FRANKFORT — Animal control workers in some rural Kentucky communities have a larger problem than stray dogs and cats — much larger. Stray horses have been turning up, and animal advocates blame horse owners hurt by the faltering economy.
"People who used to be able to afford their horses now can no longer afford their horses," said Ginny Grulke, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Council. "These are not people who are ruthless or inhumane. In general, it's an economic problem, and they have no options. They don't know what to do with their animals."
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Lancaster resident Connie Short said a small black horse showed up on her farm in August. Despite her best efforts, she couldn't find the owner of the hungry stray that she fed for about two months until animal control workers found a foster home.
"Nobody wanted him," Short said. "It was like somebody had dropped off a dog or a cat."
Although top Thoroughbreds still sell for high prices, Grulke said it's a difficult time to sell pleasure horses that are common across Kentucky. The causes for that are varied, but the economy is a major factor, she said.
Kentucky's jobless rate has soared over the past year, hitting 7.1 percent in September. Chief state labor market analyst Justine Detzel said nearly every sector of the state's economy have suffered job losses. She blamed a prolonged manufacturing slump, cutbacks in government spending, and a clampdown by consumers on discretionary spending.
Feeding and properly caring for just one recreational horse can cost a few thousand dollars a year. Drought conditions through the summer have also cut into hay supplies.
Grulke told Kentucky lawmakers this week that anecdotal evidence suggests a widespread problem with abandoned horses. In some cases, they have been left tied to posts at livestock auction barns. Others have been unloaded on rural grasslands to fend for themselves.
Essie Rogers, director of education and welfare for the Kentucky Horse Council, showed lawmakers a series of photographs of horses so emaciated that their ribs showed through tattered coats. Most, Rogers said, had been rescued from people who could no longer afford to provide adequate food or veterinary care.
Dr. Phil Prater, a veterinarian at Morehead State University, said two starving strays were found grazing on roadside grass off Interstate 64 in northeastern Kentucky earlier this year. Both had become so weak that they had to be euthanized. State police investigated but never found the owner.
Grulke said boarding stables also have been hit hard by the economic problems, having to care for horses long after their owners have stopped paying.
State Rep. Royce Adams, D-Dry Ridge, is among state lawmakers pushing legislation to allow stable owners to evict horses when their owners fall into arrears at least 45 days. The legislation would allow the stables to sell the horses to recoup expenses.
Grulke is calling for lawmakers to commission a study to find out just how many unwanted horses there are in Kentucky.