Hard Times for a Western Icon

By Beacon Staff

ELMO – A perfect storm has risen over horse country.

Prices are plummeting in an oversaturated equine market, people are neglecting or abandoning their horses at a higher rate and more ranchers are trading in four legs for four wheels. Hay prices are through the roof and the economy is hurting. And in Montana, a final frontier of the American West, there is no consensus on what to do.

Some horse folks are waiting to see if the economy turns around. Others believe it’s time to bring back horse slaughterhouses – the last one in the United States closed in 2007. Their critics say no way. Many just don’t know what the answer is.

The difficulties touch everybody in the horse industry, from breeders and trainers to ranchers and casual riders, and everybody in between. Horses still carry a grand mystique, but they are expensive, and when there’s too many of them, tough decisions have to be made.

According to a study published for the American Horse Council, there were 9.2 million horses in the United States in 2005, used for work, racing, show or as pets. But many people are finding it increasingly hard to fork out thousands of dollars each year to maintain a horse when it’s hard enough to feed their family.

“We can’t just sit here and afford to throw $140-a-ton hay at them,” said Sharon Guenzler, a fifth-generation rancher in Ronan. “They have to generate some kind of income to make them worth having.”

It’s not cheap to own a horse, whether you’re a rancher with a pasture filled with them or you’re a horse lover with one as a pet at your house. Shots, shoeing and hay add up fast. So do veterinary services and boarding costs. If the horse isn’t trained and you’re not a cowboy, the training bills pile up.

Sigurd Jensen, a third-generation rancher on Flathead Lake, operates Chief Cliff Quarter Horses in Elmo along with his neighbor Zoe Lilja. Jensen said his ranch used to produce about 20 colts a year. Recently, he’s slowed production down to three or four a year, and he still has too many horses. He just can’t sell them, at least for a decent price.

Jensen said he’s fortunate to have 500 acres for pasture, as well as his own hay-making capabilities. Otherwise, his horse business would go from struggling to obsolete.

“If I had to buy the hay, I couldn’t afford to have these horses,” Jensen said.

Expensive, finished horses are still selling fine, for the most part. People who want a highly trained horse with desirable bloodlines will still find a way to buy it, industry experts say. But it’s the low- and mid-range horses that are concerning, particularly for populous breeds like quarter horses.

Simply put, there are a lot of horses out there, due to over-breeding – partly a symptom of irresponsible or “backyard breeding” – and economic conditions. If people don’t need special bloodlines or special training, for specific purposes like work or show, they can choose from an abundance of cheap horses. This is good for their pocketbooks, but bad for sellers and the market.

The dilemma then arises for horse breeders: Do you hold on to the horse, hoping for a better price, or do you unload it at a discount to avoid the costs of maintaining it? Guenzler said sale prices for her horses are down at least 40 percent. With declines that severe, Jensen wonders if it’s worth it.

“You can only drop prices so much until you’re losing money,” Jensen said.

What ends up happening, Jensen said, is more people hold on to their horses, which can pave the way to neglect or abandonment. Annual bills for horse care are a couple grand or more.

Euthanasia can be costly, and Jensen said many people are uncomfortable with the idea of shooting their horses, even if they’re old or unwanted. Recently, while fencing, Jensen bumped into an abandoned horse roaming near Lake Mary Ronan.

Lorion Bunyea, owner of Bigfork Equestrian Center, said the stalls at her boarding facility are no longer full, which was unheard of in previous years. She has lowered her prices, but folks just don’t have money. Bunyea said she sees free horses advertised in a local publication and thinks “it’s very sad.”

“They don’t want to feed them,” Bunyea said. “They would rather feed themselves. There’s a lot of starvation going on, a lot of rescues going on.”

All of which raises the question: What is the solution? And that question often provokes prickly conversations about slaughter. Scott Beckstead, equine protection specialist for the Humane Society of the United States, stresses that horse owners have options if they fall on hard times.

Beckstead encourages owners to seek out rescue and animal care organizations before resorting to abandoning or selling their horse at a discount at an auction where it may then be transported out of the U.S. for slaughter. Beckstead’s organization is adamantly against re-opening slaughterhouses in the U.S., as is Bunyea.

Bunyea calls it “cruel and unusual punishment” and says the horses “know they’re being led to death.”

“I have an old (horse) – I could never put him on a train and say see you,” Bunyea said. “That’s as heartless as you can get.”

But the idea of re-opening domestic slaughterhouses has plenty of supporters, including Jann Parker, who co-manages the Billings Livestock Commission Horse Sales. Parker said her monthly Billings sale is the biggest horse sale in the nation.

Parker downplays the effect of the economy on the horse industry’s struggles. Instead, she said the main culprit is the lack of slaughterhouses. While top-end horses are still selling, she said not having domestic processing plants “has wiped out the bottom of the horse market.” Parker said cultures across the world eat horse meat – the demand is there and the rest, she said, is “high school economics.”

“Nothing that you want to think or you want to do is going to change the fact that somewhere out there in this big wide world there is a demand for horse meat – people are going to eat it,” she said. “And we have a supply.”

Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, author of a bill at the 2009 Montana Legislature promoting the construction of an in-state horse slaughter facility, has been studying possible locations for a processing plant. Recently, it was reported that Hardin could be a potential home, which was welcome news to Parker.

“Maybe they’d let me dig the first shovelful of dirt,” Parker said. “I’d love it. I want to do what’s best for the industry.”

Jensen believes slaughterhouses would help the market, but in their absence, he’s focused on making his horse-selling business viable in other ways, somehow. He doesn’t know exactly how, but he does know one thing – he’ll keep trying.

“It’s been a way of life for us,” Jensen said. “I won’t give up horses.”