The neglect and abandonment of horses across Northwest Montana and the state is increasing as hay prices climb and a recession settles in, making it harder for owners of the animals to afford the cost of their care, according to local and state officials. But these officials also caution that the perception of high horse abandonment and neglect is significantly greater than the real scope of the problem.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of abandoned horses,” Steve Merritt, spokesman for the Montana Department of Livestock, said. “I expect that it will continue and get worse.”
According to Merritt, there have been five horse abandonment cases since August in the district encompassing Flathead, Lincoln, Lake and part of Sanders counties, which is up from the previous period. He didn’t have hard numbers for how many horses have been abandoned across the state in that time, but said it is increasing slightly.
“We’re not talking about huge numbers, but we are seeing an increase,” Merritt added.
In addition to the doubling in the price of horse hay and the recession, Merritt also attributes the increase in abandonment to the ban on horse slaughter in the U.S. The common result is that owners with sick or injured horses they can no longer afford to care for, can’t afford to ship to Mexico or Canada for slaughter and can no longer sell, end up neglecting the horses or abandoning them, sometimes on public land – which is a felony. Meanwhile, the number of horses sent to Mexico or Canada for processing has skyrocketed.
“Their well-intentioned idea didn’t work,” Merritt said of the slaughter ban. “A lot of these abandoned horses would normally end up in a market.”
But Merritt also said a number of high profile horse abandonment cases across the Pacific Northwest, and subsequent news stories generated by these cases, have created an outsized perception of the problem. This, coupled with the affection – if not always understanding – most people have for horses has resulted in livestock officials and animal wardens chasing a lot of false leads when it comes to horse abandonment and neglect.
“This has basically turned into a media feeding frenzy,” Merritt said. “People are too removed from the farm these days.”
Paul Charbonneau can attest to that. He is one of Flathead County’s four animal wardens and he investigates a call about an abandoned or neglected horse just about every day. While there are a few horses Charbonneau is “really keeping a close eye on,” most he checks out are adequately cared for.
“We’re definitely seeing more calls of concern about horses not being fed,” Charbonneau said. “Horses are being fed, but people can’t see hay under snow.”
He attributes the increase in horse neglect calls to the recent heavy snow, where someone driving past a pasture doesn’t see a hay bale covered with snow, or is worried horses can’t handle the cold weather, which is rarely the case. But Charbonneau is also concerned that as the recession extends through the year, more people may find they can no longer afford to care for their livestock.
“People are getting livestock, a horse or a cow, without actually understanding what it exactly takes and how much money it costs to have one,” he added.
And those costs have increased at a steep rate, particularly when it comes to feed. Two years ago a horse hay bale cost $5 or $6 at Cenex Harvest States in Kalispell, according to Feed Department Manager Ken Sederdahl. Today, a horse hay bale costs about $11. A ton of horse hay that might have previously cost $80, now runs anywhere from $180 to $200.
Sederdahl noted that there is more livestock in the valley than hay produced, so part of the high cost of hay derives from shipping, as well as the increase in fertilizer costs. Hay is cheaper in eastern Montana, but more expensive throughout much of the Western U.S. As a result of the price increase, customers who might have purchased bulk hay in the past, now buy much smaller amounts.
“We sell an awful lot of hay by the bale,” Sederdahl said. “Six months to a year ago, money was no object.”
Over the counter, Sederdahl said he hears a lot from customers about neglected horses or strays wandering onto public and private land, and he’s afraid horse neglect could increase between March and July, when demand for retail hay peaks, before local farmers cut their hay in July.
The rise in hay prices is not only making it more difficult for some owners, but tougher on the equine sanctuaries that take in horses for adoption when their owner can no longer keep them.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that there are many people in financial trouble who can’t afford their horses,” Jane Heath, executive director of the Montana Horse Sanctuary, west of Great Falls, said. “Our waiting list is longer than it’s ever been, for sure.”
Two years ago, Heath estimates she had about 50 horses on the sanctuary’s waiting list. Today, about 100 horses are waiting, from all over Montana. While she’s grateful adoptions have continued at a steady pace, the supply of horses in need of homes continues to vastly outstrip the demand.
In the Flathead, the number of horse rescue groups has dwindled as the hay costs have increased and adoptions have decreased. The Angels Among Us Equine Rescue and Sanctuary, in operation since 2001, was forced to close at the end of last year.
Michelle Sudan, president and co-founder of Angels Among Us, said her organization was caring for as many as 40 horses at a time for several years, but volunteers, along with funding and feed donations dropped off precipitously in 2008.
“We went too big too soon because we thought that we would continue to get these donations,” she said.
Like Charbonneau and Merritt, Sudan hasn’t seen an increase in horse abandonment, but agrees it has inexplicably become a problem with a higher profile. Still, she believes the economic downturn is going to realign the expectations many people have when it comes to owning a horse or other livestock.
“Everybody thinks they should have a horse – that Montana dream of owning a horse,” Sudan said. “That’ll change.”
And with fewer options and no end in sight to the recession, the problem of horse abandonment could grow to fill its outsized reputation in 2009.
“I still get calls with ‘Can you take my horse?’” Sudan added. “It kills me to say no.”
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