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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 12.18.2008

 

Save the Pretty Horses

Who’s taking care of Lane County’s neglected equines?

By Camilla Mortensen

Ears pricked with eagerness, Andy nibbles at a hand, searching with his lips and soft muzzle for another peppermint snack. The hay he’s been munching decorates the red forelock that spills down over his big brown eyes. His snort of exasperation when he isn’t able to find another treat sends plumes of steam into the cold damp air of an Oregon winter. These days not getting enough peppermint snacks is his biggest problem, but it wasn’t that long ago that the horse was facing starvation and death, neglected with 20 or so of his relatives, breeding and inbreeding unchecked, at an alleged meth lab outside Veneta.  

Photo by James Johnston
Darla Clark and Andy. Photo by James Johnston

Soft-hearted horse lovers were able to get many of the animals to safety. As the story goes, while they were waiting for the authorities to step in, concerned horsewomen would show up to the owner’s trailer with bottles of liquor and offer to trade him the alcohol for the horses. One by one most of the horses got out. Later, Lane County Animal Services (LCAS) also stepped in and cited the owner for neglect.LCAS continues to monitor the horses left on the property.

Andy was one of the lucky ones. But even after he got out of the pasture where he was starving, he still wasn’t safe. He was a half-grown colt, the smallest of the bunch, and starved. The other horses were appaloosas, meaning their coats featured spots and loud markings many horse people find compelling. Andy is plain old chestnut. “He had no color,” his eventual rescuer Darla Clark says, using horseman’s speak for a horse without bright markings. No one wanted, or was able, to take Andy in. “It broke my heart,” Clark says. 

In a time when there are too many hungry horses and not enough homes for them, being a plain little red horse with a sweet face just isn’t enough. So after all he’d been through, Andy still faced being killed. Veterinary euthanasia is far more merciful than starving outside in the cold and is often a necessity in horse rescue, but Andy was a young horse who could lead a long happy life in the right home. Clark took him in at her Strawberry Mountain Mustang Rescue outside Roseburg to feed and care for him. She hopes that someday soon, someone will want to give a forever home to the little red colt.

The downturn in the economy is not only hitting Oregon families; it’s hitting the animals those families own and love. Equines are among the most expensive of Lane County’s pets, and horse owners are starting to feel the brunt of high prices and lost jobs at a time when the weather is cold and wet and the grass in the pastures has little sustenance. Hay and feed prices have skyrocketed. Now that winter has set in, horse rescuers are wondering if conditions are right for a perfect storm of horse neglect and abandonment. And as it turns out, there are no horse rescues located in Lane County and no laws against abandoning horses.What do people do when they can no longer afford the hundreds of dollars a month it can cost to feed and care for a horse? Is Lane County prepared for the high cost of helping horses? 



Too little money, too many horses

Winters in western Oregon seem uniquely designed to make horses miserable. The endless rain wets their coats, leaving them cold and shivering. The mud and wet can create painful sores on their legs, and some horses even get scabs on their backs from a fungus that thrives on the nonstop moisture. Grass loses its nutrition during dark winter days, giving them little reward for their endless foraging.

Despite all this, most horses around Lane County aren’t too bothered by the wet. After a day spent grazing in the pasture, often wearing a waterproof blanket, they come in to a warm dry barn and fill up on hay and feed. Then, they often receive a good brushing and some treats from a doting owner. 

In 1993, OSU estimated there were over 100,000 horses in Oregon, and the numbers have only gone up. Horses work on farms and ranches, and in Lane County, thousands are owned for sport and pleasure. The pastures around Eugene echo with the sound of hoofbeats (or more accurately at this time of year, squelch with the sound of hoofs in the mud).

Thanks to the poor economy, more and more people are starting to find they are having trouble paying for the hay it takes to feed a horse through the winter, let alone the shoeing, vet bills and everything else it takes to keep a horse fed and cared for.

