An estimated 1.2 million homes across the United States have both the perceived resources and desire to house an unwanted horse, the findings of a survey suggest.
This number comfortably exceeds the 200,000 or so unwanted horses across the US each year, the researchers report.
Animal behaviorist Dr Emily Weiss and her colleagues, writing in the open-access peer-reviewed journal Animals, set out to estimate the potential number of available homes for unwanted horses in order to examine broadly the viability of pursuing re-homing policies as an option for the horses.
The study team, from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), noted that many of the 200,000 unwanted horses each year were either shipped to slaughter, entered rescue facilities (an estimated 6000 to 10,000 horses live in horse rescues at any given time), or were held on federal lands.
To estimate the number of potential homes, an independent survey company was engaged for a telephone survey, which called both land lines and cellphones.
Sample of 3036 adults
A nationally projectable sample of 3036 adults aged 18 and over were interviewed to learn of their interest and capacity to adopt a horse.
Potential adopters with an interest in horses with medical and/or behavioral problems and a self-assessed perceived capacity to adopt, constituted 0.92% of the total sample.
“Extrapolating the results of this survey using US Census data, suggests there could be an estimated 1.25 million households who have both the self-reported and perceived resources and desire to house an unwanted horse,” the researchers reported.
“This study points to opportunities and need to increase communication and support between individuals and organizations that have unwanted horses to facilitate re-homing with people in their community willing to adopt them.”
The researchers noted that estimates of the total number of horses in the US varied widely, but the number most often cited was 9.2 million.
Unwanted horses are defined by the Unwanted Horse Coalition as “horses which are no longer wanted by their current owner because they are old, injured, sick, unmanageable, fail to meet their owner’s expectations (e.g., performance, color or breeding), or their owner can no longer afford them”.
One US study found that the most common reasons horses were relinquished to rescue groups were health (54%), lack of suitability for desired purpose (28%), and behavioral problems (28%). Owner-related factors most commonly reported were money problems (52%) physical illness or death of the owner (27%), and lack of time for the horse (16%).
Horses who were relinquished were most commonly thoroughbreds (22%) and quarter horses (19%); 51% were geldings, 7.5% colts/stallions and 42% mares. The average age was 12.
In another national US study of horses seized in cruelty, neglect or abandonment investigations, the most common reasons leading to the investigation were owner ignorance, economic hardship, and lack of responsibility.
“Many unwanted, but otherwise re-homable, horses are among the estimated 82,000 to 150,000 horses that are shipped annually to Mexico or Canada for slaughter,” the researchers noted.
“Among the horses shipped to slaughter between 2002 and 2005, the demographics were similar to the US horse population, indicating that the option of slaughter was applied across the spectrum of horse ownership.”
There are also more than 100,000 horses being held long-term on open lands by the Bureau of Land Management, both on and off-range.
The researchers said several options existed for unwanted horses, including relinquishment to rescue organizations, donation to universities or law enforcement agencies, sale to or adoption by new owners, or euthanasia.
“For some of these outcomes, the horses must meet specific criteria; for others, the owner must be aware of the option, there must be space available in the program for the horse, or the owner must be able to afford euthanasia and disposal.”
Increasing the ability of existing horse owners to re-home their horses to private households was one potential way to reduce the number of unwanted horses and improve their welfare and longevity.
Horses, they noted, typically had multiple owners, could live up to 30 years, and were expensive to keep.
“In order to determine if re-homing is a viable option, it is important to know if there are enough homes to accommodate the number of unwanted horses.”
The study used a national survey to gather information about the number of potential homes for these horses, in which they identified the “horse-interested population” – defined as currently owning a horse, having owned a horse in the past five years, or interested in owning a horse in the near future – and explored their potential interest in adopting.
Among the 3036 individuals contacted, 17 percent met the criteria for being “horse-interested”. Of these horse-interested individuals, 5.6% were ultimately classified as potential adopters.
The survey examined not only whether people would be willing to adopt unwanted horses, but what characteristics were required of horses to be considered “adoptable” in the respondent’s opinion, and whether potential adopters thought they had adequate resources to keep a horse.
From the results, an estimate for the number of potential homes for horses in the US was calculated.
Based on a 2015 US population of 321,418,820 and just over 135 million households, the researchers calculated that 1.25 million households were potential adopters – that is, they had strong interest and perceived they could house a horse.
“Multiplying 0.92% times the U.S. population of 247,813,901 adults for a less conservative estimate, we estimated that approximately 2.28 million people in the U.S. would have strong interest in obtaining a horse and perceived they could house a horse.”
Not all had owned a horse
The authors noted that 12 respondents who met the criteria through their interest in future horse ownership had not previously owned a horse. Even when excluding those individuals, it still left 720,000 US households with first-hand knowledge of the challenges of owning a horse, who could house a horse.
They acknowledged that while the numbers may not reflect an immediate, objectively suitable set of adopters, they did suggest a substantial and underutilized resource.
The results, they said, pointed to opportunities to increase communication and support between individuals and organizations that had unwanted horses to facilitate re-homing with people in their community willing to adopt them.
The study team said that, regardless of the underlying industry reasons for the numbers of horses needing to be re-homed, finding previously untapped homes was critical.
“Accounting for the uncertainty that comes with applying a sample proportion to the entire population, the true count could reasonably be expected to lie between 0.83 and 1.80 million households.
“What is not clear is how long the number of potential homes would exceed the number of horses that need those homes.
“It is theorized that as horses move amongst homes, the availability of new homes would likely remain stable.”
Even if the number of homes were eventually to become saturated, the estimates derived in the study remained crucial.
“Even just a short time of reducing the prevalence of unwanted horses in the US would free available resources for expanded access to safety net services and resources in order to reduce the incidence of newly unwanted horses.
“Moving even a small number of additional horses into homes would allow for a decreased prevalence of unwanted horses.”
It was possible, they said, that some potential adopters would not actually adopt when given the opportunity.
“Many homes not yet accessed”
Their findings, they said, suggested there may be many homes for unwanted horses that have not yet been accessed, at a time when rescue facilities and shelters were overwhelmed.
“In general, this contradiction points to a potential gap in communication or understanding between horse organizations that have horses available for adoption and people interested in adopting.
“It is possible that horse organizations have not embraced the importance of finding new homes as an important part of allowing them to save more horses.”
Finding new and creative ways to connect potential homes with current owners who needed to re-home was likely to be critically important, they said.
“Future research that focuses on the opportunities to increase adoptions from horse organizations would provide valuable information to the body of unwanted horse literature.”
The study team comprised Weiss, Emily Dolan, Heather Mohan-Gibbons, Shannon Gramann and Margaret Slater, all with the ASCPA.