Only 100 years ago equines – horses, ponies, burros, donkeys, and mules – were a part of daily life in both urban and rural areas. They pulled our carts and carriages, plowed our fields, and delivered our mail via the pony express. They became part of American history and, like the wild mustangs, part of the American identity.
In the 1900s, with the increasing use of the automobile, tractors, and other motorized vehicles, the role of the working equine in the United States diminished. Today there are estimates that there are 6.9 million horses in the United States, according to The American Horse Council.
Today, equines are used in the professional racing and show industries, in research, in pharmaceutical production, and for recreational and personal use. The National Economic Impact Study (NEIS), commissioned by the American Horse Council (1998), subdivided their population estimate into the following categories:
Recreational uses of equines include pleasure riding and driving, companion animals, and non-professional showing. The show industry includes the professional exhibition of equines in dressage, stadium jumping, eventing, saddle-seat equitation, driving, halter classes, barrel racing, reining, and other divisions of these disciplines. Racing includes flat racing of thoroughbreds, Arabians, and quarter horses, harness racing of Standardbreds, and Steeplechasing. The category of Other Purposes includes working horses, such as cutting and calf-roping horses, carriage horses, and horses used for breeding, rodeos, and circuses.
Relinquished (Unwanted) Equines
Within all of these populations referenced above is an undetermined number of equines that are unwanted, neglected, or abused. Unwanted horses are thought to be a major source of horses relinquished for slaughter. These horses are relatively healthy, but may be sent to slaughter because they cannot perform as intended, and/or exhibit behavioral problems. Unwanted equines may not be directly sold to slaughterhouses; many "pleasure horses" or backyard pets may be sold to middlemen and destined for slaughter, unbeknownst to their owners.
Shelters sprang up to rescue these horses. Shelter as a verb can be defined as follows: "to constitute or provide a shelter for; protect" (Merriam-Webster). This definition is broadened to include the variety of equine welfare organizations operating today and their various functions "to protect animals from abuse, neglect, and cruelty, and to minimize relinquishment for slaughter." An organization that facilitates finding homes for unwanted equines (even if they do not physically take custody of the horse) are also considered a 'sheltering' organization.
One of the first shelters to open in the United States was run by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), founded in 1868 by Boston attorney George Thorndike Angell. Today the MSPCA runs seven small animal shelters and an equine and farm animal shelter, the Nevins Farm and Equine Centre in Methuen, Massachusetts.
Recently, there has been a surge in the establishment of equine shelters. Among their goals are to provide permanent or temporary shelter to unwanted equines, to provide an alternative to slaughter, to rescue and rehabilitate abused and/or neglected equines, and to change attitudes and legislation to better protect equine welfare. It is estimated that there are about 150 equine shelters in the United States and Canada.
Some shelters provide a permanent home for equines at risk, and call themselves 'sanctuaries,' while others focus on finding adoptive homes. Often, well-known humane organizations, like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Animal Rescue League (ARL), have an equine branch that have physical facilities for their animals. These organizations also have some degree of law enforcement capabilities, due to their strong ties with state and local law enforcement agencies.
There are shelters that specialize in rehabilitating, retraining or recycling certain racing breeds, such as thoroughbreds and standardbreds. There are for instance, shelters that facilitate the sale of thoroughbreds no longer wanted at the track, to buyers that want a horse for companionship or recreational riding. This organization has also bought unwanted horses that could no longer be housed at the track waiting for new owners.
Other shelters address the special needs of equines in a specific life stage, such as the foals from facilities that collect mares' urine for the drug Premarin®, an American Brands pharmaceutical, or geriatric horses. There are also shelters that take in horses that are positive for EIA (equine infectious anemia, diagnosed via a Coggins test), a disease for which there is no treatment and no vaccine and for which euthanasia or life-long quarantine can be required by state law.