a perfect storm for the horse industry, resulting in the decrease of the horses' value and an excess of unwanted horses," Lenz said. The price of feed, hay and diesel fuel is as important as the shattered pricing structure for horses, said Lenz, who is an MU graduate and a horse owner.
But the expense of owning a horse, as variable as it may be, is a challenge any horse owner should be prepared to handle, Segal said. Right now, the economy is affecting horse owners. The Humane Society encourages horse owners to think ahead about their horses, she said.
Choices have to be made
Kent Haden, vice president of livestock operations for MFA Incorporated and a horse owner, said he became a veterinarian because he loves horses. He's had to put a lot of excellent horses down, and he doesn't like slaughter, he said. But, there are mean horses, neglected horses and crippled horses. With the prices of gas and feed up, choices have to be made. Slaughter isn't the ideal choice, but it has to be weighed against other alternatives, Haden said.
Segal said there are good and bad choices. Euthanasia by a licensed veterinarian is the Humane Society-approved method for horses that have no place to go and all other options have been exhausted.
But, having a veterinarian euthanize a horse can be costly. The lowest rate for euthanasia is $66, and that's not including the cost of the house call by the veterinarian or the cost of disposal, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
A 2007 estimate by the association showed that there are about 170,000 documented unwanted horses in the U.S. each year, including horses slaughtered in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, unadoptable wild horses and others.
"If all unwanted horses are euthanized, where do we put 100,000 bodies?" Messer said. "It's not environmentally friendly."
After a horse is euthanized, disposal options are limited. A horse can be buried, rendered or incinerated. Depending on how far away dirt work or land-clearing companies are, burial prices can reach $100 to $200, and horse owners within city limits often have limitations, according to Habitat for Horses. The price range for rendering, which is the processing of horse meat to be used as feed for other animals in zoos, for instance, is between $75 and $250. The price range for incineration is $2,000, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
A solution needs to be found to the growing problem, and almost everyone has an opinion.
"Part of the problem is the public's perception of horses and how they are managed," Lenz said. "Because the average American is around three generations removed from the farm, they don't understand equine care."