Results from a survey on unwanted horses identified the problem's magnitude as "staggering" and called for a unified commitment to develop productive solutions.

According to an article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association, The Unwanted Horse Coalition's 2009 survey sought to get a better grasp on the issue to answer any lingering questions and identify possible solutions.

Two questionnaires, one for horse owners and a second for industry stakeholders, generated more than 27,000 responses in two weeks, and thousands of write-in comments.   About 20,000 of those responses came from horse owners.

Rescue and retirement facilities reported they are turning away horses, with 39 percent at full capacity and another 30 percent near capacity. Horse owners said the number of horses euthanized is increasing, and so is the number of abused and neglected horses as confirmed by hundreds of eyewitness reports of horses turned loose, abandoned, or left to starve.

"Speculating there is an alarming rise in the numbers of unwanted horses is one thing. Hearing that alarm sounded and confirmed by thousands of responses from all across the country is another," states the survey's executive report. "The results of this study help to document the magnitude of the problem and its effects—and are surprisingly consistent nationwide, with little to no variance by region."

Only 12 percent of horse owners reported that they hadn't been faced with the decision of selling, donating, or euthanizing; however, more than half of them indicated they were unaware of the options of donation or euthanasia.

Dr. Nat T. Messer, professor of equine medicine and surgery at the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine and American Association of Equine Practitioners representative on the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee, outlines some causes of the problem. The USDA he says, estimates that more than 100,000 horses go unwanted every year and have been for the past 12 to 15 years. "But the closure of the slaughter plants in 2006-2007 has eliminated an avenue for disposing of unwanted horses,” he says. “That is also about the time that the economy went in the tank, and feed and fuel prices increased, which compounded the problem. In 2008, over 150,000 unwanted horses were exported for slaughter, so there was a significant increase in unwanted horses due to the economy."

Working toward solutions, the UHC plans to act as an intermediary for best practices on the unwanted horse issue. One of the most important and difficult accomplishment in solving the unwanted horse problem – awareness – has already been achieved, according to the report. Three years ago, only 22 percent of respondents thought the unwanted horse problem was a big issue. Today, more than 90 percent respondents felt it is a major problem.

Read the full JAVMA article, which includes a link to survey results.