Jeff Jardine

January 11, 2009

Jardine: Let unwanted horse starve? Better options exist

The emaciated, crippled horse dumped so cruelly in western Tuolumne County is in a more peaceful place now. It was euthanized Friday.

The mare, left near the Red Hills riding trails in late December, was an extreme and tragic case of animal neglect, mistreatment and abandonment that probably occurred over a year or more.

Still -- and unfortunately -- there will more like her in the coming months and years.

You see, many people envision this great bliss when it comes to owning a horse. But maintaining one, they learn, becomes an expensive proposition they often don't comprehend until they're in too deep.

Some suppliers charge more than $15 for a bale of hay, and each horse eats about one bale per week. There are veterinary expenses, including West Nile disease vaccinations and deworming. About every

60 days, horses need hoofwork ranging from about $30 for trimming to an average of $85 for reshoeing.

All told, a horse owner can easily spend more than $1,300 a year per horse, and that's for a healthy animal with no major medical issues and doesn't include the prices of saddles and tack.

Now, in a recession, some horse owners are among those who lost their jobs. Given the option of trying to keep their homes or feeding their animals, the animals generally suffer.

In desperation, and perhaps fearing being reported by neighbors, they're dumping skinny horses along roads or turning them loose on public lands.

Older, tame horses won't instinctively survive like mustangs, though. In the summer, dry grass lacks the protein to sustain a horse without other grain supplements. In the spring, the green grass can be too lush, causing the horse to founder, a condition that can ruin their hooves. Older horses with bad teeth -- often the animals that are abandoned -- will struggle to chew any grass, green or dry, and will suffer from malnourishment. They become easy prey for coyotes and mountain lions.

Other owners are more direct in the way they abandon their animals. Horse enthusiasts have returned from trail rides to find abandoned horses tied to their trailers or even in them.

It would be easy to go on a rant about the irresponsibility of such animal owners, tossing in a few choice expletives for effect, but it would do little good.

Instead, it makes more sense to explain the options so that others who find themselves in the same predicament can avoid making their animals suffer:

For a $30 fee, voluntarily surrender a horse to the county, said Dave Young, interim director of Stanislaus County Animal Services. The agency has seen an increase in surrendered horses in recent months, he said. It's better to admit defeat than simply turn a horse loose along a road, where it is in danger and is a hazard.

When horses are reported along the roads, they are captured and taken to the shelter where they must be kept for at least 14 days before they can be sold at auction. In theory, that gives their owners a chance to retrieve them. In practice, it never happens.

"I cannot recall any occasion, when we've picked up a stray on the roadway, where the owner showed up to claim the horse," Young said.

Take horses to the livestock auctions. But with so many people trying to unload horses these days, owners will be greatly disappointed in the selling prices. Also, owners need to understand buyers could ship the horses to Canada or Mexico for slaughter.

Turn over the horse to a rescue organization.

Some of them are finding that people who once adopted animals from their programs now want to give them back.

"Now, because people have lost jobs, even those who have adopted horses are coming back to us looking for help," said Tawnee Preisner, vice president and founder of NorCal Equine Rescue in Oroville, a nonprofit group that is one of the state's largest horse rescue organizations.

Since 2003, NorCal Equine Rescue has rescued nearly 800 horses, including 13 this month. It has orchestrated 93 adoptions over its life.

Raquelle Van Vleck of Jamestown owns the Rehorse Rescue Ranch, which has eight rescue horses. She's obtaining nonprofit status that will enable her to take donations, expand her operation and help more horses.

"I had no intention of getting into horse rescue," she said. "But I started getting calls about taking animals, and now there's such a need, I want to do more."

Her sister-in-law, Margaret Coleman of Angels Camp, cares for abused horses at her Tails A Flyin ranch.

"People are calling me all the time," Coleman said. "You don't have to turn them loose or starve them to death."

Even if the rescues have no more room at the barn, most will try to help you find a new owner for your horse.

"They'll have people who are looking for a specific (type) of horse," said Jennifer Clarke, Tuolumne County's animal control manager. "The more people involved, the more likely you are to find a match."

Offer the animal to a therapeutic riding clinic or dude ranch, although the horse would have to be "bomb proof," meaning anyone can ride it.

Give the horse to someone who can afford to care for it. Make sure the individual knows what he or she is getting into, cost-wise. Or talk to friends who have pastureland and ask if you can keep your horse there until your financial position improves.

Have the horse put down. Yes, this usually is the last and worst option.

"If it comes to that point -- where you're going starve your horse -- take it and have it humanely euthanized," said NorCal Equine Rescue's Preisner. "It's not fair to sit in the back yard and be starved. Let that horse's life end peacefully."

Her organization raises about $2,500 per month to provide free euthanizing for horses that can't be adopted out.

The bottom line is that a horse shouldn't suffer because you can no longer afford to keep it.

There are humane alternatives.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or

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