The dog has been called "Man's Best Friend", and I do not dispute this. The cow has been called "The Mother of Mankind". I can accept this. But, if these things are true, then surely the horse has been "Man's Best Servant". However, a servant can quit the job if abused, so perhaps the horse should be called "Man's Best Slave".
I submit that the horse has, of all domestic animals, been the most important to mankind. Those societies, which had the horse, had the most progressive cultures. The Australian aborigines had only the dog. The Natives of North America had only the dog. Those of South America had the dog, the llama, and the guinea pig. Most of Africa did not have the horse, except in the far North, along the Mediterranean Sea, and it was there that the most advanced civilizations occurred.
But Europe and Asia had the horse, along with sheep, goats, cattle, swine, and the dog. The horse gave humans the ability to travel long distances at relatively high rates of speed, enabling mankind to spread their knowledge, their skills, their religions, their technologies, and their genes. Countless millions of horses died for mankind at work and in our wars.
In World War II, for example, our highly technical war, the war that gave birth to the atomic bomb, and the jet airplane, millions of horses died. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, it did so with 740,000 horses and mules and 4,300 veterinarians. Both the Soviets and the Germans each lost more than a thousand horses a day. Germany used 2-1/2 million horses in World War II and the Soviets used 3 million.
At one point, the Germans surrounded 2 Cossack divisions. Each Russian had to kill his own horse until 12,000 dead horses blanketed the ground.
When the Germans were surrounded at Stalingrad, and ordered by Hitler to fight to the death, they killed 32,000 horses to keep the soviets from getting them.
Towards the end of the war, a German cavalry division fled into Budapest as the Soviets advanced. The division had 22,000 troops. Only 650 survived. None of the horses did.
So, how has mankind rewarded the horse? To a great extent, with abuse and most of this abuse has not been the result of intentional cruelty, but to ignorance; and failure to understand the behavior of this physically powerful but extremely timid prey creature whose only effective means of surviving predation is flight.
When I graduated veterinary school in 1956, the horse population of the U.S.A. was down to 2.2 million, one tenth of what it had been 50 years earlier in 1906. After 6,000 years of domestication, the horse had become obsolete, made so by the internal combustion engine. Automobiles, tractors and trucks had largely replaced the horse.
I wanted to practice, at least partially, with horses, so my only alternatives at the time seemed to be the racetrack or a cattle ranching area where the horse would continue to serve its traditional role. I had worked at the racetrack as a student, and wasn't interested in it. So, I located in a ranching area filled with cattle ranches and horse farms. I could not foresee that half a century later, this region would be largely suburbanized, and home to countless pleasure and show horses of every possible breed and discipline.
Today, there are more than 9 million equines in the U.S.A., but their role has changed. True working horses continue to lessen in numbers. The increase is almost entirely due to horses used for recreational purposes. When I say "recreation", I include racehorses, show horses, pleasure and trail horses, therapeutic riding horses and even horses kept exclusively as companion animals, or pets.
Then, less than a decade into the 21sl Century, a new problem arose: The Unwanted Horse! This problem has multiple causes:
1. Excessive breeding, causing a surplus of horses especially when combined with:
2. Early orthopedic lameness from excessive work while young, leading to unsoundness
3. A depressed economy and
4. A prolonged drought both occurring after:
5. The slaughter ban
I'm old enough to remember when most of the dog food we purchased when I was a child contained horsemeat.
I'm also a veteran of World War II and I am sure that I unknowingly ate horsemeat during those war years because it was widely marketed as beef.
Now, there is no question that the horse slaughter industry needed reform. The transport of horses was often unacceptable. The handling and actual slaughter of horses at the packing plants was often unacceptable. But, as so often happens when evils are corrected in human societies, we over-react and end up creating new problems.
When the present day anti-slaughter bans were legislated, I predicted that, in eliminating one set of problems, we would, because emotion interferes with reason and common sense, end up by creating new and even bigger problems. And, that's exactly what has happened.