An 1100 pound horse eats about 2 percent of its body weight in hay every day, so one horse needs a couple of tons of hay to make it through an Oregon winter. With hay prices at $200 a ton, double last year’s already high cost, horse owners are running out of money. Bernard Perkins, the cruelty and neglect officer for LCAS, says that when he goes out on a call and sees thin horses with only a bale or two of hay at hand, he has to explain to the owners, “One hundred pounds of hay for three horses for three days is not enough.” 

In addition to being fed and watered, horses also need yearly vaccinations and dental care. A horse’s teeth grow its whole life, and if they aren’t regularly floated (filed down), the horse can’t chew and can starve to death. Dentistry on a horse runs from $150 to as high as $400. LCAS recommends dentistry starting at age 17, according to Perkins, but most veterinarians recommend yearly dental visits for all horses no matter the age. 

Boarding a horse at a stable can cost $200-$300 a month. Horses need to be shod ($75-$200) or have their feet trimmed ($25-$50) every six to eight weeks. If a horse’s feet aren’t taken care of, they can go lame or even be crippled. As the saying goes, “No hoof, no horse,” but not every horse owner knows that.



Shelter from the storm

According to Perkins, a lot of his job when he gets called out on suspected neglect cases is education. He tries to “educate animal owners in good husbandry,” he says, “to give a better quality of life and living conditions for the animal.” He says LCAS tries to keep horses with their owners whenever possible; most cases aren’t intentional neglect but are people who don’t know much about having horses. One recent case was a 9-year-old girl with her first horse. The girl “didn’t know not to throw the horse’s grain on top of his poop and pee,” says Perkins. The family thought the horse didn’t like hay, but it turns out that when his teeth were checked, they were so bad he couldn’t chew. After some dental work and discussion of good horse care, this horse will be OK, Perkins thinks.

“I really do believe that for the most part people want to do right by their animals,” says Perkins. 

Perkins goes out on 15-20 calls a week for suspected horse neglect. At the same time he says he’s monitoring five or six previous cases from Cottage Grove to Pleasant Hill. Perkins says most of his neglect calls are from concerned neighbors or people driving by. Sometimes it’s an easy call: A well-meaning passerby sees a horse standing in the mud and thinks it’s in trouble, and Perkins checks to see that the horse has the care standards required by law. 

Other cases are more grim, like Andy and the appaloosas in Veneta. Those are the cases where some of the horses are too starved or injured to be saved or rescuers can’t find homes to rehabilitate them. Then, the horses face euthanasia.

According to Lane County’s ordinances, Perkins says, a horse must have access to water, enough food for its body weight and a dry spot to stand in its enclosure. 

One thing Lane County does not require for livestock is shelter. Despite the months of endless rain, horses, as well as cattle, llamas and sheep are not required by law to be given shelter from the elements. 

Sarge, a tall dark ex-racehorse that Clark has at her rescue, was an animal control case where people called in worried about how skinny and exposed to the elements the aging thoroughbred was. Rather than take care of him, Clark says the owner threw a blanket over his filthy back. 

When the rescuers got to him, they found worms on him, hidden under the blanket. Sarge has a traumatic arthritis in his ankles from his long-ago racing days and will always limp. He’ll spend the rest of his life at Strawberry Mountain, unless an adopter wants a quiet horse to ride quietly on trails. That’s a long way from the glitter of the racetrack, but it’s far better than starving to death, covered in mud and worms.

Horse rescue is frustrating and heart breaking, the rescuers say, and laws in Lane County and Oregon just aren’t strong enough to protect the horses. Sometimes when the sheriff or other services are called in, the officers just don’t know what they’re looking at, says Sandy Huey of Emerald Valley Equine Assistance (EVEA). Or an animal control officer goes out on a starving horse call and sees there are three bales of hay there, she says. Much later, the officer comes back, and there are still three bales of hay. Even if the horses can’t get to it, when there’s food available, animal control can’t do anything.

In many cases, the rescue is dealt with without animal control officially getting involved. Rescuers come in, and the owners relinquish ownership before charges are filed. 



