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The economic downturn and soaring hay prices in the aftermath of droughts, fires and floods in the United States last year has caused the number of unwanted horses to grow.

American welfare organisations say owners are struggling to keep their horses, but “tens of thousands” are being handed over to rescue charities, turned loose or sent to Canadian or Mexican slaughterhouses.

The Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC), formed in 2006, has been trying to gain national awareness of the problem. In recent weeks, national papers such as the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have reported a worsening situation.

“We are aware of several rescue homes functioning at full capacity. In one recent case, 48 horses were abandoned on a farm in Virginia,” said UHC spokesman Katy Carter.

Problems have worsened with the closure of America’s three slaughterhouses (news, 28 June 2007); owners now face a minimum cost of $250 for euthanasia and carcase disposal.

“The closure of slaughter plants has removed the floor values at auction and horses are going for as little as $35,” Ms Carter added.

Increasing numbers of horses are being shipped across the border to Mexico or Canada, leading to fears of inhumane treatment.

The Journal of American Veterinary Medicine reports that 44,475 horses went to Mexico for slaughter last year, compared with 10,783 in 2006.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners is working with the UHC. Spokesman Sally Baker told H&H the situation is nearing crisis point in states such as Kentucky, Florida and Minnesota.

“Concerns over unwanted horses have been heightened in light of the economic downturn, lack of hay and closure of the horse processing facilities,” said Ms Baker. “These three factors have combined to create significant welfare concerns for many horses.”

Charities such as Save our Horses (Kentucky) are trying to rehome unwanted horses and offering emergency feed supplies for owners in crisis. And the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has recently donated $77,000 to rescue groups across the US.

The US Equestrian Federation (USEF) set up a disaster relief fund in 2005 following back-to-back hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It donates money to areas hit by natural disaster.

USEF spokesman Joanie Morris said: “The US has had the most unbelievable weather in the past year, and contributions we’ve made recently have gone to horses affected by floods, the fires in Carolina, the tornado in Tennessee.”

To find out more, visit www.unwantedhorsecoalition.org