MACHIAS, Maine — A bad economic climate and even worse weather earlier this summer have created a crisis for many horse owners. Under the stresses of uncertain finances and a near-disastrous hay crop, many Mainers have had to surrender their horses to the state of Maine this year.
“Last year we removed 32 horses from owners that could no longer care for them,” Maine’s Animal Welfare Director Norma Worley said Monday. “Only six of them were seizures [for abuse or neglect].”
But by the end of August this year, 50 horses already had been voluntarily surrendered to the state, she said.
“People are struggling to put food on their own dinner table. They cannot afford to feed a horse,” she said.
They cannot afford to have them euthanized, either, said Janet Tuttle of Rockin’ T Equine Rescue in Union.
“Some of the horses being brought to us are 30 years old,” she said. “I have 33 horses here now and more than five of them have heart conditions.”
To have a horse euthanized, it costs about $185 plus the cost of a backhoe for burial and the veterinarian’s farm call fee, Tuttle said.
“People are going to tie the horses out back of the barns to die,” she predicted. “This is beyond sad.”
Tuttle said that in her effort to rescue horses, she also has piled up bills. “I owe $2,500 to the vet and $5,000 to my hay man,” she said. “I have never seen it this bad.”
Within a few weeks, horses will no longer be able to feed off pastures.
“We’re worried,” Worley said. “This winter is going to be bad.”
The high cost of grain, hay and veterinary care, combined with the 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. Hay that was $1 a bale two years ago is now $4 to $6 a bale. A 50-pound bag of grain that was $8.50 is now $15.
Persistent rain has pushed the price of hay to record levels, according to Rick Kersbergen of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “This has been the worst year I’ve seen for hay,” he said this week. “Some people are just getting a first cutting in now.”
Jennifer Allain Winchester at Spirit of Hope Farm in Winterport said she is turning away more horses than she is rescuing.
“Last year round bales cost us $40 each. This year we’re expecting that cost to rise to $50 each. This is a 20 percent increase in cost for hay alone,” she said. “Coupled with a poorer quality crop because of the excessive rain — we’re just getting in our first cutting, which will be more dry and dusty, with less nutritional value be-cause it is not cut at prime growth — we will also have to supplement with other products like Hay Stretcher pellets, alfalfa cubes and more grain, which of course adds more cost. Because of the increase in the overall cost of feed, along with a reduction in donations and adoptions due to the economy, we are in a financial place where we can’t take in any more horses, at least not for the time being.”
Judy Merryfield at Mountain Equine Rescue in Union said she remembers when hay cost just 60 cents a bale. “We are coming into winter now and I have three to five people calling me each day wanting to give up their horses,” she said. “They are telling me they can’t afford the hay or their hay dealer doesn’t have a supply this year.”
Merryfield has 15 rescued horses on her farm right now and spends hours each day trying to arrange private placements.
“This is the worst it has been and it will only get worse,” she said.
Linwood Green at Double B Equine Rescue in Industry said he too is trying to link those forced to give up their horses with others who are willing to adopt them.
“We charge no adoption fee and we have adopted out about eight horses already this summer,” he said.
Green has 17 horses looking for homes while he normally would have about a dozen at this time of year.
“We are overfull,” he said.
He hears from those relinquishing their horses that the high cost of hay is forcing their decisions.
“The situation is terrible,” he said. “We feed what we can get but we try to get the best. Abused or neglected horses especially need some really good rations to bring them back to good health.”
He said what would really help is for people who want a horse to call the shelter and adopt.
For those who own Standardbreds, the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of Maine in Buxton has an emergency program for those in need of hay. The program is limited to Standardbreds and can be applied for confidentially by calling 284-2230.
Brenda Bryant of the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization said the organization also has free horses available for adoption.
“People can’t wait any more for a horse to sell,” said Bryant. “It is not about getting the cash. It is about avoiding the costs.”
Debbie Lee McLane at Downeast Large Animal Society, which shelters horses, in Deblois said she turned away more than 50 horses this summer, all because the owners lacked hay. “I really think that it is going to get a lot worse,” she said.
Kersbergen said that because rain delayed many harvesters, much of the hay on hand could be in very poor condition. It could have a lot of dead or dry material in it and be of poor quality, he said.
“When you pay that much for hay, you really need to get an analysis done,” he said.
Kersbergen has postage-paid mailing envelopes for horse owners to send hay samples for testing that cost $15 per sample. He can be reached at 800-287-1426.
He also said the Extension Service’s annual hay directory is up and running and has quite a bit of hay listed for sale. The directory can be found at www.umext.maine.edu/Waldo/hay