Drought Also Causes Trouble for Texas Horse Owners
By Eva Hershaw
With the National Weather Service predicting a continued drought throughout the state, keeping a horse fed and watered is going to remain a burden for many Texans.
Daniel Salazar, 32, a maintenance worker in Florence, said that for him, it is a decision between recreation, enjoyment and family. He put his quarter horse up for sale on Craigslist weeks ago and has yet to see much interest from buyers. With nine children to care for, he has a hard time justifying the money spent to keep his horse fed in already tough economic times.
“I’d like to keep it; the kids really enjoy that horse,” he said. “But family has to come first.”
Drought damage to agriculture and livestock has been estimated at $5.2 billion by the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service. Elevated feed and water costs present the biggest challenge to horse owners. According to Jerry Thames, president of the Texas Horse Council, a round bale that usually costs between $65 and $85 is now between $100 and $150. The drought caused the water table to drop and altered the quality of well water, pushing those ranchers who can afford it to install expensive water tanks. As thousands of Texas horses grow thin without feed, many ranchers are running out of options.
For many ranchers, horses carry an emotional value beyond that of other livestock. According to Suzanne Huddleston, 56, a breeder whose family has owned Consuelo Ranch in Sonora in West Texas since the 1800s, “Ranchers will sell livestock, everything they have, but horses last,” she said. “There is a great amount of emotional attachment.”
Beth Rand of Lakeway, founder of the Joyful Horse Project, a private horse rescue service, said that many owners come to her in dire straits. “I’ve seen horse owners at a flea market trying to sell everything they have in order to keep their horses,” she said. “Even though people are trying anything to hang on, they’re being forced to either turn them out or starve them in the field.”
In an already bad economy, these extra costs are forcing Texan horse owners do one of three things: donate their horses to a willing home, sell them to buyers, knowing some may well take their horses to slaughter, or simply cut the wires and let them run.
“If they can, owners will donate the horses to a dude ranch or a place where they will be ridden,” Thames said. “If not that, they’ll sell them if they can get something for them, and if nothing else, they’ll simply turn them out onto the roads.”
In recent months, the Texas horse market has seen an overwhelming increase in numbers at public auction. “There are a lot more horses coming to auction and selling for a lot less,” said Leslie Rios, 52, who runs the Rio Grande Classic Auction in El Paso. “We’ve seen horses sell for as little as $30. Environmental Services of El Paso County charges $189 to haul off a dead horse, and most of them aren’t even worth that.”
Yet selling horses isn’t easy for owners. The unspoken risk of putting horses up for auction is “kill buyers.” They buy horses in large quantities at low cost and take them to Mexico for slaughter. Kill buyers keep their identities as quiet as possible, but owners identified the practice as common, controversial and personally uncomfortable.
“I’ve suspected that buyers were taking horses across the border,” Huddleston said, “but they don’t tell me. They know I’d prefer not to know.”
Horse slaughter is not a new controversy. Since Texas processing operations were ordered closed in 2007, the drought has pushed more horses across the border. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has shipped 40,644 horses over the border in 2011, nearly 8,500 more than this time last year.
For many, horses are part of a family tradition. “Selling horses isn’t something that people want to talk about,” Huddleston said. “It’s a heart-wrenching decision. These horses have been in the family for generations and it’d be impossible to get those bloodlines back once their gone.”
For some, it’s about the bloodlines. For others, they are work horses, race horses, show horses or family pets. And not all seem to fare equally in trying times.
“We show horse people hang on as long as we can because we’re crazy people,” said Val Clarke of Elgin, president of The Texas HORSE (Horse Organizations for Racing, Showing and Eventing), a statewide lobbying coalition. “Others had to let go.”
Those who own show horses, pet horses and breeding horses are likely to be able to keep horses longer than those ranchers with two or three workhorses.
“Those that have what we call ‘I love you’ horses are more likely to be buying grain,” Thames said, “so they’ll be able to hold on a bit longer.” He has come to know horse owners well through his years in the industry. “I used to have a radio show, and whenever a horse owner would call in, I’d ask them what was special about their horse,” he said. “They always said ‘I love him!’ And the name stuck.”
Horse rescue centers are also pushed to capacity. “We’re getting calls from people that are at their wits’ end,” said Jerry Finch, president of Habitat for Horses, the largest rescue operation in Texas. “We haven’t adopted many, but we’ve been able to facilitate direct transfers from those owners in financial trouble to those with a little more flexibility.”
The Joyful Horse Project is taking another approach. “We’re trying to get our horses out of the state as fast as we can,” Rand said. “We’re still trying to place the horses we took on last year, and until we place them, we can’t take on any new horses.”
Even though Texas wildfires have been thrust into the national spotlight, with more than 3.5 million acres burned since last November, Rand worries that the consequences of the drought will last much longer than media attention.
“The real worry is what comes next,” Rand said. “We’re getting attention now because there was a wildfire. But once that’s over, then what? Our animals are in crisis in Texas.”