In the last three months, Angie Hilding has given away nine horses she couldn’t afford to keep. Ordinarily, she’d hang on to the older horses at her Hayden ranch, which offers trail rides, lessons and horse boarding. But like many horse owners, Hilding has seen hay prices skyrocket by more than 60 percent and that has forced her to cull her herd.
“When you’re in the business we’re in, you keep those old horses,” Hilding said. “But when the going gets tough, we find a home for these older ones.”
Fortunately, she has ex-students who fell in love with their horses and wanted to adopt them. Other horse owners throughout the state and the country have not been so lucky. As the price of hay has risen over the past few years, livestock investigators have seen something new: Horses are being turned out on public lands or snuck into corrals with other people’s horses. They’ve also received reports of horses being dropped off at public sales by owners who disappear.
“It’s boiled down to feeding the family or feeding the horses,” said Bill Barton, state veterinarian with the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. “I’m hearing it from my counterparts in all the Western states, and I’m hearing it from Kentucky. I don’t think we’ve seen the extent of the problem yet.”
He fears that if we have a long, hard winter, “we’re either going to have lots of cases of animal neglect or lots of animals turned out.”
In 2007 and 2008, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department received three times more reports of abuse regarding horses, donkeys or mules as it did in 2005 and 2006, said Capt. Ben Wolfinger. “Nearly every call complains about malnourished animals,” he said.
The state Brand Department, a division of the Idaho State Police, has seen “over 40 head of horses dropped in the last year” in the southern part of the state, many of them turned out on public lands, said Jim Kennedy, who oversees the northern district, from Riggins to the Canadian border. He said others have been set loose near Lewiston.
Panhandle Equine Rescue, which works with the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department to adopt out horses confiscated due to abuse or neglect, is fostering two horses found in a pasture south of Coeur d’Alene. No one has claimed them, and no one has called, said Pam Scollard, a spokeswoman. In July, she said, the rescue organization adopted out a mare found wandering on Fourth of July Pass. Scollard said domestic horses won’t survive without proper feeding and care through the winter.
“It’s not so heart-throbbing in the summertime when at least they’ll have something,” Scollard said. “It’s sickening in the winter. They don’t have a fighting chance without help from us. They’re not wild animals. They’re domestic.”
Horse owners say the root of the problem is the high price of hay. Within the past couple of years, hay has risen from $80 to $100 per ton to $190 to $220 per ton, said Bat Masterson, a longtime North Idaho rancher and outfitter, who recently sold 15 horses to cut costs. He said the average horse eats 14 to 20 pounds of hay per day, not including oats or grains.
“That’s a lot of money, and that’s what the issue is right now,” Masterson said, adding that people with an eye on the dollar signs are baling up all sorts of material and trying to sell it as hay. Masterson said he inspected two loads of hay recently that he wouldn’t haul away if he were paid.
Hay sellers shift the blame to the high price of fuel, which drove up their costs when they put crops in last spring. A few years ago, petroleum-based fertilizer cost $178 per ton, said Sam Scheu, an Athol rancher who sells hay and keeps horses and cattle. This year, he said, fertilizer cost $800 per ton. When he paired those costs with the $3.79 he paid per gallon of diesel to run his machinery, Scheu determined he needed $220 per ton of hay just to break even.
Many people who can no longer afford to keep their horses have turned to the market only to find dramatically depressed prices or no offers at all. While part of that is due to the general economic downturn, another reason cited by ranchers raises a highly controversial topic: It is no longer legal in this country to slaughter horses for human consumption.
About 90,000 horses used to be slaughtered annually in this country, with meat being shipped mostly to Europe. Federal and state legislation and court rulings recently have closed the last three slaughterhouses in this country, according to the Humane Society of the United States, which has advocated for their closure.
“It used to be everybody took them to the sale and they could at least get slaughter value,” said Kennedy, with the state Brand Department. That price ranged from 16 to 64 cents per pound, he said. The elimination of that market, he said, has caused a glut of animals. Barton, the state veterinarian, said the slaughterhouses were federally inspected and euthanized animals in a humane fashion, an assertion disputed by the Humane Society.
The Humane Society now is promoting legislation that would prevent horses from being transported out of the country for slaughter because animals still are shipped to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, said Lisa Kauffman, Idaho state director.
“People need to realize that most American people are not supportive of horse slaughter,” Kauffman said. “For the folks that have been born and raised here, I think that’s a little hard for them to swallow.”
Kauffman also disputes the explanation that the closure of the U.S. slaughterhouses has overloaded the market. She said “killer buyers” still roam horse sales looking for meat for their European customers; they just stick to locales closer to the Canadian and Mexican borders because they don’t want to ship the horses as far.
“It’s not illegal to send your horse to slaughter. It’s just too expensive,” Kauffman said.
And though prices have dropped dramatically, horse owners report that well-bred, well-trained horses are still selling.
That might be part of the problem in this area. Ranch owners say many people move to the country and buy a horse as a pet but are ignorant of the training, riding or care it requires. Now that economic times are tough and they want to sell, they’re finding no market for a horse that is not useful in some manner.
“All you’re hurting is the animal,” Hilding said. “The horse needs to be useful, to be ride-able or able to work. Don’t get into horses unless you plan on following through. The average horse is hurting and the less-than-average horse is worse than zero.”
As Masterson put it, “The cheapest part of owning a horse is buying it.” People buy horses, he said, and “simply don’t know what it costs to put a horse through the winter.”
Barton, the state veterinarian, is unsure where the situation is going to end up. He said the last thing he wants to see people do is turn their horses out when they get into financial trouble.
“Somehow we’ve got to come together, horse people, and remedy this situation,” Barton said, adding that horse owners in Kentucky tried to organize a feed cooperative, but couldn’t afford enough hay. “It’s a nationwide problem right now.”
Kauffman doesn’t see the situation as being quite so bleak. She said the price of fuel has dropped, and if the price of hay follows, “this whole issue will fall off the face of the Earth.”