Peter Gregory, who runs a sanctuary for retired horses in Alachua County, administers medicine to one of his horses. Mill Creek Farm provides lifetime care for more than 100 horses, including those rescued by humane societies. Unfortunately, America’s escalating number of unwanted horses surpasses the capacity of places like Mill Creek Farm. Photo by Paige Lacy.

Randy Williams* got more than he bargained for when he and his wife went horseback riding on a Saturday afternoon. After a three-hour ride, the couple returned to their Ocala home to find two brown horses tied to their truck.

“I’ve heard of people dumping horses before,” Williams said. “But it’s not something you think actually happens—at least not to you, and not like this.”

As the number of unwanted horses rises in America, one trick of desperate owners involves casting off equine baggage on unsuspecting neighbors.

For now, the skinny (but otherwise healthy) male horses are living on the Williams’ 10-acre farm. He said they have space and can afford to feed them, so unless someone comes forward, they’ll keep the strays. Most abandoned horses aren’t so lucky.

Jeri Debrowski is the webmaster of AMillionHorses.com, a website dedicated to documenting current cases of neglected horses in America. She said the Montana-based site began in 2009 when she and several equine experts realized the growing problem of unwanted horses.

Debrowski said stories like Williams’ are happening across the country, but most are without a happy ending. She attributes the pattern to the recent recession and to legislation restricting horse slaughter in the U.S.

According to Debrowski, America had 16 horse meat processing plants operating in the 1980s. In 2000, animal rights activists, including the Humane Society of the United States, began to lobby for intervention in the horse-slaughter industry.

By 2005, Congress cut funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect facilities processing horse meat. Without proper inspection, the meat couldn’t be transported across state lines, and slaughterhouses were forced to shut down. The last facility closed in Illinois in 2007 after the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of a state law passed to ban horse slaughter.

But regulation didn’t end there. With a strong racehorse industry, Florida was particularly prone to illegal horse meat processing as a way of disposing failed or injured racehorses, so last May, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill strengthening state bans on the sale of horse meat for human consumption. The law also increased penalties for violation. Florida is now one of six states that prohibits human consumption of horse meat.

Debrowski said activists hailed the government action as a victory for horse welfare, but the celebration was premature.

In 2006, prior to regulation, the U.S exported about $65 million in horse meat from more than 100,000 horses, Debrowski said. Now those horses need a place to go.

“They didn’t do their homework to establish that rescues could handle an extra 100,000 horses,” she said.

She said rescue sites across the country are bulging and starting to fail due to a lack of space and, more importantly, money.

“You can save a horse today, but there’s another 20 to 30 years of upkeep,” she said. “They live much longer and more expensive lives than cats or dogs.”

According to a December study from the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, there are 236 registered horse rescues nationwide able to support 13,400 total horses per year. The annual cost of care for a rescued horse averages $3,648.

That means nearly $50 million a year is spent maintaining about 13 percent of America’s abandoned and neglected horses. The majority of that money comes from personal funds and donations, not from federal aid.

“We used to make millions exporting meat, and now we need to raise millions to keep horses alive that have no homes,” she said.

More complicated still, not all of the unwanted horses are staying in America. The horse slaughter industry is thriving in Mexico and Canada, where regulations are minimal and meat can be easily processed and exported to Europe, Japan and other countries where it’s in high demand.

According to USDA figures from last March, 88,276 U.S. horses were shipped in 2009 to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, where operational restrictions are less rigid. Debrowski said this number represents horses that carry a green back tag identifying them as slaughter-bound. She said the trauma and cruelty many of these horses experience is devastating.

Of those not shipped across borders, the unwanted horses remaining in the U.S. are often neglected, abused or abandoned in the hope that someone else, like Williams, can provide a home. And because of the poor economy, fewer people are able to afford the care, she said.

The solution to the swelling number of unwanted horses is as complicated as the issue itself. While some, like Debrowski, support reintroducing slaughter on American soil, others argue it wouldn’t fix the root of the problem.

John Friary and Kathy Pennenga own and operate Greener Pastures, a farm sanctuary in Gainesville. Here, they adopt and care for dogs, cats, pigs, cows, donkeys and horses, many of which were abandoned or neglected.

Friary, 40, a biostatistician at the University of Florida with a Master’s in public health, opposes slaughter and said the practice is a “convenient out-of-sight, out-of-mind solution” to deal with the real issue: there are just too many horses.

He said to reach a sustainable solution, irresponsible breeding needs to stop. The racehorse industry is a front-runner for the blame, producing many more horses than the number actually ending up with a racing career.

“They see horses as a commodity,” Friary said. “I’m not saying horses are human– they definitely aren’t and don’t have the same rights– but they aren’t a car either.”

Pennenga, 27, who is completing her Master’s at UF in public health, said blaming slaughter restriction for the increase of neglect and abandonment cases is impractical.

“Closing slaughterhouses didn’t create the problem; it just exposed it,” she said.

And with the economic downturn coinciding with the crackdown on horse slaughter, she said the number of unwanted horses was inflated. Still, Pennenga said a lack of education on the issue is disturbing.

“People don’t realize how big the problem is,” she said. “If they did, they would be outraged.”

Pennenga and Friary advocate humane chemical euthanasia as an alternative to slaughter. Friary estimated it costs $100 for the injection and $200 to dispose the body, yet the horse is spared the cruelty of slaughter, starvation or abandonment.

He said owners pay about $300 monthly in health expenses alone to maintain a horse, not including the cost of board.

“If they were able to afford that, they can afford another $300 to do the responsible thing for their horse,” Friary said.

However, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, while chemical euthanasia is preferred by most veterinarians, incorrectly disposed carcasses are hazardous to the environment and to preying species, such as birds. Debrowski added that while euthanasia is a more responsible approach than abandonment, it isn’t realistic. Some people just can’t — or won’t — find the money to put down their horses.

So abandonment continues.

The program coordinator for Marion County Animal Control, Elaine DeIorio, said that while the agency saw an increase in abandonment and neglect cases during the past few years, she couldn’t attribute it to any specific event.

However, the issue gained so much attention nationwide that in 2009, the Government Accountability Office was asked to study the link between the closing of slaughterhouses and horse neglect and report findings by March 1, 2010.

The report has not yet been published.

Debrowski said the GAO found so much material that it asked for an extension. The report is now set to come out this March.

While the report might not provide a quick fix, it’s the start of a process that will hopefully inspire a change, Debrowski said.

“Activists had good intentions, but the follow-through wasn’t planned,” she said. “So we’re left asking, ‘What are we going to do now?’”

Kathy Pennenga runs a farm sanctuary in Gainesville, where she takes care of many horses that would have otherwise been abandoned or neglected. Pennenga, a strong advocate for animal rights, said the recent bans on horse slaughter have highlighted a serious problem, but are not the cause of it. Photo by Henry Taksier.

Kathy Pennenga runs a farm sanctuary in Gainesville, where she takes care of many horses that would have otherwise been abandoned or neglected. Pennenga, a strong advocate for animal rights, said the recent bans on horse slaughter have highlighted a serious problem, but are not the cause of it. Photo by Henry Taksier.

*Name changed at subject’s request for privacy.