Nat T. Messer IV, DVM
Associate Professor, Equine Medicine and Surgery

Scope of the Problem:
For the past 15 years approximately 1-2% (75-150,000 horses) of the domestic equine population, on average, in the United States is sent to slaughter each year, with another 10-20,000 horses being exported to Canada each year for slaughter during the same period of time, and, an unknown number of horses being sent to Mexico for that purpose as well ( 6,500 in 2005). In 1997, slightly more than 1% of the domestic equine population was sent to slaughter (approx. 72,000 horses). In comparison, according to the 1998 NAHMS Report, 1.3% of horses age 6 months to 20 years (approx 80,500 horses) on all premises surveyed either died or were euthanized in 1997, while 11.1% of horses greater than 20 years of age (approx. 55,000 horses) on all premises surveyed either died or were euthanatized in 1997. Assuming these numbers are at least somewhat representative of what occurs annually, then nearly 100 horses either die or are euthanatized for every 50 horses that go to slaughter and almost 200,000 equine carcasses must be disposed of annually, one-third of which are being processed for human consumption, with the remainder being cremated, buried, “digested”, disposed of in landfills, or rendered.


Nat Messer

Dr. Nat Messer is a 1971 graduate of Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. He is currently an Associate Professor of Equine Medicine and Surgery at the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicne. He is a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, Certified in Equine Practice. He has been an equine practitioner and/or equine clinician since graduation and active member of both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners for 35 years.

Dr. Messer served as the chairman of the AAEP Equine Welfare Committee from 1995-1998 and as a member of the Equine Welfare Committee from 2002-2005 and has played an instrumental role in the association’s efforts on behalf of the horse on such issues as humane care of mares on PMU farms, the Horse Protection Act, standards of care for urban carriage horses, humane transport of horses to slaughter, welfare of wild horses and burros managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and most recently the plight of the unwanted horse. As part of these efforts he helped draft many of the equine welfare position statements currently used by AVMA and AAEP while serving on the equine welfare committee.

He is currently a member of the AVMA Welfare Committee representing equine practice and serves as AVMA’s liaison to the Unwanted Horse Coalition. He was a member of an international team of veterinarians and equine welfare advocates invited by the Canadian Farm Animal Care Trust to inspect over 50 PMU farms in Canada and North Dakota and make recommendations to improve the welfare of horses kept on those farms. He served on an AAEP panel of veterinarians that worked with USDA to arbitrate violations of the Horse Protection Act. He was appointed to serve on the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board to the Bureau of Land Management by the Secretary of Agriculture for two terms and served as Chair of that Board during his second term. He currently serves on the Equine Placement Trust Fund Advisory Board that has been overseeing the placement of over 20,000 displaced mares and foals as a result of downsizing of the PMU industry. He served on the Board of Directors of AAEP from 1996-1999, as well as on numerous other committees within AAEP.

In 2001, Nat received the Distinguished Service Award from the AAEP, which honors individuals who have provided exemplary service to the AAEP to the benefit of the horse, horse industry, or equine veterinary medicine. His primary research interests include equine endocrine disease and equine laminitis.  He is also a life member of the American Quarter Horse Association and has served on the AQHA Equine Research Committee since 1990.

“Unwanted horses” represent a subset of horses within the domestic equine population determined by someone to be no longer needed or useful or their owners are no longer interested in or capable of providing care for them either physically or financially. Most unwanted horses will likely be sent to slaughter with fewer numbers being euthanatized and disposed of through rendering, and still fewer simply abandoned and left to die of natural causes. Unwanted horses range from being essentially normal, healthy horses of varying ages and breeds to horses with some type of disability or infirmity; horses that are unattractive; horses that fail to meet their owner’s expectations for their intended use, eg: athletic ability; horses with non-life-threatening diseases; horses that have behavioral problems; or horses that are truly mean or dangerous. In many cases, 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.

When the number of unwanted horses are combined with the 12,000 or so feral horses being maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on privately owned sanctuaries deemed to be un-adoptable or unwanted and 6,000 or so horses being held in short-term holding facilities operated by the BLM awaiting adoption, one can readily see that the number of truly and/or potentially unwanted horses constitutes a significant number of horses to be dealt with each year and in the future.

To their credit, various equine welfare organizations, breed-specific organizations, and numerous benevolent equine welfare advocates and horse owners have made a conscientious and concerted effort to either provide care for unwanted horses, provide funding for the care of unwanted horses, or to find suitable accommodations for them in both the private and public sector. These efforts, along with widespread efforts to inform the public about the plight of the unwanted horse, fewer slaughter plants operating in the United States, changes to the IRS tax code, and a relatively high demand for horses by prospective buyers presumably accounts for the decrease in the number of horses being sent to slaughter over the past 5-10 years. The carrying capacity for these retirement farms, rescue farms, and sanctuaries, as they are called, is unknown at this point, but despite their noble efforts to provide care for many unwanted horses, the number of unwanted horses far exceeds the resources currently available to accommodate them all. Even well-meaning volunteers can become overburdened with unwanted horses, at times to the detriment of the horses under their care. There simply are not enough volunteers, funding, or placement opportunities for all of the unwanted horses.