Today, nearly 40,000 Mustangs, culled from feral herds because of overpopulation and environmental damage, waste their life away, at taxpayers' expense, in crowded corrals, because of the slaughter ban. A few are adopted, but most spend their life as unwanted horses.
Because of our depressed economy, many people are unable to afford to properly feed and care for their horses. Some of these people, unable to make rational decisions, allow their horses to starve and waste away. We constantly hear of legal action being taken in such cases.
Other people, self deceptive, turn their horses loose on public lands, or on private agricultural lands.
I learned as a practitioner, that the people who need to get rid of a dog, and dump it by some farm or ranch gate, are not intentionally cruel. I've had dogs and even domestic rabbits dumped at my rural property. These people can't deal with reality. They practice denial. They tell themselves, their children and other people, "Oh! We found a nice home for our pet in the country." It's because they do not have the courage to take their unwanted pet to a dog pound or animal shelter.
Now, we are seeing the same thing with horses. Before the slaughter ban, such people took the unwanted horse to an auction sale. It was usually purchased by a slaughter company, but they told themselves that, "we sold her. She has a new home."
But, there is another reason for the plethora of unwanted horses, and it's a reason we don't hear about. We hear about the economy and about the surplus of horses, but we don't hear about the leading reason for unwanted horses, and that is unsoundness.
I recently made a new video; the first one I've done which has nothing to do with equine behavior. The title is Lameness: Its Cause and Prevention. In it, I list the eleven causes of lameness in horses, including: old age, defective conformation, malnutrition, lack of exercise, injury from an unsafe environment, inappropriate working ground surface, improper foot care, laminitis, infection, genetic predisposition, and - The leading cause of lameness: Excessive work in the immature horse. This is the leading cause of lameness ending up with unwanted horses.
If it is a mare and she goes lame at 5 or 6 or 7 years of age, she ends up as a broodmare, probably passing her predisposition to lameness on to her offspring.
If the horse is a male, unless it is the exceptional stallion that has won a lot of money, he ends up as an unwanted horse.
When I was young, we started horses under saddle and 4 or 5 years of age, and we called them "colts". When I became a veterinarian the only futurities were in the racing industry, and 70% of those young horses suffered premature orthopedic injuries often ending their career. A 2-year-old horse is a baby. A pre-adolescent. Even if the epiphyses are closed radiographically, these are immature horses. Today we have barrel racing futurities, cutting futurities, reining futurities and so on.
Several years ago, the A.A.E.P. met in Dallas. The cutting horse futurities were being held in nearby Fort Worth and 3 colleagues from Sweden asked me if I could somehow get them to see the futurity. I got a local colleague, one of my former interns, with a car to take the 5 of us to Fort Worth that evening.
We watched 3 horses compete, and then one of the Swedes, a professor at the vet school in Uppsala said, "This is incredible. It must take many years to train a horse to do this."
"But", I protested. "This is a futurity."
"I do not know what this word means", my Swedish colleague replied.
"These are 3 year olds", I explained.
"They have only had one year of training". The professor looked thoughtful. Then, he said, "I have only two comments. What amazing performance, and what is happening to their poor legs?
When dressage became popular in my area, at first the horses were nearly all retired unsuccessful Thoroughbred racehorses. Then imported Warmbloods started to arrive from Europe. I asked several of my clients why they were willing to pay such high prices for the Warmbloods.
"Because they stay sound," I was told. But, I knew why they stayed sound. They weren't started until they were four, and weren't campaigned hard until five. Also, the arena surfaces in Western Europe were resilient. Ours were often too hard or made of deep sand, which has no resiliency and stresses the soft tissues severely.
So, we Americans started them at two and they broke down prematurely.
Ironically, today many Europeans are starting their horses at two, and a high percentage breakdown before middle age.
Why do we do this?
We do it because of mankind's two major faults: Greed and Ignorance.
