When horse slaughterhouses closed in the U.S. two years ago, it caused a glut of unwanted horses in the marketplace. High feed prices and expenses have forced some horse owners to abandon their animals, not unlike the cats and dogs that fill animal shelters. However, there are few horse adoption shelters, so these animals are either being neglected and starved or left in other people’s pastures and on public land. Some horse lovers on the Western Slope see only one solution: reopen the slaughterhouses.
It is very expensive to own a horse. A stall in the Roaring Fork Valley can cost over $700 a month; pasture around Meeker runs about $100 a month. At $6.50 for a bale of hay, it can cost over $400 to feed one horse over the winter. Add vet bills, training, tack and a horse trailer, and horse ownership can run into the thousands of dollars per year. When an old horse needs to put down, the cost of the vet and disposing of the body is pricey as well — up to $1,000.
Some families and ranchers are finding they cannot afford to keep their horses, nor is there any market to sell their unwanted, old or sick horses. So, for some, the only way to dispose of the animals is to let them loose.
Ed Coryell, the brand inspector in the Meeker area, said dumping unwanted horses on public land is the cruelest thing an owner can do, but he understands why. “People can’t afford to feed them and they can’t afford to kill them.”
“We have wild horse herds running on Bureau of Land Management [BLM] lands around Meeker, but domestic horses aren’t used to that life and will starve to death or get beat up by the wild horses. Owners aren’t doing their animals any favor by letting them loose,” he said.
Coryell noted that a tractor-trailer of 10 or more unwanted horses used to be shipped from Meeker about every three weeks when the slaughterhouses were open. “Now, it’s not worth the gas to ship them to Canada or Mexico for slaughter, so the unwanted horse problem is going to get worse.”
North of Meeker, five horses were recently abandoned on a ranch, so the state brand board took possession and sold them off. “But, you can’t sell horses for what it costs to feed them,” Coryell noted. “If an owner doesn’t want them, there’s not much we can do to force them to take back the horses. So we have to deal with it.”
Kathleen Kelley is a Meeker rancher and high feed prices have forced her family to sell off cattle. “Our break-even point for winter feeding cattle was $80 per ton for hay, but it’s selling at $160 per ton, so we have had to reduce our stock.” She said high feed prices have hit horse owners hard, too. “I noticed there were a lot of skinny animals out in pastures this winter.”
Melissa Kindall works in the White River District of the BLM in Meeker. At the last wild-horse roundup, a couple of domestic horses were caught, but ranchers had already notified her of their loose stock, she said. “Until another gathering this fall is conducted, it’s hard to tell if there are any domestic horses on public land.” However, Kindall said she would not be surprised to find some. “It’s easier to take off the halter and let them go than to pay for feed and keep.”
Coryell said he just heard a report about 11 head of domestic horses that are running on BLM land. He agreed with Kindall: “I think we will find more during this fall’s wild-horse roundup.”
Horses can live into their 30s, but their usefulness can end years earlier. Pat Horowitz, directory of Sopris Therapy, a Roaring Fork non-profit agency that uses horses to rehabilitate disabled people, says they get a call almost every week from someone who wants to donate kind old Suzie to their program. “Unfortunately, it takes a lot of money to take care of an old horse and we are not in a situation to provide nursing-home care for animals for our program,” Horowitz said. “I’ve also heard about people finding strange horses in their pasture around here, too. We are facing a real problem.”
Rangely resident, Mickey Allen, 74, has had horses most of her life. She said when the slaughterhouses closed, she could see the horse trouble brewing. “I was born a horse lover, but there are too many horses. We need slaughterhouses to keep this situation under control.”
She recently wrote a letter to the editor to her local papers that clarified her position on the solution to unwanted horses, reprinted by permission below:
Thanks to the animal rights movement and many well-meaning but misinformed animal lovers, the slaughter of unwanted horses is now essentially banned in all 50 states. Unwanted horses are now being shipped, often for a great many miles, to be slaughtered humanely in Canada or not-so-humanely in Mexico. Senate Bill 311 will ban the transport of horses for human consumption within the U.S. and across borders to Canada and Mexico.
At the same time, the price of hay and grain has skyrocketed. Have you noticed the low-priced horses in the want ads? This past winter there have been two instances in Colorado of dead and starving horses found in “horse rescue” operations, where it appears well-meaning people “saved” horses but didn’t realize you have to feed them.
I was born horse-crazy and always owned at least one from the age of 14 until I was 72 and the last resident of our little equine nursing home died of old age. We have a lot more money since she died. I believe I would rather have my toenails pulled out than be forced to watch a horse killed and butchered, but if we still had horses and found ourselves unable to care for them, and could not find a good, safe home for them, I would far rather see them go to slaughter than to starve to death.
Until we can figure out a way to get our horse overpopulation under control, I think we need not less, but more slaughter facilities in the U.S. I would like to see close regulation of both the slaughter and the transportation, to keep the whole process as humane as possible. SB 311 is under referral in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and Googling it will give you a list of the members of the committee. I suggest that those who agree with the need for humane horse slaughter contact the members of the committee and make their feelings known.
We consider ourselves environmentalists. Always remember that the animal rights movement is to environmentalism as astrology is to astronomy.
For more stories about unwanted horses covered by Colorado Confidential go here:
Horses in the stable or on the table
Wild horses and politics of the West
Horse auction aims for happy ending
Top photo by BLM. Second and third photos of wild horses waiting to be adopted by Leslie Robinson