Drought and turbulence in the economy might lead to increased reports of horse neglect in coming months, said the director of equine protection for The Humane Society of the United States.
Many responsible horse owners are falling on hard times and having a difficult time making ends meet, said Keith Dane during a Saturday visit to Lexington.
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"That doesn't excuse equine neglect," Dane said. "Certainly we hope and expect horse owners to put the welfare of their animals at a high level of priority. If they anticipate they are going to have a problem, they should seek help before it becomes a problem for the horse and before it becomes a welfare issue and the horse needs to be seized or, even worse, possibly euthanized."
The availability of hay also is a concern after the dry summer, said Ginny Grulke, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Council, the Lexington-based organization dedicated to the promotion and growth of the equine industry.
Most of Kentucky, including Central Kentucky, remains in a moderate drought after experiencing the driest August and September since 1897, according to the University of Kentucky Agricultural Weather Center. Eastern Kentucky is in a severe drought, according to the center's latest report.
If conditions don't improve soon, Grulke said "there is a concern" of a repeat of 2007, when drought reduced hay stocks in Kentucky, and horse-rescue operations took in more malnourished animals.
Perhaps the most notorious Kentucky case of malnourished horses came in late March, when deputy sheriffs seized 74 animals from a farm in southeastern Jessamine County. The owners in that case said the 2007 drought had dried up their pasture but said they had continued to feed the animals hay and corn.
Dane said the Humane Society is working to find sources of hay where it is plentiful and move it to where it's needed, but he said horse owners must also take action.
"Horse owners need to plan now, and not wait until the middle of winter to start looking for hay," Dane said.
The Humane Society donated money last year to the council's Save Our Horses fund, which helps owners who are struggling to find hay and other needs for their animals.
"This isn't just a Kentucky problem," Dane said. "One goal we have for the future is to develop a nationwide hay network so that we identify where hay is available and where it is needed and somehow making sure it is getting to the animals that need it."
On a related topic, Dane told representatives of various horse-related groups Saturday that the Humane Society hopes to implement an accreditation program for rescue operations in 2009.
Many rescue operations are financially stable, "but then there are some that are on shaky ground," Dane said in an interview. "So there's a need to ensure the public, to ensure Congress, to ensure the horse industry that horse rescues that are in operation meet a certain standard."
The goal is to evaluate horse rescues who apply for accreditation. If they don't measure up to standards, a fund will be available to help them to get up to snuff.
Rescues would be evaluated on the quality of their shelter, feed, cleanliness and care. Other elements evaluated would include whether the operation has a business plan and working capital, and how it engages the community for financial support.
There are more than 450 horse rescue operations in the United States, "and the number is growing all the time," Dane said. Grulke estimated that there are five or six horse-rescue operations organized as non-profits in Kentucky. Perhaps another 10 or so are operated by individuals.
Dane also said the Humane Society will have a booth at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park, but there are no plans for the group to monitor the safety and welfare of horses.
The organization sent an equine protection team to monitor the care, safety and treatment of horses in the 2008 Olympics equestrian events in Hong Kong.
"So if we were asked to come in that sort of capacity to the equestrian games, we'd certainly be open to it," Dane said.