By Mitzy Tait-Zeller and Bonnie Newton
The purpose of this article is to create meaningful dialogue and put forward workable solutions to the overpopulation, not to continue to put a band aid on the symptoms of unwanted horses.
Ask any horse owner how they feel about the issue of unwanted excess horses and you are sure to elicit a heated discussion swaying either pro or anti slaughter. It is the most controversial subject amongst horse owners and one that many avoid getting caught up in.
Horses are being neglected, abandoned, and thrown away at an alarming rate. The rescues are overflowing and calls go in to the S.P.C.A.’s far too often. A general lack of responsibility from horse owners overbreeding, contributes to the problem. According to the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition just over 82,000 horses went to slaughter in 2012, of which 67%, more than 54,500 were imported from the United States.
Since the United States successfully closed their horse slaughter plants in 2007 a multitude of articles were written on horse slaughter statistics prior to and up to that point. Almost every organization involved in closing the doors to slaughter felt that horse owners and breeders would do the right thing and monitor their own breeding programs to reduce the sheer number of horses that became unwanted. In short, no one was prepared to put forth regulations to control the number of horses bred in any given year or within the associations that breed them. They were afraid of upsetting horse owners. Clearly, five years later, the problem is not resolving itself.
Not much has changed in the horse industry in the United States since the last slaughter plant closed in 2007. The excess unwanted horses have been exported to Canada and Mexico in alarming numbers. Now, the organizations that are pro-slaughter want to reopen the slaughter plants in the United States with the USDA’s approval for funding and reissuing of permits. Why? Quite frankly, it’s a lucrative business. The pro-slaughter organizations want to cash in on the excess unwanted horses for the ridiculous prices they are selling for, as well as the fact that no one will ever hold them accountable for wrong-doing because officials and lawmakers are all lining their pockets with blood money. It is easy money for those without a conscience.
A few articles I read dated back to 2008 – 09 actually touched on the issue of unwanted horses at the root of the problem which is overbreeding of equines that are undesirable or untrained. Quite simply, the market is flooded. Breeders need to stop breeding entirely for a few years. Overbreeding has led to monetary and emotional devaluing of the equine species.
Due to the fact that horse slaughter is still taking place in Canada and Mexico, rescues and well-meaning, truly caring horse lovers are saving horses that are extreme hard luck cases (resulting from abuse or neglect) and only suitable for companion animals. This creates a more heart wrenching scenario because then perfectly healthy riding horses that are calm, quiet and used to human companionship have nowhere to go. Everyone is at their maximum capacity and stretched to their financial limits caring for the horses they already have. Few, if any equestrians looking for their next competition or project horse will go looking in a sale barn. So these horses are being sold to the kill buyers for a few dollars and inevitably end up being slaughtered. How sad is that?
The controversy between anti and pro slaughter does not honor the horse. Civilization was built on the bones of the horse and humanity owes the horse respect. Did you know that “Building Canada’s transcontinental railway took more than 12,000 workers, 5,000 horses and 300 dogsled teams”? Page 22, Fall ’13, What’s Cooking Kraft magazine. This is just one small example of what horses have done and contribute to our world. Not to mention the millions of horses that have walked with humanity and gone to war with man over the centuries.
In the most recent issue of Horse-Canada there was a box article bringing attention to the new Canada’s Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines. The document was well thought out and written to address proper handling of horses. But … it’s only great, if EVERY horse owner in the country “reads it” and “follows the guidelines” to the best of their ability. So, what good does it do? Who is going to step up and make people accountable for their actions? I’ve heard repeatedly that you can’t fix stupid. But I wonder if horse owners and breeders are just in a complete state of denial, are they misinformed, or suffer from a lack of education?
I have always been of the old adage that ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’. If that is the case then why are organizations spending so much time, money and effort trying to fix the symptoms (rescues and horse slaughter), instead of addressing the cause, overbreeding? What happens to the excess 28,000+ horses, just in Canada in any given year? What about the US horses? Is there a way to control the problem of overbreeding and discarded horses?
