Horse rescue operations still struggling in wake of recession

Jenipher McDonald trims the hoof of a horse Wednesday at LEARN Horse Rescue farm in Meggett. Horse rescues nationwide are running low on room and donations.

MEGGETT -A pony recently found a new home here at the Livestock Equine Awareness and Rescue Network after a father bought it for his daughter but it bit her twice.

The girl no longer wanted the horse, and neighbors found it wandering around with its ribs showing.

The pony's path to LEARN was not a particularly unusual one.

"He's the nicest man," said Elizabeth Steed, the nonprofit's director, said of the father. "Most of the people who do this, they're not monsters. They're just not educated. They don't understand that these horses need so much attention."

Steed has been rescuing horses for 30 years, and she's familiar with stories like this. But in the last few years, she has heard more and more.

Almost every horse rescue in the country is running out of room or money as they continue to be strained by an influx of abandoned equines, a trend that began during the recession.

In South Carolina, the situation is much the same.

Steed says she gets phone calls every day from people who can't afford to keep their horses.

"I'm used to taking all of the cases from Charleston County. We might take in, like, three or four a year," she said. "We took in two at the end of 2007. In '08, we took in, I think, 11. In '09, we got 33 horses in one day - from one farm.

"It just really exploded, and it was a balloon effect. It hasn't slowed down since."

Although hundreds of nonprofits nationwide care for thousands of horses, their resources are stretched thin. When the recession started seven years ago, some owners got rid of their horses, many donors discontinued contributions to horse charities and adoptions plummeted.

"Some nonprofits are down 50 percent," said Shirley Puga, executive director and founder of the California-based National Equine Resource Network. "If you have a fixed population of animals and your donations go down 50 percent, that's a huge constraint financially."

The economy has turned a corner, but things have only improved marginally for the rescues, Puga said. An astonishing number of horses are still being abandoned, and many people remain worried about their finances and not ready to resume donating or adopting yet, she said.

LEARN, which relies on donations for its operating costs, is currently over capacity with 31 horses.

"We're having to turn down more. That's the biggest consequence, and it's heartbreaking for me," Steed said.

"Chesterfield County called last week, and they had seven horses that were worse than him," she said, gesturing to one of LEARN's newest additions, whose ribs were showing, "and we couldn't take them."

The strain on rescue agencies stems from more than the growing number of abandoned horses. Take feed prices, for example.

"Because of ethanol fuel, corn is going through the roof," Steed said. "It's not the best source of food for horses, but a lot of people use it because it's cheap. It's not cheap anymore. The price of hay has gone up - it's doubled in the last three years."

LEARN gets a small discount on veterinary services, but the costs still add up. Steed said she asked for a larger discount, but was told that would be impossible. She was one of the few clients who were still paying at all.

Equine Rescue of Aiken is a little luckier, working with a vet who helps them out "tremendously," said Jim Rhodes, the rescue's farm manager.

"We were given a grant this year and all our shots were supplied," he said, "but that's just one portion of the care of a horse. You're looking at $5,000-8,000 a year - insurance, gas, food, etc."

Racing is king in Aiken County. It's home to more horses than any other county in the state, not counting the thoroughbreds brought there from northern states for winter training and races. But the racing industry was hit by the recession, too.

"They had a hard time getting the races filled this year," said Rhodes, who usually has a few horses of his own on the tracks. "There's been a dramatic decrease the last couple of years in horses kept in the barns around here for racing."

Equine Rescue of Aiken has room for 60-65 horses, and most of them are thoroughbreds whose racing days are over. The rescue opened in 2006, and it's remained at capacity nearly the whole time.

"If I go to the tracks, I have to take the signs off my truck, or else people come up to me and want me to go to their barn and look at a horse they want me to take," Rhodes said.

But Rhodes also gets frequent calls about horses being neglected. Intentional or not, it makes him angry.

"Talking to horse owners, here's the typical bio: The horse is 25 years old, they can't afford to take care of him, they've had him since he was a baby," he said. "It's hard to make them understand that they need to be responsible. You make a lifetime commitment to an animal, or you make the provisions to do otherwise. It's discouraging at times because the people just want to get rid of their problem, and it just moves it to us."

Adam Eichelberger, director of animal health programs at the South Carolina State Veterinarian's Office, has seen a lot of these cases.

"What people forget when they own horses is they live for a very long time, up to 30 years, and to own a horse is very expensive," he said. "It can be anywhere from $7 to $15 a day to take care of one. I don't know that everyone who gets a horse has that long-term plan."

Rhodes said backyard breeding is a huge part of the problem. The term refers both to small, unregistered breeding operations and to owners who simply let their horses breed without thinking through the consequences. Most of the time, these are not high-end horses, he said.

"We see a lot of abuse and neglect cases that come from that," he said. "You breed junk and junk, and you're going to get junk. You can't find them a home - how do you think we're going to find them a home?"

The overcrowding problem also worsened when American slaughterhouses stopped processing horses in 2007, the same year the recession began.

Slaughterhouse advocates claim bringing them back would eliminate the burden on rescues.

The federal government last year approved allowing plants in New Mexico, Missouri and Iowa to resume slaughtering horses, but their plans were blocked when Congress voted against funding the required inspections.

Eichelberger said the double whammy packed by the recession and the end of horse slaughter has led to an increased number of horses at sales and auctions, as well as elevated concerns on his part about owners who can't afford to feed their animals -or won't feed them.

"What we've seen throughout South Carolina and the whole country is an increased number of neglected horses," he said. "I'm not saying I'm an advocate of slaughter, but it was a humane way to put them down if they were in pain or old or couldn't be taken care of. Older horses need special care, and a lot of people don't know how to do that."

Despite the economy's upswing, South Carolina rescuers said not much has improved.

For now, they're focusing on education as the best way to decrease the number of abandoned and neglected horses.

"We have to make the public and people involved in the industry more aware of the consequences of overbreeding," Rhodes said.

Steed agreed.

"The economy, I know, is coming around, but the economy when it comes to the expense of owning a horse is very difficult," she said. "I don't see it getting better anytime soon. People are indiscriminately breeding; they're not gelding them. Education, to me, is the number one component that's lacking."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.