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Abandoned horses on rise in East Texas from drought, weak economy

By Glenn Evans
Nov. 3, 2011 at 10 p.m.

The closing of America's last horse slaughterhouses in recent years combined with drought and a stubborn economy are beefing up the incidence of abandoned horses, people in the equine community report.

"There's just an abundance of horses that are being turned out because people can't take care of them - they just turn them loose," Safe Haven Equine Rescue Director Richard Fincher said Thursday.

Fincher's horse rescue operation has been full for months. Anytime he gets an opening, he said, there's another abused or neglected animal in line for help.

"A lot of it's the drought and the economy - the biggest part," he said.

Horse owners used to have a slaughterhouse option. That disappeared in Texas when the Legislature banned horse slaughter for export as food in 2003.

Within four years, the last three slaughterhouses in the country closed as Congress debated bills to ban all horse slaughter. Two of those had been in the Dallas area, a third in Illinois. A meat packinghouse that slaughtered horses outside Palestine closed several years before that.

That leaves mainly euthanasia or a sale barn as options. The former is expensive and the latter hardly pays, if at all.

"I've bought them for a dollar, two dollars," Ulysses Johnson said Thursday at the Longview Livestock Commission's weekly sale.

Johnson, who operates a riding arena for children with disabilities, said depressed prices have been the norm for at least six months, "or more than that."

Of six horses on the block at the sale barn Thursday, a roughly 16-hand blue draught horse went for $125. The rest, none of which had ribs showing or looked in poor shape, sold for between 11 cents and 17 cents a pound. That's $170 tops for a 1,000-pound animal.

Sale barn co-manager Byron Ford said sellers are bringing in five to 10 horses weekly.

"We used to have 30 to 40 to 50 or better horses a week," he said. "We've sold horses for $5 by the head. The commission is $10. ... Before the slaughterhouses quit - they gave us a base (price). We don't have a base anymore."

Shane Vaughan, a riding horse trader in Fort Worth who grew up in the Judson community, said horse slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada still draw illegal commerce from Texas and other states.

"But, it's not regulated," he said. "And the people who wanted to do away with horse slaughter here don't realize (the result) is so inhumane. I'm seeing a lot of horses being turned out, horses on the road. People don't want to get rid of their horses, and they can't afford to feed them and can't afford to put them down, so they turn them out. ... They've got to figure something out, because it's fixing to get real bad."

Like Vaughan and Fincher, Windridge Therapeutic Equestrian Center of East Texas Director Margo Dewkett said she hears reports of local owners abandoning horses.

"Any type of livestock that they do not want to feed, they have turned loose - people are turning horses loose," she said. "The sale barn is an option, but at the same time you just take the horse and you get - some of them don't even get (the commission back). ... In fact, there were some horses turned loose in Angelina (National) Forest - I know that for a fact - about a month ago."

Unlike unwanted dogs and cats, the horses don't seem to be showing up in animal shelters.

Christine Kerr, director of the Humane Society of Northeast Texas, reported one horse at the Longview animal shelter Thursday. That animal had been seized by law enforcement, she said.

"We're not seeing stray horses," she said.

The director of equine protection at the Humane Society of the United States echoed that statement.

"We're not getting reports of that," director Keith Dane said. "We hear anecdotally, and in the press ... but we're just not getting the reports. We're just not hearing about horses being abandoned, directly from authorities or from the equine rescues."



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