We start immature horses and severely stress their limbs because of greed. If breeders can sell colts a year earlier it saves them a lot of money in feed bills, veterinary and farrier bills.
It's much easier for trainers to start colts as 2 year olds than later. They are more submissive when immature. It's easier to get desirable performance in a youngster. One of the nation's top reining horse trainers acknowledged this to me, admitted how much easier it was, and regretfully admitted that it was a major contributor to the cause of lameness. Sadly, he calls them "Disposable Horses".
When I moved to California in 1957, my wife rode cutting horses for one of my clients. As a result, I went to quite a few weekend competitions. One horse I saw at every event was a gelding named "Smokey Joe." One day I saw him yawn. I was startled to see a 20-year-old mouth. I said to the mounted owner," How old is he?"
"Nineteen," he replied.
"Wow," I said. "And he cuts every weekend and is perfectly sound and his legs are perfectly clean."
"I cut on him every day" the rider replied. "He's one tough horse. But then, he wasn't broke to ride until he was nine."
The other factor is ignorance. Most of the people who own these horses are naive. They see all the breeders and all the trainers approving so they assume it's okay.
Equine practitioners are kept busy injecting joints, not only therapeutically, but also prophylactically.
The pharmaceutical industry advertises its products in lay horse publications, and encourages the use of intra-articular preparations to prevent lameness. Can you imagine this happening in the world of promising high school athletes?
Remember, Mary Lou Retton, the 13-year-old Olympic Gold Medal gymnast? Still a young woman, I saw her on TV endorsing a brand of hip replacements. Too much work at too young an age!
A recent study revealed that growing colts that got exercise had better musculoskeletal development than under exercised colts. Of course! But that doesn't mean that the extreme stresses involved in racing, reining, jumping, and cutting are beneficial to the young, immature colt.
Why do we do these things to an animal that will actually die for us? Why does soreing still go on in the Tennessee Walking Horse competitions? Why are we still seeing "peanut rollers" in Western Pleasure classes; downhill horses that are throwing excessive weight on the forelimbs contributing to premature lameness? Why are we seeing unnecessary low head carriage in cutting and reining horses? Why do judges give such horses preference? Why do the breed associations not disqualify such judges? We know that excess weight on the forehand contributes to orthopedic disease. Why do we see hyperflexion of the head and neck increasingly in Western horses, English horses and dressage horses? Our German colleague, Dr. Gerd Heuschmann is condemned by some because he has dared to expose the physical and mental damage done to the horse by "Rollkur", the ridiculous and grotesque excessive head and neck hyperflexion approved by so many dressage judges.
Recently, at last, the AVMA Journal has campaigned for more humane horsemanship. We are the most qualified people to help stop these tragic practices. They contribute to crippling innocent horses. They are overworked at too young an age and increase the rate of premature unsoundness. Unnaturally, low head carriage and hyperflexion of the head and neck are incompatible with truly good horsemanship. We, as a profession should protest these excesses.
Let me be clear, I am not opposed to the sports of racing or horse shows. These activities have helped to produce superior horses. But both sports are replete with abusive elements and if we doctors of veterinary medicine vigorously condemn these grotesque practices, there will be fewer "Unwanted Horses" in the future.
Solving the Unwanted Horse Problem
1. Abolish the slaughter ban. Restore equine slaughter with rigidly enforced regulations on transport, handling and actual slaughter.
2. Allow mustang programs to be set up and supervised by scientifically qualified professionals. Do not allow the opinions of unqualified individuals to determine policy.
3. Let the veterinary profession, in conjunction with selected and approved horsemanship masters, recommend the rules for using horses in all horse show disciplines, horse racing, and other competitive events. This is in order to minimize abusive techniques.
4. Make it a felony to abandon a horse on public or private property, and enforce the law.
If all 4 of the above were done, it would dramatically reduce the presently huge number of unwanted horses.
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