Rescue me

LCAS doesn’t have a barn for its horse rescue cases, nor does it have a horse trailer to get the horses out of bad situations. Instead Perkins and other officers rely on a network of people to help in these cases. Perkins says that people like Huey and the Sheriff’s Posse are wonderful when it comes to helping with trailering and taking in horses, and local veterinarians provide care and sometimes even shelter for the animals. 

Perkins relies heavily on Huey and EVEA, he says. Huey’s rescue used to be located just outside of Eugene, but she has recently relocated to Silver Lake in eastern Oregon. She drives her truck and trailer across the Cascades to pick up rescue horses from around Eugene. Huey is worried about what’s going to happen to horses on weeks where the weather is too bad for her to come over the mountains. She wonders who will look out for all the horses LCAS doesn’t have time or money to monitor.

Huey and Darla Clark of Strawberry Mountain are also worried, not only about all the horses out there that aren’t being fed and cared for, but also about being able to buy hay for their own rescues. Huey says she’s had only two cash donations since moving to the new location. Clark was delighted to get a large donation of oats from Eugene’s Golden Temple, which she says the horses love, but she is keeping an anxious eye on her hay storage.

They’re worried too about where Oregon’s starved and neglected horses are going to go. The rescues are full. Clark has several older wild horses that were mistreated and distrust humans. It’s not fair to keep those horses confined, she says. She wants to see them go to a sanctuary where they can roam wild, but the sanctuaries are full.

And not all rescues are safe places like EVEA and Strawberry Mountain, Perkins says. Some rescuers become hoarders and take on more horses than they can feed and care for. “They love the animals, but they are loving them to death,” he says.

None of the rescuers blames the recent closure of the last horse slaughter plants in the U.S. for the current problem, a claim that gained wide media attention last year and infuriated many horse lovers. Beckstead said the economy is so bad that the kill buyers who ship horses to be slaughtered in Canada and Mexico aren’t going to the auctions around Oregon. No one is buying horses.

What everyone — from horse owners to LCAS to the rescues — is suffering from is a lack of money. In an area where some parents will spend $100,000 on a horse for a teenage daughter, hundreds of other horses are going unfed. Huey and Clark need donations to buy hay. LCAS came close to being closed this year due to county budget cuts. “Nobody likes to hear it,” says Huey, but part of the solution is money.

But lack of money doesn’t mean that horses have to suffer. Scott Beckstead, Pacific Northwest regional director for the Humane Society of the United States, has spearheaded an effort to help Oregon’s horses before the problem gets worse. He is founding a group made up of a broad range of people — horse lovers, vets, breeders, animal control, among others — to work on the issue from multiple angles. The newly formed Oregon Horse Welfare Council will tackle what Beckstead, Clark and Huey all see as the main problem: overbreeding. Cases like Andy’s wouldn’t have been so dramatic if the stallions on the property had been gelded. Fewer horses being born means more food for the ones already there. 

The group is working to provide low cost gelding of stallions (think spay and neuter, but for horses), a veterinary assistance fund, funds for hay and feed and a network of foster homes for horses whose owners can’t keep them, even with assistance. 

The OHWC has had two meetings, one in Eugene, and will hold another meeting next month in Clackamas. The group’s motto is “saving horses, helping people,” Beckstead says.

Another one of Beckstead’s projects is toughening up Oregon’s laws when it comes to horses. State senator Floyd Prozanski of Eugene is sponsoring a bill that would make it a crime to abandon a horse. Currently it is a crime to abandon “domestic animals” but horses are considered livestock, says Beckstead.  

For now, what Lane County has for horses like Andy and Sarge is a lot of soft hearted horse-lovers who want to help out, and who have hopes for better laws and a better economy. Andy has a bellyful of hay and oats and a home at the rescue and Clark hopes someone might want a little red horse for Christmas.  

 

Go to www.strawberrymountainmustangs.com for more on Andy and other horses available for adoption. Email Emerald Valley Equine Assistance at eveahr@earthlink.net to find out how to help their rescue efforts. Email Scott Beckstead for more on the Oregon Horse Welfare Council at sbeckstead@hsus.org and call Lane County Animal Services at 682-3645 to learn what you can do for Lane County’s horses.