Horse problem: Abandonment up in rough times

Brand inspector Mike Walck won’t soon forget one of the worst cases of animal cruelty he has seen. In mid-November, between Rulison and Parachute, someone shot a horse in the head, leaving the gray gelding in his late teens or early 20s for dead. But the horse didn’t die.

“I don’t know why they were trying to kill the horse, but they damn sure shot it in the head,” Walck said angrily. “It’s a tough deal.”

Walck said the horse has been nursed back to health and is recovering. No arrests have been made in the case.

Unfortunately, Walck said, similar cases are on the rise.

Walck, who oversees brand inspections from De Beque and Aspen, said he normally handles one or two abandoned-horse cases a year. He handled 14 or 15 last year, which he said is becoming a trend that is mirrored nationwide.

“We all seem better able to handle these kinds of issues with dogs and cats being left behind, like with the foreclosure issue,” said veterinarian Kate Anderson, the administrator of the Colorado Bureau of Animal Protection. “If you agree to taking on a horse, you’re looking at 30 years. Dogs are 10 to 12 years. That’s doable for a lot of people. A horse doesn’t ever get any less expensive. There are a lot of people that we’re talking to who can’t give them away and can’t afford to feed them.”

Changing horse culture

Horses long have been cherished as livestock and companions in Mesa County.

Third-generation rancher Warren Gore owns 10 quarter horses to work cattle on Glade Park. Horses are still the best way to do many of his daily chores, but it’s sometimes easier just to hop on an all-terrain vehicle, something “even the best ranchers are finding themselves doing more and more,” Gore said.

As horses are used less for ranch work, the countryside itself is being parceled out into smaller lots or ranchettes of five to 15 acres where ranching is less and less the work of the land. Yet, folks moving from the city want to fulfill romantic Western notions of owning a horse, Gore said.

“Soon they find out they’re a lot of maintenance,” he said.

There was a time when people could buy horses with the intent of feeding and caring for them for resale. About 10 years ago, horses were sold at sale barns for a minimum of $500 to $600, said Jim Brach, co-owner of Western Slope Cattlemen’s Livestock Auction of Loma. Better horses fetched $1,500 to $3,000. At that time, slaughter prices were about 40 cents a pound, he said.

But these days, it’s likely folks will get at most a couple hundred dollars, and in some instances may owe money to the sale barn to sell a horse, Brach said.

“People can’t afford to feed themselves much less the horses,” Brach said.

Brach said he sees the result of the Grand Valley’s recent frigid temperatures and the stagnant economy in the overall increase of skinny horses that show up for sale.

In an attempt to revive the horse sales, Brach said the livestock barn plans to host horse sales on the third Saturday of each month, starting in February.

“It will help by having enough horses there,” he said. “I really feel there’s a need for it. Horses are getting turned out and starved.”

The slaughter debate

Selling horses for slaughter is not something that Kathy Hamm likes to talk about. Hamm operates End of the Trail Horse Rescue & Sanctuary in Olathe and gets calls from people asking for help because they no longer want their horses but are hesitant to send them to slaughter in other countries.

Slaughterhouses have disappeared in this country because it is illegal to buy or sell horses for human consumption in the U.S. Videotaped reports from Mexico’s slaughterhouses, however, indicate the practice is more brutal than any former U.S. plant.

“People don’t think it’s happening, but it’s happening a whole lot,” Hamm said of U.S. horses being inhumanely slaughtered in other countries.

Some people cite an increase in abandoned, neglected and abused horses as one drawback of the ban on U.S. slaughterhouses.

Costs for a veterinarian to euthanize a horse can run from $75 to $150, not including a disposal fee, which may be prohibitive to some hard-up horse owners.

Selling an older horse for slaughter formerly added valued to the animals that weigh between 900 to 1,600 pounds. Horse owners selling for slaughter now often end up paying money to be rid of them.

“Instead of doing that, they’ll abandon them and turn them out into the wild,” said Keene Rayley, brand inspector for Mesa County. “There’s getting to be a glut of horses on the market. This is the tip of the iceberg, and it’s going to get worse.”