Scrolling through hundreds of ‘horse for sale’ ads I am astounded at the utter lack of care that goes into these ads. If the seller truly cares about their horse and where it ends up, shouldn’t they at least make a concentrated effort to show the horse they are offering for sale in the best possible way? There are countless websites, articles and books that give pointers on how to sell your horse. When their horses don’t sell, where do the sellers take them? To the auction barn where kill buyers snap them up for peanuts because experienced equestrians don’t buy horses at auction sales. If this is how you sell your horse, you are not a horse lover nor do you care about whether your horse goes to slaughter.
I came across ads where breeders listed their horses as “can be registered”. As a small time breeder of a rare breed horse this small ad statement upset me. I breed one or two registered foals each year and register them before they are sold. In order to prevent non-registration of eligible foals, my breed association now sends out the registration forms with the dam and sire name and information present on the papers that you provided on your stallion report. What a great idea, kudos to my breed association! I feel that if the horse is born from registered stock and “can be registered”, that it should be mandatory for the breeder to register their stock before it’s sold. Isn’t that why you breed registered horses in the first place? Keep in mind that just because an animal is registered does not mean it is suitable breeding stock. I think this is a common misconception and raises other issues.
People who own a mare(s) typically do not view themselves as a breeder. These backyard breeders often breed that mare(s) thinking they will have a cute fuzzy foal to admire or they want their child to “grow up with a foal”. Unfortunately reality strikes when the foal is now 500 pounds, eating more than Ma and requires some handling skills!
Anyone that puts their child on a horse that isn’t at least double digits in age, “a been there done that” horse really doesn’t love their child! This is a perfect place to rehome rescue horses because the horse doesn’t even need to be 100% sound, but 150% safe!
Another common scenario, the neighbor lets their stallion cover their mare for a few bales of hay or other trade item.
Backyard breeders often have no investment and no long term plan. Take a peek at any popular social media site, you will see multiple examples of the backyard breeder, and the dumping of these unwanted horses into an already overloaded system.
While studying other breed registries I noted that a small portion of them have inspections of young stock and a grading system in place. This insures that the breed standard is being met. Each horse is given a grade and the owner is made aware of their horse’s strengths and weaknesses for breeding compatibility of their mares. I was unable to determine from the information that I read whether or not stud colts were either accepted as breeding stallions within the registry or were only allowed to be registered as geldings. The idea of inspections and grading within breed registries appeals to me, especially in a place where there are tens of thousands of horses to choose from. Why not breed only the best to the best? As a conscientious horse breeder I would be willing to endorse such a grading and classification program to improve the breed standard of my chosen breed.
I’m not saying that there aren’t thousands of excellent working horses out there that are unregistered or grade horses, I am simply addressing the issue of excess unwanted horses, many of them purebred and registered horses that go to slaughter each year. Why not prevent breeding of sub-standard horses within the breed registries? Perhaps this solution alone could prevent as many as 5,000 or more mares from being bred each year.
In a conversation with Bunnie Harasym from Paradise Stable which is a privately owned equine rescue, she felt that reasonably priced gelding clinics that were well attended might help somewhat with the random breeding problem. One small slice can make the difference between a substandard stallion and a good gelding. She felt that Humane Societies needed to take severe cases more seriously. More prosecutions would result in cautious behaviour by horse owners to prevent being taken to court over horse neglect issues. Bunnie says that “Laws need to be rewritten and accountability needs to come into play.” As for re-homing and adopting out horses from rescues, (not just Paradise Stables) Bunnie had this to say. “No one wants to pay an adoption fee. It’s like trying to re-home a kitten, but more like a grenade, a 1200 lbs grenade that can become volatile if not handled with experience and care.”
