There are too many horses. We're not talking about $50,000 quarter horses, jumpers or thoroughbreds. We're talking about tens of thousands of abandoned, feral and starving horses.
It is a problem with many causes and no easy answers.
A major factor is the economy. Since the recession began in 2008, the number of horses abandoned or left with rescue operations has ballooned to an estimated 170,000 to 180,000 a year, according to the Unwanted Horse Coalition.
Among the other factors is the high cost of hay and feed. In recent years, those prices have doubled. A ton of hay that cost $100 a few years ago now costs more than $200. Because of that, a horse that was easily affordable five years ago could now be an economic burden.
But the biggest factor was the decision by Congress to stop USDA inspection of horse slaughter facilities. In 2006 the Agriculture Appropriations Bill prohibited using federal funds to pay for the inspection of horses bound for slaughter. That shut down the slaughterhouses and threw the 105,000 horses that were slaughtered each year into limbo. Their owners couldn't afford to feed them and finding a willing buyer at any price was all but impossible. Even the cost of having a horse put down and buried is exorbitant.
Consequently, thousands of horses were abandoned. Some were rescued by good-hearted people but those resources have been overwhelmed.
Once again, a well-meaning Congress had managed to create a problem much larger than the one it tried to solve. Instead of a humane death, many horses were condemned to abandonment, starvation or to be shipped to a foreign slaughter house to be killed without USDA inspection.
Congress reversed its decision in 2011, allowing horse slaughter again, but several efforts are under way -- in the House and Senate ag committees and in the Obama administration's proposed budget -- to cut that funding and reinstate the ban.
In the meantime, the USDA has granted Valley Meat Co., a slaughter house in Roswell, N.M., permission to switch from cattle to horses. A week later, a slaughter house in Iowa was also permitted, and other permits were expected to be approved in Missouri, Tennessee and Oklahoma.
Those approvals have sparked a lawsuit from the Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue of Larkspur, Colo., and several other groups and individuals to stop the permits. They argue that environmental reviews are required for the slaughter houses and that some horses receive medication that makes their meat unfit for export to markets such as Europe, which bans the drug residues in meat. Because of this the horses need to be tested or kept out of export channels, the groups argue.
While the lawyers believe they are striking a blow for humaneness with the lawsuit, even if they are successful the problem of horse overpopulation will remain and the one economically feasible solution will be banned.
Instead of spending money on lawyers to fight over the USDA permits, those groups would do much better to take possession of the hundreds of thousands of horses in need of care.
But they know that no one has enough money to do that.