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By the time people spotted the old horse wandering along the Rio Grande near Pojoaque, the red roan was little more than skin and bones. Rescuers nicknamed him Rio. His owner didn't want to pay livestock inspectors the fines to get the horse back and so relinquished him to The Horse Shelter near Cerrillos.

Calls about starving horses such as Rio are increasingly familiar to animal control officers, livestock inspectors and equine advocates as the economy continues to spiral downward.

But more than a crumbling economy is playing into a worsening situation for starving and abandoned horses. Hay prices have gone up and so did summer fuel prices, driving up the monthly cost for horse care beyond what some owners could pay.

And while pet owners forced to give up their cats and dogs can usually find other homes or at least shelters to send their beloved animals, the options for horse people are fewer and shrinking all the time.

Most horse shelters take abused or abandoned horses, not ones desperate owners want to surrender. Fewer people are buying horses, and a lot more horses are on the market.

Heather Ferguson, legislative director for Animal Protection of New Mexico, said the two animal cruelty hot lines in the state have seen a significant increase in the number of calls from people about horses in the last year. "People are seeing more severely malnourished horses, horses that have gone down (on the ground), horses injured or shot," she said. "In some cases owner have just turned (the horses) out."

Some horses are suffering from outright cruelty, Ferguson believes. But in an increasing number of cases, Ferguson said, "we're seeing an increase in calls from people that just can't take care of these animals anymore."

"We anticipate this will only get worse as the economy gets worse and worse," Ferguson said.

Limited shelters

There are few horse shelters in the state or the U.S. compared to the number of neglected, abused and abandoned horses, according to equine advocates.

The Horse Shelter near Cerrillos is one of the biggest and best funded, but even it is having a hard time keeping up with demand. In the last five months, the shelter took in at least

26 horses and adopted out only five. And except for one rare occasion, the shelter doesn't take horses given up by owners who just can't afford to keep them.

Periodically, horse lovers at Las Campanas Equestrian Center take in hardship cases, paying the veterinary and feed bill for a horse until a new home can be found, said the facility's director, Caroline Invicta Stevenson, who investigates abuse cases for The Horse Shelter. But "of course we can only take one or two, and there are hundreds out there that need this program," Stevenson said.

Stevenson said there's a multitude of problems that make it difficult to identify horse neglect or outright abuse. She said there's a lack of livestock inspectors and a lack of legal standards for horse care. "We get a lot of calls from people who feel they are doing a good deed by calling in about a horse in a small, dirty pen. But when we go, the horse is fat and happy," she said.

Still, she said, "there's a real problem with abuse and neglect of horses in New Mexico. The bad economy makes it worse, but it's gone on for a long time."

Stevenson added, "We have some cases that are absolutely horrible where the horses were basically skeletons with skins on them. Some had to be euthanized on the spot because they were too weak to get into the trailer."

Expensive care

Increasingly, people are turning old and infirm horses loose on roads because they can't afford to feed them and the horses are no longer useable, Stevenson said.

Hay is running from $8.75 to almost $12 a bale at feed stores in Northern New Mexico, up $1 to $2 over last year's prices. One small bale of hay will feed a horse from one to three days. So hay alone can cost from $75 to $140 a month. Regular worming, hoof care and grain can total another $40 a month per horse easily.

Tom Macdonell, owner of San Marcos Feed Store on N.M. 14, locks in his hay prices with his suppliers at the beginning of the growing season. Drought last year, more than high fuel costs, increased hay prices. "Last year was not a good year for most of my farmers, and they were down about one-third of (production)," said Macdonell, who sells about 1,200 bales of hay a week.

He said his sales haven't dropped, but people are buying differently. "Instead of buying 10 bales of hay and a several bags of grain, they are buying two bales and one bag," Macdonell said. "People are going it piecemeal."

He's seen a lot more horses for sale on his bulletin board. But no one is buying. "People are trying to give some of them away," Macdonell said.

Livestock inspectors around the state are reporting more calls about underfed and abandoned horses, said Myles Culbertson, director of the New Mexico Livestock Board. The dilemma for the state's few livestock inspectors, already stretched thin checking cattle, sheep and other animals, is the increasing amount of time the horse welfare calls take.

Culbertson said along with a down economy, the horse market is overloaded and no one is buying. "There's absolutely no market for those horses that aren't performance or competitive or work horses. Their owners have found themselves unable to feed them and unable to do anything else with them," Culbertson said. "Unless a horse is trained and has a particular use, it is not very salable."

One less option

In the past, people sent unwanted or unusable horses to sale barns. Many of them went to slaughterhouses and the meat sold to countries where horse meat is part of the diet. A public outcry against the horrific conditions under which horses were shipped and kept at the last two U.S. slaughterhouses led to a ban against killing equines for human consumption, effectively shutting down the plants.

Culbertson believes that's added to the problems of unwanted horses. He said he understands close to 100,000 horses a year end up "unusable" according to the standards of race tracks, rodeos, jumping and other performance shows.

The U.S. slaughterhouses kept that number in check. Without them, "I think we are witnessing the law of unintended consequences," Culbertson said. "The closing of the horse slaughter plants in the U.S. has prompted a much more inhumane outcome with horses left to starve."

Horses are still shipped to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada, but there's a move to stop such shipment. That puts horse advocates like Ferguson and Rios in a tough spot.

On one side, they don't want horses to go to slaughterhouses. On the other, they recognize there simply aren't enough people to take the number of horses that could suddenly join the flood of those currently on the market.

"I'm certainly not in favor of a horse spending last hours of life crammed into trucks, in deplorable conditions and taken to terrible existence in the slaughterhouse," Stevenson said. "But in fairness, there should be a place where horses that are old and infirm can live out their days with dignity and then be euthanized gently."

But a lot of owners "have no options," Culbertson said. "They're against a wall."

Lack of knowledge

Well-meaning people with a lack of understanding about horses contribute to the problems.

Increasingly, inspectors report horses in poor condition because their owners don't understand their animals' needs. "Increasingly, there's a lack of knowledge of how to take care of horses," Culbertson said. "People have a romantic notion. Horses are very appealing creatures to have and to use, but what they find is that it takes a lot of work to take care of a horse."

Overpopulation is another horse problem, but there's no mobile spay and neuter van for horses the way there is for dogs and cats. "We see so many horses bred irresponsibly that we continue to see a genuine overpopulation of horses in the state," Ferguson said.

Ferguson, who heads the state attorney general's animal cruelty task force, said Animal Protection of New Mexico will lobby legislators during the next session to create an Equine Protection Fund. Money for the fund would come largely from private donations and would help subsidize horse sanctuaries, euthanasia and even a food bank.

"We feel horses are really part and parcel of the history of New Mexico and we need to be on the forefront of protecting them," Ferguson said.
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Publication:The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, NM)
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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