Why are there so many apparently unwanted horses? Is there, as some would suggest, a glut of horses in the United States today? Was there, then, an even larger glut of horses when 200-300,000 horses were being sent to slaughter in the early ‘90’s? The horse industry depends, to a large extent, on the buying and selling of horses. It also depends on being profitable. Without demand from buyers and supply from sellers, the horse industry would not exist. For the past 5-10 years, the demand for horses on the part of those buying horses has been very good. Over the years, however, this demand has certainly run in cycles that frequently follow other economic trends. In general, when the demand for horses is low, then the number of unwanted horse’s increases, irregardless of what their bloodlines may be. Recent changes in various breed organization’s rules, such as permitting the use of embryo transfer and frozen semen, have favored the production of horses, allowing breeders to produce more than one offspring per year from mares, and allowing breeders to more efficiently select for horses with desirable bloodlines or performance records. New technology will further facilitate this practice in the future. Unfortunately, even with the help of technological advances, not every mating will produce a horse that meets the expectations of a buyer. For those in the business of breeding and raising horses, an unsold horse becomes a liability rather than an asset.

Currently, to the author’s knowledge, there is a lack of information about the demographics of unwanted horses other than the generalizations made previously, ie, not marketable, disabled or infirm, unattractive, lacking athletic ability, dangerous or mean. According to United States Department of Agriculture statistics, the horses going to slaughter basically follow the demographics of the horse population in general, ie, nearly equal numbers of mares and geldings, primarily Quarter Horses followed by the other breeds ranked in order of their relative numbers in the general horse population. A more detailed study investigating the demographics of horses deemed to be unwanted would allow the horse industry to focus more appropriately on the problem. For example, former racehorses are frequently singled out as examples of unwanted horses when their racing careers end and they are not candidates for breeding or other athletic endeavors. There are undocumented estimates suggesting that less than 10% of the horses that go to slaughter are Thoroughbreds, but just how many of the 100,000 + horses that went to slaughter last year in the US and Canada were former racehorses? What is the average age and sex of those unwanted horses? What are the types of things that cause them to be unwanted? Are they purebred or grade horses? Answers to questions such as these and many more need to be addressed to be able to understand the problem and potentially reduce the number of unwanted horses.

Whenever there are large numbers of unwanted horses as there are today, there is always concern for the welfare of these horses. According to Rebecca M. Gimenez, PhD, a member of the advisory board of the South Carolina Awareness and Rescue for Equines organization, in a letter to the editor in the April, 2004, issue of a The Horse Magazine, “we have seen a huge upsurge in abuse and neglect cases over the last three years in our state alone.” She goes on to say “looking on the web and talking to veterinarians, farriers, and horse industry professionals all tells me that this isn’t only a South Carolina problem.” Neglect of horses takes many forms and is due to a variety of factors. Could this upsurge in neglect, referred to by Dr. Gimenez, be due to solely to an increasing number of uninformed horse owners unfamiliar with the proper care of horses or could it be due purely to economic constraints created by the downturn in the economy since 9/11, or could it be due to the availability of affordable ways to responsibly dispose of unwanted horses brought about by regulations prohibiting burial of animal carcasses in some locales, costs associated with veterinary euthanasia and disposal by cremation, “digestion” or rendering, and fewer slaughter plants processing horses for human consumption? All of these factors must be considered when faced with such a large number of unwanted horses and what should be done with them, always ensuring they are treated humanely and with dignity until the end of their lives. It is important for all of us to remember that, in all likelihood, it only matters to us, and not the horse, what happens to them after they are gone.

Currently there are serious efforts on the part of animal right’s activists to get Congress to pass legislation to ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States. Bills have been introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate which would ban slaughter. The House of Representatives passed their version of the bill unanimously this year. There were amendments to the Appropriations Bill in 2005-2006 that have limited funding for USDA inspections at slaughter plants, again in an effort to impede the slaughter of horses. However, through all of this legislative activity, there has been no legislation that would provide for the care and welfare of the 70 – 80,000 or so horses that have been sent to slaughter each year in the past several years should slaughter be outlawed. If slaughter is outlawed, what will happen to those horses? Will the owners who didn’t want those horses suddenly have a change of heart? Or will they simply neglect them or abuse them? In an effort to appease the animal right’s activists, the legislators in support of this legislation have completely ignored the welfare of the unwanted horse by not assuring there is an infrastructure in place to care for these horses. They seem to believe that if slaughter is banned, the problem will go away.

Fortunately, the American Association of Equine Practitioners initiated discussions about the plight of the unwanted horse in 2004 by sponsoring an Unwanted Horse Summit in Washington, DC. In attendance were members of AAEP, representatives from the horse industry and breed organizations, representatives of the animal welfare advocacy groups and representatives from the USDA and Congress. From that Summit was formed the Unwanted Horse Coalition, there has been a steering committee assembled to begin to address all of the issues involving unwanted horses, and just recently the Unwanted Horse Coalition was “adopted” by the American Horse Council who will oversee initiatives to identify solution to the problem. It will be through these sorts of discussions that a solution will be found to address the needs of the unwanted horse, not by passing, under pressure from animal right’s activists, some ill-conceived legislation before there is a way to care for so many unwanted horses.

National Animal Health Monitoring System Equine ’98 Study. Part 1: Baseline Reference of 1998 Equine Health and Management, USDA/APHIS.

National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1998 Report.

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