In late 2007, a group of concerned Colorado organizations and individuals came together at the invitation of the Animal Assistance Foundation and formed the Colorado Unwanted Horse Task Force (now called the Colorado Unwanted Horse Alliance). The group was based on the work of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, a broad alliance of equine organizations within the American Horse Council. The task force uses the following definition of unwanted horses: "Horses which are no longer wanted by their current owners because they are old, injured, sick, unmanageable, or fail to meet their owners' expectations." (Source: UHC, Lenz PP 2006)
An environmental assessment was commissioned, funded by the Animal Assistance Foundation, to assess the status of unwanted horses in Colorado. A 33-question online survey was completed by over 2,000 participants, and 123 people from different horse industry stakeholder groups participated in 10 focus groups. Data was also gathered from six governmental agencies and 18 horse rescue facilities. The works was done during February, March, and April of 2008.
The assessment highlighted two primary issues:
- The current problem is a combination of two, almost simultaneously occurring factors: (1) closure of U.S. plants that processed horses and (2) worsening economic conditions. The problem is escalating.
- There are limited resources to support solutions to the problem. Horse rescue facilities are full; sanctuaries are full; euthanasia options are limited and expensive.
The top three solutions identified in the findings are:
- Educate new owners regarding options and resources during economic crises and regarding indiscriminate (backyard) breeding.
- Provide options and resources for cost-effective euthanasia.
- Increase the capacity and credibility of horse rescue facilities.
Over 55,000 people own more than 250,000 horses in the state of Colorado (Source: The Economic Impact of the Colorado Horse Industry, American Horse Council Foundation, Washington, D.C., 2005) Horse-related economic impact in Colorado is valued at $1.6 billion. The ability to enjoy recreation on horseback and to participate in the western lifestyle of horse ownership is a traditional element of Colorado's image, yet recent declines in the economy and closure of U.S. horse processing plants are impacting the enjoyment of this lifestyle and compromising the welfare of the horses. Feed and care costs are escalating and options for resale and disposal of horse have become more limited.
Traditional means of disposal of horses that have become unwanted include sale at livestock markets. Although many horses sold at livestock markets go to buyers who will continue to use the animals for riding, driving, or other work purposes, others may go to the food and fiber processing industry. The specific number of horses loaded in Colorado for transportation to slaughter elsewhere has not been identified despite diligent and ongoing efforts.
When marketing and sales offers fail, owners may turn to horse rescue facilities and sanctuaries to dispose of their animals. The capacity of those facilities interviewed (61 percent of those that could be identified) was 611 animals for the entire state. The turnover rate of animals (roughly comparable to the live release rate for cats and dogs), was 60 percent placed over the course of 2007. Most horse rescue facilities reported having to turn away requests to take horses or maintaining waiting lists.
Specific data defining the costs associated with unwanted horses are undetermined, yet examples in recent cases of emergency care and unplanned public expense were reported as ranging from $25,000 to $120,000 per incident, resulting in requests for earlier and less costly intervention strategies. Animal cruelty investigations for horses have risen dramatically over the past several years, from 1,067 cases to 1,498 cases (Source: Bureau of Animal Protection).
Humane officers and sheriffs reported seeing increased horse surrender and abandonment. There are limited charitable horse rescue facilities, most operating without formal standard operating procedures. Permanent, public facilities accepting impounded horses or horses needing quarantine or emergency care are not available in most Colorado communities.
The lack of standardized reporting systems for tracking unwanted horses through animal control officers, sheriff's departments, rescue operations, and veterinarians makes quantification of the problem difficult. However, stakeholders appear willing to work together as an industry to develop metrics to create this baseline information and to monitor progress.
Involving horse industry businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and the academic sector in Colorado to address the problem of the unwanted horse now may be the only way to prevent the state's western lifestyle image from fading into history. As these groups partner in their mutual interest to find solutions to manage unwanted horses, through building education programs, increasing horse rescue capacity and credibility, and developing model equine facilitation and low-cost, accessible options for euthanasia, Colorado could become a model state for horses.