As Congress negotiated the terms of a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street last month, President Bush addressed the nation with a dire warning: “Our entire economy is in danger.”

Congress continued to hammer out the details of the stimulus package as Drovers went to press, but it was generally assumed that the final product would give taxpayers an equity stake in some of the firms they were propping up so that the government can profit if the companies prosper in the future. Another important provision was to limit the pay of executives whose firms seek government assistance  —  and that would be bad for horses.

The proposed bailout seemed to be gathering enough bipartisan support that it would pass both houses of Congress in some form, and there were plenty of warnings of economic catastrophe if it didn’t pass. But there were also plenty of conservative lawmakers who said the bailout was wrong and that free markets should be allowed to be free. Which is exactly the policy that a lot of folks think should apply to horses.

While our economy is at one of the lowest points since the Great Depression, most experts agree that we’ll not likely see another Great Depression under the current conditions. In 1933, unemployment shot up to 25 percent after gross domestic product had plunged 13 percent the previous year. We’re not close to those levels now  —  unemployment is at 6.1 percent  —  but even if the bailout plan works, it probably won’t be enough to keep the economy from getting worse than it is now.

Panic, chaos, fear, crisis. All words used to describe both the current financial mess and our nation’s horse conundrum.

This whole mess started with an ill-conceived notion that every American should be able to own a home and a horse. We set up agencies with government backing that offered low-interest loans, and we encouraged banks to lend money to people who couldn’t afford a horse, let alone a house.

Ironically, in the days before Congress started hammering out the details on a bailout for mortgage lenders, a House committee was more concerned with the welfare of horses. They approved a measure that would implement a nationwide ban on the slaughter of horses and make it a criminal offense for anyone to transport horse meat or horses intended to be slaughtered for human consumption. These new criminals could get three years in jail, which is more than dogfighting quarterback Michael Vick received.

The proposed legislation is the “Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act,” sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Dan Burton, D-Ind. Animal-welfare groups have long campaigned for the horse slaughter ban, claiming the treatment of horses sold for meat is cruel. They’ve already succeeded at forcing the closure of the three final U.S. horse slaughterhouses  —  two in Texas and one in Illinois. But since thousands of horses are still exported for slaughter in Canada and Mexico, and many states have no laws that would prohibit the opening of new plants, the groups have been seeking federal regulation since 2001.

Like the financial bailout, the proposed ban on the slaughter of horses has many unintended consequences. Most country folks know that horse slaughter is a necessary option to deal with unwanted horses. And many of us have seen what happens when too many city folks buy a few acres and put out a few horses. After a time, many of the horses become neglected  —  or worse. And, without a market for slaughter horses, an urban owner has no options. They can’t sell the horse, and, in today’s economy, they may not be able to feed it, either.

In these troubled financial times, it’s likely that more than a few folks are facing a winter of buying horse feed while their mortgage payments fall into arrears. And it’s likely we’ll see more people seeking assistance to help keep their families fed and their children clothed. Can we expect them to beg pennies for their horses, too?

So, since we’re spending $700 billion to bail out Wall Street, it’s only logical that Congress also provide support to help keep America’s 9 million horses supplied with oats and hay.

Contact your Congressman and let him know that if he supports the “Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act,” you also expect him to support an economic stimulus package for your horse.