Nikki Banks moved here to Canada with her family two and a half years ago from the United Kingdom. Nikki is an experienced equestrian and has decades of experience with horses. During a recent conversation with her she informed me that things were much different in the U.K. than it is here in Canada. The British Horse Society together with the Agriculture Farmers Union put in place a mandatory passport for all equines in the U.K. as of 2009. The passport forms are obtained through either a breed association or the British Horse Society and is filled out and verified by a licensed veterinarian when a foal is born. Each foal born must be inspected by a veterinarian and parentage verified, photos, and all identifying markings are noted as well as first injections. All horses are either micro-chipped or freeze branded. This passport records all medications which must also be administered and verified by a veterinarian and any change of ownership is recorded in the horse’s passport. This passport must accompany the horse any time it is transferred anywhere, show’s etc. The owner must accompany the horse during transportation or the hauler must be registered through their vehicle insurance which is expensive, in order to transport livestock without the owner present. This decreases horse theft. The horse owners were responsible for the cost of the passports and all veterinary verifications on the passports on each of their horses. With this added expense for each horse, it reduced the number of horses owned by individuals, making the horse more valuable and therefore better cared for in the end. Non-compliance with the mandatory Equine Passport program results in monetary fines and is punishable by law. Horses without passports cannot be sold legally.
Livestock auctions in the U.K. are attended by a RSPCA representative and most often a veterinarian. All horses and other livestock are checked over by the RSPCA and or veterinarian. If the animals are unhealthy or unfit for transport or sale, they are not accepted and turned away. If there are any major health or neglect issues they are dealt with immediately. Passports must also match the animal being brought in for sale. The percentage of horses being purchased by kill buyers in the U.K. is far less than in North America.
I felt that just these few changes could make a huge impact on the horse industry in North America. Just implementing the mandatory equine passports in Canada would reduce the number of horses bred due to the cost per horse for the passport registration and additional veterinarian costs associated. It would also increase the purchase price of a horse because breeders would pass the cost of the passport on to buyers.
Equine passports would enable a viable and accountable biosecurity environment for Canadian horses. A serious equine epidemic in Canada would be difficult to trace, assuming that owners are cooperative! A definitive, traceability program in place would resolve that issue.
Another article on the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition website addressed the European Commission requirements for equine traceability by July 2013. From the article which was quite lengthy and involved Equine Canada, the International Equine Business Association, Horse Welfare Canada and several other organizations, it didn’t seem like they were able to make any headway and put something in place similar to the United Equine Lifetime Number and passports that are mandatory in the U.K. and other European Unions. According to the article, the government didn’t want to invest money into the identification program outlined by Equine Canada because they were on the fence as to whether horses should be classified as livestock. The European Commission’s July 2013 deadline has come and gone. The Canadian government has no equine traceability passport in place at this time. Now what happens with the horsemeat being exported to the European Union? There is no possible way to trace the drugs being administered to any of the horses being slaughtered and guarantee that the meat is safe for human consumption. This also raises the questions about US horse slaughter plants re-opening. Wouldn’t the USDA also be bound by the same European Commission as Canada in regards to the traceability program?
It appears that the situation just keeps getting uglier and uglier all the time. Many of the comments on the article that I refer to from the CHDC, were from horse owners that didn’t want to be told what to do and felt that they were actually supporting the slaughter industry if they were to comply with the traceability program. I think they are straddling the fence, they say they don’t support the slaughter industry but they want to keep breeding substandard horses and overbreeding at a ridiculous rate because they think they are making a dollar.
Breeders don’t profit by breeding specifically for the meat market, at .30 per pound or $300 for an average horse, basic math says that it doesn’t even pay for one year’s worth of feed, at Western Canadian prices. They do not invest in training their horses and are breeding large numbers of them rather than breeding for quality.
HWAC (Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada) which is a known pro-slaughter advocate is trying to cash in on the Equine Identification Program by working together with animal tech companies on a microchip program, prior to that they worked on an iris (eye) scan id program….hmm a few dollars to be made in that partnership! I can understand anti-slaughter supporters would not want to waste their money on implementing this program.
My breed association bylaws require me to microchip all of the horses that I register. I realize how costly this means of identification is, not to mention how utterly useless it would be would my horses become lost or stolen. Why reinvent the wheel? Hot branding and freeze branding have been in use for decades and are a permanent and highly visible means of identification. The cost of branding is low in comparison to injecting a microchip. Brands are easily identifiable and simple to read, as opposed to having an expensive reader that has to be within a few inches of the chip in order to read it.
