Hot Literature: Who are the unwanted horses?

Hot Literature: Who are the unwanted horses?

Aug 03, 2010

In 2007, the last equine slaughterhouse in the United States closed. While this practice continues in Canada and Mexico, the options available for most owners of unwanted horses began to change even before the final closure. North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine recently published a retrospective study looking at the demographics of horses donated to their Equine Health Center from 1996 to 2008. The goal was to determine the characteristics of horses being offered for donation during this period, including the basis for donation. Medical records for horses accepted for donation were reviewed, as well as telephone records of calls made by horse owners offering horses for donation.

The number of horses accepted for donation to the facility dramatically increased between 2006 and 2008. However, the average age of accepted horses did not change dramatically over the 12-year period, with the largest percentage being between 6 and 10 years of age. Only 11.5% were over the age of 20, and of all the offered horses, only 18.7% were of advanced age. There was also a fairly even distribution of mares and geldings, and while a larger number of breeding animals was donated than in previous studies, this may have reflected a regional difference.

Breed distribution was also examined. The two most common breeds offered for donation were Quarter horses and Thoroughbreds. The proportion of Quarter horses mirrored estimates of the North Carolina light breed horse population, while Thoroughbreds were over-represented. Mixed breeds, often considered less desirable as performance or breeding animals, were not frequently offered for donation. Most of the horses had previously been used for pleasure riding, which matched previous data.

A 2009 American Horse Council survey of horse owners indicated that old age was the most common reason for horses to be considered "unwanted," and "economics" appeared to play a principal role in the decision to donate a horse. Contradictory to those findings, most horses in this study were not of advanced age, and the most common reason for donation was musculoskeletal disease, with degenerative joint disease, laminitis, and navicular disease topping the list.

These results represent a narrow look into the unwanted horse population. Since the end of equine slaughter in the United States, dramatic changes have occurred in the availability of alternate programs for donation. The actual number of unwanted horses is unknown. A broader investigation to characterize the magnitude of this problem and identify those horses at risk is needed. Based on this limited study, it is possible that encouraging prevention, early diagnosis, and treatment of musculoskeletal disorders can have an impact on the number of unwanted horses. Many equine organizations including the American Association of Equine Practitioners, The American Horse Council, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and various state veterinary and agricultural groups are concerned about this growing problem and seek to better understand and tackle this difficult problem.

Bowman SG, Marshall JF, Blikslager AT. Demographic characteristics of horses donated to the North Carolina State University Equine Health Center, 1996-2008. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2010;236(12);1334-1337.

Abstract available at