Unwanted, Part 1

The equine community struggles to deal with the growing numbers of neglected and abandoned horses.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

On October 28, 2008, the Sisters Ranger district of the Deschutes National Forest received a troubling phone call. Hunters reported finding a horse roaming a fairly remote area on Cache Mountain. While it isn’t uncommon for escaped livestock to wander on to the National Forest, this report was of special concern because the animal was reported as being badly injured, according to Fred Perl, a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer.

Fred was immediately dispatched to the area where the horse was last seen. When he found the 6-year-old gelding, the animal’s lead was still on. The horse’s face was covered with dried blood, and its left leg had a bandaged wound.

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Soliciting the help of the local equine community, Fred arranged to have the gelding led three miles through the forest, loaded into a trailer and taken to the Bend Equine Medical Center where he was treated for his injuries. The injured horse, nicknamed “Trooper” by rescuers, had been wandering in the forest for a couple of weeks with two gunshot wounds to its head and a badly infected leg injury. When found, Trooper was thirsty and hungry and approximately 150 pounds underweight. A bullet fragment had shattered Trooper’s lower jaw, making it painfully difficult for the animal to eat. What amazed rescuers about the gelding was his gentle disposition. Despite the pain and suffering he experienced, Trooper remained calm as volunteers led him out of the forest and while veterinarians tended to his wounds. “Oftentimes, the media can be a great help with solving crimes,” Fred says. “We took Trooper’s story to the media, and the exposure generated lots of tips. A farrier recognized Trooper as a trail and lesson horse from nearby Camp Tamarack.” According to a press release from the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Department, a 27-year old wrangler from the youth camp in Sisters, Oregon, was arrested later that month and charged with crimes surrounding the shooting and abandonment of the gelding. Police think the wrangler made an independent and unauthorized decision to shoot the horse, so the camp wasn’t charged.

The Cost of Freedom

Just how big is the problem of horse abandonment in Oregon and elsewhere? While officials expected to see an increase of abandoned horses in Oregon, they didn’t anticipate the number of horses being dumped, says Gary McFadden, wild horse specialist with the Bureau of Land Management in Burns, Oregon. “I think the problem in Oregon is bigger than the ‘dumps’ we currently know about,” Gary says. “It’s probably much bigger than that. We recently found 10 (horses) released in a wild horse herd management area; six head abandoned on a nearby parcel of state land; and seven head released in a BLM area that had no water.” Typically, released geldings stay together and remain close to the road, and so are easily found and reported. However, mares are often taken up by wild stallions and disappear within the herd. According to Gary, those horses aren’t discovered until the agency gathers wild animals for holding and finds the domestics in the herd.

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There are many reasons National Forest and BLM lands are targeted by owners abandoning animals. First, the remoteness of these areas allows them to commit the crime without being seen. Second, many of the owners release horses in these areas thinking they’re making a compassionate move, allowing their horses to run free with the wild herds. “Wild horses have bred to survive in rugged areas. Conversely, domestic horses are bred for speed, looks and ride, and so don’t have the genetics required to survive in these rugged areas,” Gary says. Domestic horses illegally released on federal lands consume forage set aside for wild animals and cattle.

Currently, the BLM is operating about 5,700 animals over the appropriate management level for agency-managed lands. Normally, the BLM would gather excess animals and move them to holding facilities where they are fed and cared for, while awaiting sale or adoption. Unfortunately, those holding facilities are at or near capacity with approximately 30,000 wild horses and burros. The cost to feed and care for animals in holding facilities is about three-fourths, or $27 million, of the BLM’s wild horse and burro program budget. The BLM doesn’t have the money to gather and move many more animals off the range and into holding facilities.

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“If we don’t gather, our ranges are in danger of being decimated. Our horse herds increase by 20 to 25 percent each year,” Gary says. “Despite our advice and warnings, wild-horse advocates successfully lobbied to have the rendering and kill plants closed,” Gary says. “The removal of the humane slaughter option has greatly increased the number of unwanted horses. That, in turn, has decimated our market, just as it has the domestic horse market. Basically, they have cut their own throats.”