Ky. Horse Industry Suffers In Hard Times

In Kentucky, the economic slowdown has been tough. Animal-control workers have noticed a troubling trend: People are abandoning their horses. The Bluegrass State is known for its thoroughbreds, but the more common horses being left behind.

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In Kentucky, the horse industry is hitting a rough patch. Thanks to the tough economic times and a punishing drought, a lot of people can't afford to keep their horses. And there's a spike in the number of unwanted, sometimes abandoned, steeds. From member station WFPL in Louisville, Kristin Espeland reports.

KRISTIN ESPELAND: Sheila Oliver(ph) has horses in her blood. Her two favorites, Misty(ph) and Belle(ph), trot up to the fence to greet her.

Ms. SHEILA OLIVER: This is Belle and Misty. She's a grey, half-Arab, half-saddlebred.

ESPELAND: They're all she can afford now, down from eight horses. First, she lost a job of 23 years. Then she injured herself, and to make matters worse, a severe drought sent hay prices out of Oliver's reach. But a neighbor heard her story, and here's what he told her.

Ms. OLIVER: I got the hay. I don't need it. I can't stand not to not bale it. I've got a big enough place to hold it. If you want to buy it, I'll sell it to you for $1 a bale. Well, it was just, I mean, the emotions flooded out, and I started crying in front of this man that I hardly knew.

ESPELAND: Oliver says finding homes for her other horses was gut-wrenching. But in this economy, she says she had no choice.

Ms. OLIVER: It was either lose it all, lose my home or lose things that were not as important as my home.

ESPELAND: It's a story people are telling all over this horse-loving state.

(Soundbite of horse)

ESPELAND: Inside this vintage barn near Lexington, the stalls are full of antsy thoroughbreds waiting to be adopted. It's the Kentucky Equine Humane Center, which Lori Neagle helped start two years ago for animals like this sleek, brown beauty named Sugar Baby(ph).

Ms. LORI NEAGLE (Kentucky Equine Humane Center): She came to us because her owners lost their farm because of the economy. And so, she had nowhere to go. And the neighbors stepped in and helped them out and brought her here, so…

ESPELAND: Neagle says they've taken in nearly 300 horses so far. Sometimes an owner calls for help. But increasingly, horses are just left behind at boarding stables, auction houses - even state parks.

Ms. NEAGLE: We had a horse come in from a local animal control agency that had been tied to a telephone pole and abandoned.

ESPELAND: And, Neagle says, increasingly it's not just a single horse. It's whole herds. Horses are a $4 billion industry here. And while the recession has crippled the business, drought hasn't helped, either. It tripled the price of hay. The ban on U.S. slaughterhouses has added to the glut of unwanted horses. And prices at auctions have plummeted for all but the fanciest thoroughbreds.

The Kentucky Horse Council's Essie Rogers says people can buy horses cheap. But feeding them can cost thousands, not to mention veterinary visits.

Ms. ESSIE ROGERS (Kentucky Horse Council): People may pick up a horse for $5, $10 if it's in poor shape - you know, $50 or $100 if it's slightly better but maybe untrained. And they think gosh, it's so inexpensive to buy them, surely I can maintain it inexpensively. And horses, as I said, are very expensive to care for.

ESPELAND: So hundreds have called the Horse Council's new hotline for emergency hay, but that's only a temporary fix for what many believe is a bigger problem. Rogers says there are just too many horses. And she says owners, some lured by state incentives, should think twice before breeding.

There is some hopeful news. Several organizations have cropped up to rescue the unwanteds, and the issue is winning more industry attention. But it's still not enough to deal with all the horses in need. For NPR News, I'm Kristin Espeland in Louisville.

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