Abuse and neglect

During the past seven years, last year was the first when Mesa County Animal Services issued summonses, two of them, for horse neglect and abuse, Director Penny McCarty said. The agency gets involved when it receives reports of possible neglect and abuse of animals on their owners’ properties.

The Mesa County Sheriff’s Department and the state are responsible for investigating cases of abandoned animals that are outside owners’ care. That responsibility can also fall to managers of the type of land the animals were found on, such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service.

Yet there’s not a budget within the Sheriff’s Department to handle cases of livestock abandonment, and caring for large animals can run from $10 to $15 per animal per day. Sheriff’s departments in Colorado are required to hold animals for 10 days, and the state brand inspectors are required to advertise in local media that the animals are for sale. After that, the animals can be sold locally through a sale barn.

Last fiscal year, the state Bureau of Animal Protection investigated 12,126 cases of animal neglect and cruelty. The largest number of cases involve dogs. Second on the list are horses. The agency investigated 1,588 cases of neglect and cruelty to horses during that time. The agency investigated about 17,000 cases the year before, but Dr. Anderson said the number of cases probably decreased because local agencies are hurting to find money to pay for investigations.

“Abandoned horses and livestock issues are somewhat new,” Dr. Anderson said. “It is a new thing causing some drains on the budgets. Large-scale impounds are going to be drains on the community.”

Mesa County Search and Rescue volunteers on Dec. 21 hauled out three hungry horses that were found in 4-foot-high snow drifts on Pinon Mesa. The horses’ owner, Glade Park resident Bob Cunningham, called in to claim the animals after seeing the news on television.

Cunningham has been cited by the U.S. Forest Service for having unauthorized livestock on Forest Service Land, which could result in a fine up to $5,000 or six months in jail. At minimum, Cunningham will have to pay $100 for each horse.

Cunningham previously told The Daily Sentinel he lost the horses in late October while scouting the area for hunting, and he figured neighbors would alert him to their whereabouts if they were seen. The Mesa County Sheriff’s Department has said the case is under investigation, and it has not determined whether to file charges against Cunningham.

Cunningham’s three horses were sold at the Loma sale barn and did not go to slaughter, sale barn co-owner Jim Brach said.

Helping neighbors

Equine veterinarian Braden Shafer said he’s lucky to work with horses and the people who love them. Sometimes, though, problems arise when well-meaning parents purchase the wrong kind of horse for their children.

“Horses are good for child development,” he said. “I see a lot of kids give up because they got the wrong horse. If there’s a mother or a father who would be better off with a $3,000 horse than a $500 horse, it may be the best $2,500 they ever spent.”

Shafer encourages interested families to get involved with the Pony Club and 4-H Club programs, so children are introduced early to horses.

While he doesn’t see cases of abuse and neglect in his rounds, it’s encouraging that other horse owners are often willing to help when others realize they made a mistake with their horse purchase.

Mary Lou Mitchell, who lives in Appleton, north of Grand Junction, did just that for a neighbor’s starved and crippled horse.

After the horse was relinquished to her, she got the animal its shots and had an acupuncturist work to get the horse to lift its feet instead of scraping them on the ground. Mitchell worked tirelessly to remove layers of dandruff from the horse’s coat, caused by stress, and extracted a wad of weeds that had become the horse’s tail. Mitchell gave the horse shelter for the first time and constant access to food and water.

“Within a year she was absolutely beautiful,” Mitchell said.

Unfortunately, the horse took a bad fall and Mitchell had to put her down.

“She raised her head and looked at me and nickered like she was saying goodbye,” Mitchell said. “It broke my heart.”

Most of the horse owners contacted for possible abuse and neglect are cooperative with authorities, McCarty said. Sometimes what may appear to be a neglected horse is one that is sick or old and receiving treatment.

The ailing economy has largely been the biggest stress on families trying to maintain a horse, she said.

Still, people could help each other out if they see a need. It doesn’t hurt to offer a struggling neighbor help with feed or allow them to graze their animals on your pasture, she said.

“If people could just get involved before it’s too late,” she said.


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