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As family finances dwindle, more horses face abandonment

POSTED: December 31, 2008 12:06 a.m.
JIM DEAN/Times regional staff

Volunteer Elizabeth Downey, who drives from Alpharetta to help out, mucks one of the stalls on the farm. Downey found the farm when she was helping a neighbor try to find a place that would take a dog they could not keep. She now volunteers several times a week and frequently brings children from her neighborhood to help out.

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When the mortgage crisis worsened in early 2008, there was an increase in reports of people abandoning cats and dogs in their foreclosed homes.

As the recession deepened, animal shelters began seeing more owners surrendering their pets, saying they couldn’t afford to keep them anymore.

But the economic downturn has hit the horse community even harder. On average, owning a horse costs at least five times as much as taking care of a dog.

And while a dog or cat always can be taken to an animal shelter if necessary, there is no convenient place where someone can simply drop off an unwanted horse.

Instead, the financially struggling owners usually keep the horse on their property, but they stop paying for feed and veterinary care. Technically, they haven’t abandoned the horse, but they can be charged with neglect.

"We often find the animals in deplorable conditions," said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. "Sometimes there is gross neglect (denying access to food and water), which can be prosecuted as a felony. We’ve got some cases now that fit into that category."

He said even before the economic collapse, Georgia’s horse industry was reeling from the drought, which killed much of the vegetation that livestock graze on.

"When pasture land deteriorates, some owners don’t have the resources to buy supplemental feed," Irvin said.

With the loss of personal income, other aspects of horse care may fall by the wayside. For example, horses are supposed to be dewormed and have their hooves trimmed by a farrier every two months.

According to the Humane Care for Equines act of 1992 (Official Code of Georgia 4-13), owners must provide adequate food, water, shelter and veterinary care. If they fail to do so, their horses may be confiscated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture or by local law enforcement.

The agriculture department currently has 11 equine inspectors who respond to complaints about neglected horses. Irvin said agents first try to work with owners to correct any problems, but if those efforts fail, or if the owners cannot be located, the horses can be impounded.

Irvin said the state has impounded more than 200 horses in the past year.

"That’s more than we have in any year since I’ve been commissioner," he said.

The debilitated horses are taken to state impoundment facilities in Mansfield, Decatur and Hawkinsville, where they are nursed back to health and later sold at auction.

Irvin said the state held five auctions this year, selling about two dozen horses at each one. Proceeds from the sales are used to recoup some of the expense of caring for the horses.

"But it costs a lot more to rehabilitate these animals than they bring at auction," he said. "We don’t get any state appropriations for this program, so it’s been difficult to handle the number of animals we’ve had this year. We depend on rescue leagues to raise money."

Horse rescue groups have their hands full, too.

"I’ve got probably 100 horses now, and the last thing I need is another one," said Cheryl Flanagan, director of the Horse Rescue, Relief and Retirement Fund, a Forsyth County nonprofit group.

But she said her priority is making sure that horses are safe, and she won’t turn away one that’s in a dire situation.

Flanagan said she worries about horses being slaughtered. All of the horse slaughterhouses in the United States have been shut down, "but there’s nothing to prevent someone from buying a horse at auction and then selling it to someone who sends it to Canada or Mexico," she said.

But the cost of transporting a horse that distance may be more than the price a seller would receive from a slaughterhouse.

And not all rescue groups share Flanagan’s views. Brian Dees, outgoing president of the Georgia Equine Rescue League, thinks the demise of slaughterhouses has removed a legitimate option for people who want to get rid of a horse.

"There’s no end market for horses anymore (in the U.S.)," he said. "In the old days, if you had a horse you couldn’t keep anymore, you could take it to an auction and it would be sent to a slaughterhouse."

Flanagan said ideally, horses should be allowed to live out their natural lives even if their "useful" years are over.

"Our oldest horse is about 40, and we have several who are in their 30s," she said.

And if loving homes can’t be found for senior horses, Flanagan prefers that they be humanely euthanized.

"It’s a sad option, but it’s better than being sent to slaughter," she said.

Dees also believes euthanasia is acceptable, "as a last resort," he said. "It’s better than starving. Starvation is a horrible way to die."

Dees said sometimes people simply abandon a horse.

"They just move away from a place, or if they’re boarding (the horse), they just never come back," he said. "Also, occasionally we’ll see one just dropped off on the side of the road. I think some people are using this (economy) as an excuse to dump their horse."

Dees said people get into financial trouble with horses for the same reason their homes end up in foreclosure: They overestimate how much they can afford.

"Horses are a luxury item," he said. "But buying a horse is the cheap part. You should expect to spend about $300 a month for feed and basic maintenance, and that doesn’t include boarding or the treatment of illnesses and injuries."

Dees has a stable in Barnesville and charges about $400 a month for boarding.

Dori Bishop, owner of Rails-n-Trails Stables in North Hall, said she charges $330 a month for stall boarding, but some stables that cater to show horses charge as much as $800.

"We usually have a waiting list for boarding, but this year we don’t, because fewer people are buying horses," she said.

Bishop agrees that the initial "sticker price" of a horse is nothing compared to what will be spent on the animal during its lifetime.

"Prices for horses are down these days. You can get a decent horse very cheap," she said. "In fact, there are a lot of horses that are being given away. I recently took one in myself, even though I couldn’t really afford to."

Bishop said she hates to see a horse without a good home.

"Most of the rescue groups are full and can’t accept any more horses," she said.

And it’s especially challenging to find homes for horses who are in poor condition, as many of the rescued animals are.

"Once a horse has lost weight, it’s really difficult to get the weight back on," said Bishop. "High-fat feeds are very expensive."

Dees said owners should not wait until the last minute to acknowledge that they’re having trouble caring for their horse.

"We prefer that they come to us before the horse starves," he said. "We can help them to network and find it a good home. There’s still lots of people who will take a free horse."

Dees recommends that people carefully research the potential costs before they commit to buying a horse.

"You should consider leasing a horse, to see if it’s right for you," he said.

Irvin said the agriculture department, within its limited budget, is attempting to convey the same message.

"We try to educate the public that it can be a tremendous financial liability to own a horse," he said.

But Dees said there are some who love horses so much that they’re willing to take on that liability, and they’ll sacrifice other amenities in order to pay for the horse’s care.

"People who are dedicated will always find a way to make the horse a priority," he said.



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