Then there is the ultimate question as to how horses should be classified? Are they livestock, or pets and companion animals? I think that horses should be in a classification unto their own, simply “Equines”. Livestock to me denotes domestic animals that are used solely for the purpose of producing goods for man. Domestic fowl are raised solely for egg and meat production, hogs also solely for the purpose of meat production, cattle for milk and meat production and horses … not so. Pets or companion animals, cats, dogs, rabbits, gerbils, mice, and almost any other small animal that man has thought to befriend and call their pet are solely to provide companionship to man, horses … not so. Horses and other equines have been used for transportation, farm work, entertainment (racing and other events), provided protection and companionship. Horses have carried man into battle over the centuries, carried provisions and provided food when nothing else was available. Horses have been revered and honored worldwide for their heroic efforts for man and in fact many books have been written about the subject. There is no other species of animal on the planet that equals the “Equine” in his heart and versatility, so how can we then classify him as livestock or just a pet?
It is my opinion that the pro-slaughter advocates are ruthless people and organizations that hide behind the guise of “humane slaughter” and disposal of unwanted horses, all for the almighty dollar.
The backyard breeders, horse hoarders and irresponsible horse owners are the individuals that hide behind the guise of being “horse lovers, against slaughter” when in fact they are the integral part of the problem contributing to unwanted horses that end up in the slaughter pipeline.
Then there are the breeders of the three major breed contributors of registered horses that end up at slaughter who don’t really care about where the horses go and feel that slaughter is a necessary evil (the ones that look the other way and pretend it’s not happening).
However there are true, caring and conscientious horse people out there. The ones that care for their horses their whole life, they put great thought into breeding a mare to a certain stallion, they care what their foal will become, keeping accurate health records on each of their horses and they follow through to invest in training. The caring and conscientious horse owner sells their horses privately, they plan for retirement and end of life options with dignity for the horses that they have committed themselves to.
In conclusion I think that anti-slaughter advocates need to rethink their agenda, repurpose their energy to end slaughter. Instead they need to go back to the root of the problem, find ways to regulate the number of horses bred each year and training more horses with a purpose. This will inevitably result in less horses going to the slaughter pipeline. Advocate for the Lifetime Equine Number and mandatory passports for horses, making it mandatory for only licensed veterinarians to administer and verify injections for horses. Have all horses hot or freeze branded for highly visible identification to prevent theft and enable biosecurity traceability. Advocate to the breed associations to pass a breed inspection and grading system bylaw into their breed standards.
There should be enhanced inspections and prosecution for violations of Canada’s Code of Practice for care and handling of equines at all auction barns and slaughter facilities.
Rescues also need to consider the quality of life of the animals they rescue, using humane euthanasia as an option.
If true horsemen and women everywhere were to make an effort to help make the changes necessary to reduce the number of unwanted horses, the slaughter industry would be in decline. Laws need to be upheld and the people guilty of the offences need to be held accountable by following through on prosecution. Prosecution equals a deterrent.
If you are straddling the fence about this issue or possible solutions, I recommend that you get off the fence to either stand in the blood of the 80,000 plus horses slaughtered this year with your handful of cash, or jump over the fence and make a difference for the horses in the following year. Anyone who straddles the fence will undoubtedly get a sore crotch.
We are not personally funded in whole or part by any special interest group, nor is Mitzy’ s Mane & Tails, Horse Owner Today or any subsidiary businesses’ funded in whole or part by any special interest group. Neither are we or our business’s pro or anti slaughter, pro or anti rescue, we are simply pro horse and pro healthy horse industry.
Bonnie is a lifelong horseperson who doesn’t get to ride nearly enough! Founder and CEO of horseownertoday.com, today’s horse owner magazine, she has a serious concern over the state of the horse industry today, specifically unwanted horses and their adverse impact on the industry.
Mitzy is an experienced equine enthusiast, small scale Canadian horse breeder, Zelta’s Canadians and author of “Hoof Prints On My Heart” and “Rim-Fyre and the Stones of Time”. The 2013 Equine Welfare Communications Award recipient continues her work communicating horse welfare issues.