By MEGAN MILLER
WOODBINE (March 24, 2009)—Maryland horse owners are "dumping" their unwanted livestock at 10 times the rate of last year, and the horses they're shedding are not just backyard ponies, according to informal statistics from rescue organizations.
Horse rescue operators are wrestling with a staggering number of horses in need of homes, a byproduct of the region's crumbling economy, struggling racetracks and the closure of U.S. slaughter plants.
Kathy Howe, president of the Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine, keeps records of every call the farm receives from owners trying to surrender horses.
In February 2008, Days End received eight calls involving eight horses. In February 2009, Howe recorded 17 calls involving 101 horses—a tenfold increase in just one year. Of the 101, 47 were Thoroughbreds.
The majority of callers say they're surrendering their horses for financial reasons, Howe said. Just about one-third of the total callers gave that reason in 2008.
Other rescue operators have also seen a dramatic increase in owner surrenders.
"I turn away five to six horses a week, and it used to be five a month," said Elle Williams, executive director of HorseNet Horse Rescue in Mount Airy. "Within the last year it's gotten really bad."
"Most of the equine rescues are filled to capacity, and I get calls at least twice a week," said Pat Douglas, founder of the Pheasant Hill Equine Foundation in Adamstown. "I would definitely say the economy has something to do with the amount of horses needing homes."
Rescue horses come from a range of backgrounds. Some are simply pets or riding horses that people can no longer afford to keep.
But Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the Carroll County Humane Society, thinks many are racing or show horses no longer wanted in the industry, for financial or performance reasons.
"Any time that you are using animals for any kind of competition, a certain percentage of those animals will never be able to compete on the necessary level," Ratliff said. "You're only going to take the cream of the crop. You see how they perform, and the ones that don't, don't have another use."
The Thoroughbred industry is so prominent in Maryland that several horse rescues focus only on those castoffs, including Summerwinds Stables in Warwick. Founder Elena DiSilvestro said there's been a huge increase in the number of horses brought to her attention just within the past three to six months.
"There almost has to be a level of responsibility that starts with the race industry, where they say, 'Hey, eventually this horse is not going to be able to race anymore,'" said DiSilvestro. "I think they have to say, when this horse's racing career is done, what is his future?"
Some measures are now being taken at a national level. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is implementing new standards for its member racetracks that would, among other things, require them to have a program in place to assist with the after-care, or second career, of Thoroughbreds, according to spokesman Eric Wing.
"We've got to do more on that front to successfully transition the Thoroughbreds off the track," Wing said.
Horse racing is a troubled business in Maryland.
Major setbacks in recent months have dealt serious blows to the state's racing industry. Magna Entertainment Corporation, owner of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, filed for bankruptcy protection on March 5. On March 12, an Anne Arundel Circuit County judge barred the latest attempt at a slots license for Laurel Park. Slots revenue was seen as possibly the best chance at securing the solvency of Maryland tracks.
The scenario is not unique to Maryland, said Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association President Daniel Metzger. Kentucky has also been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to get slots legislation passed, and it's affecting the industry there.
"Horse owners might love their horses, but at the same time in a tough economy, if you have a horse that's not successful at the racetrack, you might need to find a way to get rid of it," Metzger said.
In the past, the struggling industry's unwanted horses would be auctioned and shipped to slaughterhouses. But in 2007, the last U.S. horse slaughter plants closed. Now horses bound for slaughter must be hauled from the U.S. to plants in Canada or Mexico, a much more expensive enterprise.
"All of a sudden, now the slaughterhouses have closed down and the horses aren't bringing any money at auction because it costs too much to send them all to Mexico," Ratliff said. "So it's the same (number of unwanted) horses as before, but now the public is seeing all the horses."
With slaughter a less-viable option, and almost no market for anything but top-end competition horses, cash-hungry owners have few places to turn. Whereas selling a horse for slaughter would bring in a few hundred dollars, euthanizing a horse and disposing of the carcass costs several hundred dollars.
In extreme cases, horses are simply left to starve in their pens. A few have even been found abandoned in parks and along roadways.
In Caroline County, the Humane Society has definitely seen an increase in horse neglect cases, said Executive Director Steve Vaughn.
"It pretty much covers a wide variety of neglect, as far as not providing proper food or adequate water or shelter, and not providing proper veterinary care," Vaughn said. "The owners will say they don't have the money to afford to have a vet come out. Even with food, that's sometimes the case."
If they're lucky, those horses will be impounded and sent to a rescue. But now rescues are turning animals away, too full to meet the overwhelming need.
The economy is also causing backlogs as fewer people adopt horses from the rescues, said Williams.
"We've even had adopted horses come back because people have lost their jobs and their farms, things like that," Williams said. "So less and less people are willing to take on the responsibility and the cost of adoption."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.