The Unwanted Horse: An Overview of the Issue

CHAPTER 12 The Unwanted Horse: An Overview of the Issue

The issue of the large number of unwanted horses in the United States first came to light after the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in Europe. The European consumer’s concern with eating beef resulted in an increase in horsemeat consumption. This change drew media attention to the fact that horses were being processed for meat in the United States and exported to Europe for human consumption. Media coverage of the issue drew not only the attention of the horse-owning public but also equine breed associations, animal rights or welfare organizations, veterinary associations, and members of the public who did not own horses. Because of focused lobbying efforts, federal legislation was introduced in Congress to prohibit shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donating horses and other equids to be slaughtered for human consumption and other purposes. Reports by the media and the proposed legislation fostered for the first time the realization that an unwanted horse problem existed in the United States and had to be addressed.


Horses processed for meat represent the lowest economic level of the horse population, are a subset of the horse population no longer wanted by their current owners, and typify the unwanted horse in the United States. The term unwanted horse was first coined by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) and is defined as “horses that are no longer wanted by their current owner because they are old, injured, sick, unmanageable, or fail to meet their owner’s expectations.” Generally, these are horses without life-threatening disabilities that have behavior problems, are dangerous, or are old. They also include unadoptable feral horses and horses that fail to meet their owner’s expectations because they are unattractive, unathletic, unmanageable, or the wrong color. Normal healthy horses of many ages and breeds may also become unwanted. In many instances, these horses have had multiple owners; have been shipped from one sale barn, stable, or farm to another; and have ultimately been rejected as eligible for any sort of responsible, long-term care. Information pertaining to the breeds and sex of unwanted horses, how many are purebred versus grade horses, their most recent use, their value, and fate once they become unwanted is unknown at present.

The number of unwanted horses in the United States varies from year to year, but on average, 1% to 2% of the domestic equine population has been sent to processing plants each year over the past 10 years. In 2005 approximately 65,000 horses were processed for meat in the United States, around 30,000 were exported to Canada for processing, approximately 4000 were exported to Mexico for processing, about 12,000 unadoptable feral horses were kept in Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-funded sanctuaries, close to 6000 feral horses were in the BLM adoption pipeline, and an undisclosed number were abandoned, neglected, or abused, which totals approximately 120,000 horses. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) export records on U.S. horses shipped to Canadian processing plants in 2003 indicate that 42.8% were geldings, 52.1% were mares, 3.41% were stallions, and sex was not recorded for 1.7%. In addition, 59.3% were western-type horses, 11.3% were English- or Thoroughbred-type horses, 3.6% were draft-type horses, and the rest included various breeds or types of horses or mules. In general, the types of horses and their sexes reflect the demographics of the U.S. horse population with no specific type standing out as the quintessential unwanted horse.

In 2005, approximately 96,000 horses were processed in the United States or exported for processing. That number is down dramatically from the 339,000 horses processed in 1989. As indicated in Figure 12-1, which compares the number of horses registered annually by breed association to the number processed at federally inspected facilities, more horses were processed during the mid-to-late 1980s than in the 1990s, when the number of horse registrations decreased dramatically. Unfortunately, USDA data on the number of horses processed at federally inspected plants prior to 1983 are not available.

Why was there an 80% reduction? Was it simply a surplus reduction, or did the IRS tax code changes implemented in the mid-1980s result in owners selling horses they were no longer able to depreciate? Was there a change in market demand, or were these horses absorbed by rescue or retirement facilities? It appears that the reduction in the number of unwanted horses being processed followed the reduction in number of horses bred and registered in the mid-1980s. Because the United States is a very small supplier of the world horsemeat market, the number of horses processed in the United States is not driven by demand, but rather by the availability of inexpensive horses. The U.S. share of the world equine meat export market is less than 0.5%. In 2005, 4.7 million horses were processed for meat worldwide: China led the world with 1.7 million horses processed, followed by Mexico with 626,000.

According to the 1998 USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System survey, about 80,500 horses (1.3%) in the United States aged 6 months to 20 years died or were euthanized that year. In addition, approximately 55,000 horses (1.1%) over the age of 20 died or were euthanized. Adding these figures to the percentage of the population that was processed for meat, the overall mortality rate for horses in the United States in 1998 was approximately 3% to 4% of the horse population. These percentages have varied little during the last decade. An important question faces the horse industry: if legislation makes it impossible to dispose of unwanted horses by euthanasia at a processing plant, will adequate care and accommodations be provided for these animals, or will the industry need to absorb the cost of their euthanasia and carcass disposal?

May 28, 2016 | Posted by in EQUINE MEDICINE | Comments Off on The Unwanted Horse: An Overview of the Issue
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