At Last Chance Ranch in Troy, volunteers are mucking out stalls on a cold winter morning, tossing the horses hay, and giving some much needed brushing and attention to the rescued horses sheltered here. Their winter coats are filling in and they look velvety and healthy.
CarolAnn Spreda of Albion is asked “How many rescues are here?”
“Fourteen,” she answers.
“How many do you have room for?”
“Fourteen,” she repeats.
Yet that is no where near the number that is needed.
“Maine’s horse industry is in crisis,” Last Chance owner Mary Myshrall said Wednesday. “I get calls every day from people looking to surrender their horses. People are terrified of what is coming next.”
The high cost of grain, hay and veterinary care, combined with today’s economic crisis across the country and a general horse overpopulation, has horse owners surrendering their animals in record numbers, unable to feed and financially care for them over the winter.
“They are having a hard time feeding themselves, much less their horses,” Spreda said.
Hay that was $1 a bale last year, is now $4 a bale. A 50-pound bag of grain that was $8.50 is now at $15.
It’s not just backyard horse owners that are struggling.
“I had one phone call from a breeder who needed to get rid of 18 pregnant brood mares,” Myshrall said. “That’s 36 horses, in the end.” Myshrall predicted that since every equine rescue and shelter in Maine is full, those 18 horses will either be sold to meat markets or euthanized.
“There are days that I just sit down and cry,” she said. “This is a crisis situation and a vicious cycle. Breeders keep breeding and dumping the sub-quality or ill horses, meat buyers only want the best and fattest horses, so the ill, the old, the infirm — that’s what ends up at the rescues. And no one wants them. What is the differ-ence between an owner euthanizing their horse and me euthanizing it? Responsibility.”
Lenny Green at Double B Equine Rescue in Industry said he also is getting calls daily from desperate horse owners.
“We had a call yesterday to give up three,” he said. “Two days before that, someone needed to give up two work horses. I’ve never seen it this bad.”
Judy Merrifield of Mountain Equine Rescue in Union has been sheltering horses for 30 years, and she said this week she has never seen so many horse owners at the end of their financial rope.
“I have 30 horses right now. I’m full,” she said. “And I have 15 horses on a waiting list.”
The extent of the trouble runs deep, she said.
“I just got an e-mail from a Maine stable that said one of their school horses had some medical issues and they can’t afford the medical costs to find out what is wrong. They wanted to know if I could take the horse in at the shelter. What are they thinking? The shelters are having a hard time, too. We can’t just close the doors and turn off the heat like a store.”
Jennifer Winchester at Spirit of Hope rescue farm in Winterport said she has turned away about 75 horses. “We have been contacted almost daily by e-mail and phone from people who can no longer afford to keep their horses. Normally in the summer there is a hiatus, but there wasn’t one this year. Finances aside, lots of people are still breeding really poor quality horses here, so Maine-bred horses are not in high demand elsewhere, except for as a nice steak, of course.”
State officials are so concerned that a special equine welfare meeting to develop a five-year plan has been set at the Maine Department of Agriculture on Dec. 3.
“This is certainly a timely topic as the winter approaches. The price of feed continues to rise, and our concerns heighten over people’s ability to care for horses, “ Dr. Don Hoenig, state veterinarian said.
A national unwanted horse advocacy group is conducting a survey of equine associations, veterinarians, breeders, state and local law enforcement, horse owners, rescue-retirement facilities, and other facilities using horses to gauge the extent of the problem.
Here in Maine, even rescues that do not take in surrendered horses are being inundated with requests.
Meris J. Bickford of the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals in South Windham, New England’s largest equine rescue, said, “Yes, at the MSSPA we have experienced a substantial increase in the number of people who contact the organization in an effort to surrender their horses. The society doesn’t generally ac-cept surrenders, but people contact us via phone, Web site, and in person to inquire whether their animals can be taken in. It is unbelievably sad.”
Merryfield said that it costs a rescue shelter $1,000 to accept a horse with veterinarian checkups, food and care. “Some of my biggest sponsors have backed out. This time of the year, we usually see checks for $10 to $100 coming in, but that is not happening,” she said.
The cash-strapped shelters are starting to get creative to raise funds, and most rescue owners work full-times jobs off the farm to pay for rescue expenses.
Myshrall’s volunteers are selling holiday wreathes, candles and wool socks. Merryfield is having an on-line sale of used horse equipment, and both rescuers are waiving the adoption fee on some of their horses to free up stalls.
Bickford said, “We do maintain a pet adoption line which allows us to attempt to match people who want to surrender animals with people who want to adopt animals, but there is a larger number of horses on the pet adoption line than one would ordinarily see.”
As rough as the situation is going to be for them this winter, every horse rescuer interviewed said they were really concerned about next spring, when horses are released from their barns.
“Horses who have starved in barns all winter will be turned out to pasture,” Bickford said. “It isn’t easy to gauge how many horses will be under cover, but underfed this winter, but given the escalating costs of processed feed and hay, even a non-math major can calculate the odds of horses doing well in this economic environ-ment.”
The problem of unwanted horses is being studied through a nationwide initiative of the Unwanted Horse Coalition in an online survey.
The coalition stated that there are few documented facts about the accurate number of unwanted horses — their age, sex, breed, recent use, value or what happens to them in the long run.
“Although there are numerous media reports and much anecdotal evidence of a growing problem with unwanted horses, there have been no studies or surveys done to attempt to document it,” said Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council. “The downturn in the economy, rising costs of hay, the drought that has af-fected many parts of the United States, the costs of euthanasia and carcass disposal, and the closing of the nation’s slaughter facilities have all made the problem worse. But no one knows its magnitude.”
The survey can be found at www.survey.ictgroup.com/uhcsurvey/.