Every year over 170,000 horses become unwanted in the U.S.
Christy and Goldie
Photo courtesy of Christy Corp-Minamiji
When I was a little girl, my horses were plastic and had halters made of yarn. They were stabled on my bookcase, dresser, floor, and occasionally in the dollhouse. The bookcase was also disproportionally populated with books with horsey titles. This stable existence transitioned into a stable existence in 1980 with the gift of my first riding lessons for my 10th birthday. This was also around the time that we got the Disney channel on the brand new magic cable box, and reruns of The Lone Ranger and the Roy Rogers Show galloped through our living room.
In 1983, I received my very own “Trigger.” A palomino mare saddled with the highly original name of Goldie. Everything changed from there.
Had there been no Goldie, chances are I would not be writing this post. I’m not certain what I would be doing: possibly living in my parents’ basement, which would be tricky since they are Californians and have no basement. I certainly would never have become tough or resilient enough to make it through veterinary school without that horse.
But there was a horse, and she changed everything. She taught me about failure and persistence. She taught me confidence and endurance. She taught me to fall, to cry, and – most importantly -- to get back up and work the heck out of the problem.
Makes you want to rush out and buy your kid, neighbor, or self a horse, doesn’t it? Horses change lives. Horses are magical.
STOP RIGHT THERE. *insert sound of screeching brakes*
In 2007 (before the recent recession), a survey conducted by the Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC) estimated that every year over 170,000 horses become unwanted in the United States.
So...wait...a decent sized city population of these magical creatures, the stuff of childhood dreams, becomes unwanted in the U.S. every year? What’s up with that?
Unfortunately, horses are not merely the stuff of fantasy. They don’t tuck themselves away into cloud-lands at night where they are fed by fairies. Horses are real. I would assert that there is nothing more likely to ground you in reality (or grind you into reality) as a horse. Reality comes with some very real considerations.
- Horses are expensive. The UHC estimates the cost of basic care for a horse in the U.S. ranges from $1800 to $2400 per year. In California where boarding alone can exceed $300/month, even the upper end of that estimate is pretty darn conservative. Horses don’t just need a place to live and a few square meals a day, they also require hoof care (about every 6-8 weeks); yearly (or more often) veterinary care including vaccinations, examinations, and dental care; training; and at least some basic tack and equipment. The expenses mount exponentially if you take the what-is-that-monster-eating-my-credit-card route of showing, or if anything goes wrong.
- Horses need a lot of attention. Compared to a horse, your average toddler is low maintenance. Like your average toddler, horses are socially needy, active, destructive, have low impulse control, don’t like to be confined, and are indiscriminate about where they poop. Unlike toddlers, they won’t wear diapers, have no interest in the bouncy swing, and you can’t put them down for a nap. Horses are range animals; if they don’t have range to roam, they need exercise – daily. Rain, shine, snow, blistering heat, or howling wind, the horse needs to go out and strut his stuff. Since horses aren’t great at self-strutting, unless their enclosures are set up for equine autonomy, exercise requires human partnership. Nor do horses pick up their own poop, feed themselves, or groom themselves. They also have a terrible time picking out matching outfits.
- Horses can be dangerous. The average horse is a half-ton animal with a high flight drive governed by a brain the size of my fist. These circumstances occasionally bode poorly for riders, bystanders, and small villages. Proper training, consistent exercise, and socialization can reduce the horsey risks, but horses are equipped with hooves, teeth, and really big muscles. Stuff happens.
- Stuff happens. Not only can horses be dangerous to humans and random architecture, they are also hazards to themselves. If there is a way to get hurt, a horse will find it. The equine mindset looks something like this: A fence? Here, let me tangle myself up in it. A gopher hole? I must step in it. One random nail in the entire barn? Great. Perfect thing on which to tear my eyelid. Random tree branch? Here let me impale myself while scratching my butt. I know owners who routinely threaten to bubble-wrap their horses. That wouldn’t be a bad notion, except that the bubble wrap would probably scare the horse and it would…hurt itself.
- Teenagers grow up. Goldie was lucky. I chose a university with an equestrian center, and thanks to a combination of scholarship money and my willingness to eat unlimited quantities of cheap mac n’ cheese, Goldie went to college with me. I was also a late-bloomer in the boy department, so she never played second fiddle to a guy. But I’ve seen it time and again. Parents buy their starry-eyed tween a horse, the child takes lessons, haunts the stable round the clock, and begs to sleep with her horse. Then one day, just like Jackie Paper to Puff the Magic Dragon, the child comes no more. Hoof glitter and braided manes give way to dates, cars, and (if everyone is lucky) studies. The teen goes off to college and the parents suddenly find themselves saddled with a horse they have no interest in saddling and can’t really afford in light of the scary tuition bills.
Once upon a time, there was a horse...
A horse can change a life or complicate a life. And unlike the treadmill or motor-scooter languishing in the garage, a horse is a living, non-disposable being. You can’t just dust it off occasionally and drape the laundry over its ears. A horse requires constant care. And when times get rough, kids lose interest, or the economy takes a nose-dive worthy of a Leslie Nielsen film. You can’t count on selling the horse for a profit. (Side note: You should NEVER count on selling a horse for a profit. They are notoriously poor investments.)
I grew up on a horse and because of a horse, so while I would never try to talk anyone out of getting a horse, I would just plead for everyone to do their research, make their plans, and do what they can to keep from adding to the unwanted horse population. Trigger deserves better.
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VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.