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UC Davis meeting identifies urgent need to help unwanted horses in California

February 19, 2009

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Before 1998, California's unwanted horses often ended up at the slaughterhouse, but with legislation prohibiting slaughter and processing plants now closed in the U.S., the problem of unwanted horses has risen to a new level. 

Feb 18, the International Animal Welfare Training Institute assembled a group of experts in animal control, veterinary practice and the humane community throughout the state to determine the magnitude of the problem of unwanted horses.

The meeting at the School of Veterinary Medicine, "The Unwanted Horse," contained both outreach and work sessions to gather and share data. Hosted by the International Animal Welfare Training Institute at the School of Veterinary Medicine, the event explored the magnitude of issues surrounding the reasons for and handling of unwanted horses. 

Nearly 100% of attendees indicated that unwanted horses--those that can no longer be cared for with adequate feed, housing and basic health care--are flooding horse rescue facilities, sanctuaries and animal control facilities.


Jeff Smith, Lake County veterinarian and past president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, stated, "It's not just horses. We have unwanted dogs and cats at shelters every day in every county of the state. Many of those animals have been humanely put down as part of the solution, even with extensive efforts geared at adoption, spay and neuter and responsible owner education efforts."

The horse is now part of the spectrum of that problem. “It’s a crisis” said Madigan, director of the institute. "The group determined several causes. Previously, unwanted horses were taken to an auction, purchased for meat export and sent to a horse slaughter facility. Legislation, passed by those who felt concern about the transport conditions for the horses and disliked the concept of the end of life for a horse at a slaughter plant for export for human consumption, has now put the unwanted horse on the doorstep of each county in the state of California,” stated Madigan.

Madigan, a professor in the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, reviewed some telling statistics. Of an estimated nine million horses in the U.S., as many as 80,000-100,000 are reported each year as unwanted animals.“One thing is clear to me”, Madigan stated, “any legislation that banned end of life for horses in a slaughter facility where over 100,000 horses have been sent annually should have provided an alternative mechanism to deal with the continued life of those animals in a humane manner."

Our current economic downturn has only exacerbated a problem that has been building over several years. The need for a solution is vital.  We simply cannot afford economically or morally to ignore this problem any longer. Research is needed now to find reasonable solutions  and implement new guidelines for the management of unwanted horses, but funding is lacking even for those basic studies.


The meeting covered a full spectrum of topics. Vicky Fletcher of the Yolo County Sheriff's Department explained impound regulations for stray and confiscated animals and sparked a discussion of how to keep repeat offenders from owning animals as well as efforts to work with citizens and local veterinarians to resolve cases where cost of care is at issue. The animal control services officer emphasized, "Much of what we do is education with the public."

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Public education was a prominent theme of the meeting, as well outreach to train members of the horse community about options for caring for unwanted horses. Ms. Beth DeCaprio of the Grace Foundation discussed the "ideal facility" for sheltering horses, its operational plan, staffing, licensing, funding and capacity. Other speakers outlined the role of equine rescue organizations, carcass disposal regulations, community outreach and the need to establish scientific criteria for future welfare policies regarding the unwanted horse. 

The romance of the horse was another point that attendees referred to frequently in their discussions of legal issues, community values and attitudes toward euthanasia. Smith reminded those present that a horse, particularly during the euthanasia procedure, presents a dramatic and emotional difference from that of putting a dog or cat to sleep.


Afternoon sessions focused on identifying how to gather more data on the magnitude of the problem and the reasons for abandonment. One example of the research needed concerned the disposal of horses once they have been euthanized. Madigan gave a brief lecture on veterinary euthanasia of horses when animals suffer from incurable chronic pain or untreatable illness/injury. He explained that providing euthanasia because a horse is unwanted has not previously been among the valid reasons a veterinarian would end a horse's life, although it occurs daily in every community for unwanted dogs and cats. However, Madigan explained, "A thousand-pound horse that is euthanized presents a significant issue with regard to handling the remains of that animal given current regulations which prevent burial on a person's property, even a large ranch. Funding is lacking even for those basic studies," that would contribute strong data for lawmakers to set new guidelines on carcass disposal, environmentally responsible methods of euthanasia and other issues surrounding the unwanted horse.

After the meeting, Gregory Ferraro, director of the Center for Equine Health, said that responsible breeding and re-purposing of working horses are important community strategies to prevent unwanted horses. "If solutions are not found to both stem the flow of excessive equine births and more effectively absorb current horse populations into recreational and sporting use, the horse will face the very same fate as the thousands of abandoned dogs and cats already overcrowding America’s animal shelters.The need for a solution is vital. We simply cannot afford economically or morally to ignore this problem any longer."

Tracey Stevens-Martin, the institute's deputy director, said: "Three top objectives that came from the group were the need for appropriate legislation, education and funding for humane options." 

Ria de Grassi of the California Farm Bureau Federation explained her reasons for attending the sessions. "Many of our members have equines so we care about how horses are treated. We have heard anecdotally that some horses have been turned loose in rural areas. We want to know the extent of the overall problem and how to help the animals."

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The International Animal Welfare Training Institute, a new organization within the School of Veterinary Medicine, brings together experts, stakeholders and consumers interested in companion animal well-being, livestock welfare, the care and health of shelter animals, emergency response for animals involved in disasters, and more. The goal is to create science-based solutions to welfare issues on the farm, in animal shelters and in other areas where that animals and humans intersect.

Those interested in helping financially toward solving this problem should contact Mr. Kelly Nimtz, assistant dean for development, (530) 752-7024,

Media contact:

John Madigan, International Animal Welfare Training Institute, (530) 304-1212,