By STEVE BROWN
The economic downturn of the past several years has been a double-edged sword for horse rescue operations across the West.
The rescuers have seen the number of horses turned over to them skyrocket. At the same time, donations from financially strapped supporters have slowed.
Sandy Huey operates the Emerald Valley Equine Assistance Horse Rescue near Silver Lake, Ore.. She has been rescuing horses for 12 years, the past 10 as a nonprofit organization.
"I guess I have saved over 600 horses," she said. "I have not counted in the last couple years. (There's) too much to keep track of anymore."
Huey said the problem is more serious this year than any year she has ever seen.
"We get calls or e-mails to take horses weekly, sometimes daily," she said. "If I took all the horses owners have tried to give me just this year, I would have about 300."
Besides rescuing horses that owners surrender, Emerald Valley helps surrounding animal control officials and sheriff departments, taking in abandoned and abused animals.
"We also have been asked to pick up abandoned horses that folks are dumping in the wilderness," Huey said. "We have a very young orphan filly who was near her dead mother from Lakeview and also two older ranch geldings from near the same area."
Besides being the rescue's founder, Huey acts as horse transporter, adoption coordinator, caregiver and recovery specialist. She said her husband, Kent, can often be found bucking hay, fixing fences, repairing water lines, doing tractor work and maintaining the equipment.
The rescue operation is severely pinched as fewer donations come in. With more horses to take in and fewer homes available, Huey said, it's getting harder and harder.
"I do this mostly alone," she said. "If I had to take a guess, I would say we pay out of our own pockets about 98 percent of all the funding for this rescue, which has to change fast or we won't be around much longer."
Across the country, hundreds of horse rescue operations ranging in size from those such as the Hueys' operation that can take in a few extra horses to those with affiliates in several states, say the growth in the number of abandoned animals is outpacing their capacity.
Experts point to the weak economy and loss of jobs forcing horse owners to give up their animals. They also say a horse overpopulation driven by a lack of options for horse owners has contributed to the problem.
Jerry Finch, owner of Texas-based Habitat for Horses, said his central facilities and network of foster homes are "pretty much always full, both before the economy tanked and since."
"Abandonment's up 20 percent, directly attributed to job loss," he said.
The nonprofit, supported by private grants and donations, places horses throughout the U.S.
"It's been down this year, with about 100 adoptions," he said. "Last year we rescued 450 horses and adopted 350. In past months, I've seen it easing quite a bit, getting more stabilized."
Finch is also an inspector for the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, an accrediting organization for all sorts of animal facilities.
"I've been seeing fewer cases of neglect and abuse. People are trying their best," he said.
Most of the horses that come through Habitat for Horses are recreational-use and companion animals.
The biggest issue is the "backyard breeder," he said.
"They raise them like kittens, and they're never trained," he said. "People are just not using their brains. That's the kind of horse that feeds the slaughter."
Finch said he never sends horses to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada. "We'll shelter the animal as long as it lives," he said.
Since 1998, the rescue has adopted out thousands of horses, he said. "We have 70 acres leased and owned south of Houston, plus our foster homes, some of which are qualified to provide health care as well."
Another regional rescue effort, the U.S. Equine Rescue League based in Raleigh, N.C., has no central facility, but has a network of foster homes across North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky and Iowa -- and soon in Colorado.
Jennifer Hack, executive director of the nonprofit incorporated in 1997, has seen the economy reflected in the slowdown in donations and in the number of horses whose adoptions have been disrupted.
"People expected things to get better, but they didn't," she said. "Luxuries have to go first, so they send them back to us. Our first responsibility is to care for horses we've already rescued."
About two-thirds of the league's 600 foster homes cover feed costs, which are tax-deductible. The league covers veterinary care and farriers. One-third of the foster homes cover all the costs.
With fewer adoptions and fewer foster homes, the league has been able to place fewer animals the past few years: From 242 adoptions in 2008, it placed 176 in 2009 and 96 horses so far in 2010.
Hack said the number of rescue organizations has remained about the same over the past 20 or 30 years, but she has seen more "pseudo-rescues -- people who either have the right heart without the resources or others trying to make money, which is ridiculous."
Emerald Valley Equine Assistance: www.eveahr.net/
Habitat for Horses: www.habitatforhorses.org/
U.S. Equine Rescue League: www.userl.org