The Mustang Problem: $67 Million a Year to Keep Wild Horses in Pens?

Mustangs photographed by a BLM employee, sourced via WikiCommons

Mustangs photographed by a BLM employee, sourced via WikiCommons

“They are a symbol of the American West, but do we need 35,000 symbols of the American West?”

Nathaniel Messer, professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri, quoted in the NYT in September 2010.

 

Horses are well habituated to much of the North American landscape. After all, it was in the forests and open plains of what’s now the USA that the horse as we know it evolved. Lately, with few predators to trouble them, they’ve been thriving at such a rate that they create problems for landowners and ranchers, and now the government.

The American wild horse or mustang is the descendent of equines that have gone feral in the US since the first arrival of the Conquistadors. They have no real “type” as a breed and, thanks to the efforts of 20th-century campaigners, are permitted to roam free on public lands as “an integral part of the natural system”. The government authority in charge of the herd of 33,000 or so animals is the Bureau of Land Management or BLM. If you want to know more about the back story of the mustang and the laws that were hammered out to protect it, I recommend Deanne Stillman’s excellent Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West.

The BLM are authorised to remove horses from the wild in order to prevent overpopulation and resulting environmental damage. Regular round ups funnel horses to short-term holding facilities where they are sorted into adoptable and unadoptable (the unadoptable are humanely destroyed). Some horses go from the short-term facilities to new homes as domestic animals. Most go to long-term facilities, where they remain, often indefinitely. The BLM pays for their care, and as many of these horses will live in the longterm facilities until their natural death, it makes for some pretty expensive “wild” horses.

A report published today by Robert A Garrott (Montana State University) and Madan K Oli (University of Florida) in Science makes it clear that what the BLM are doing is utterly unsustainable. The budget for the National Wild Horses and Burros Program clocked in at $19.8 million in 2000, and, despite the Credit Crunch and government cutbacks, was a mighty $74.9 million in 2012, with 60% being spent on the “wild” mustangs in those short- and long-term holding facilities.

Garrott and Oli drew on the records of 165,459 horses that have been dewilded by the BLM for their sums. It will take some 30 years for all the captive horses to live out their lifespans and die naturally, and it will cost the BLM approximately $449 million (with allowance for inflation) to maintain them. Total expenses for these and new horses taken from the wild would hit $1.1 billion between 2013 and 2030, and after that it would cost $67 million a year to keep all those publicly owned horses.

The BLM is already slowing down its round ups due to lack of funding, which will of course lead to a larger wild population even though water and forage are running low in some areas due to drought. Garrott and Oli endorse the use of “effecive vaccines that prevent pregnancy in both captive and free-ranging mares for 1 to 3 years”. This, they calculate, would halve the population growth and save $16,110 in maintenance for every horse, or $1 million per 62 horses. Fewer horses would require removal from public land, and fewer horses would be in short-term or long-term holding facilities. Rosiest of scenarios: the number of horses removed might even match the number of willing adoptive homes.

Of course, any contraceptive programme would mean more distressing round-ups for the wild herds, but, as Garrott and Oli rather bleakly point out, this would be preferable to the current Australian situation, where once more there are proposals to reduce outsize herds by gunning them down from helicopters.

 

 

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

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  • Billionaire Roman Abramovich has purchased Pringle, one of the best showjumping ponies in the UK, for his daughter Irina. (Daily Telegraph)
  • Mustang round-ups in the US are halted after video evidence of abuse of the horses is presented (Salt Lake Tribune)
  • The owner of a pit bull that chased a police horse for a mile-and-a-half through a San Francisco park is fighting a court order to either euthanise the dog or hand it over to a sanctuary. He claims that the police horse should have been trained to deal with dogs, and that he has no idea how the wounds it suffered were inflicted. According to a comment: “The horse was bitten 13 times in a 1.5 mile long attack.  The officer was bitten as well, then thrown and knocked out (very lucky he wasn’t hurt worse) when the horse was bitten in the belly.  The horse ran to the stable but the doors were shut, and the dog attacked it a second time, in the chest, belly, hindquarters and legs.  The dog was originally 200’ away, the owner was present at the start of the attack.” (ABA Journal)
  • Dan Stevens and Dominic Cooper star in a forthcoming film about the life of equestrian artist Alfred Munnings. I wonder if they’ll film in Costessey? (Telegraph, via Fran Jurga)
  • Anti-horse meat advertising campaigns photographed in France. (Market Design)

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Berlin graffiti

  • A young Scottish showjumper who’s only been riding for three years has been sponsored by Euromillions lottery winners. (Horse and Hound)
  • Meanwhile a nineteen-year-old started a millionaire’s fund of his own when he became the youngest ever winner of the showjumping CN International via Karen K. (Spruce Meadows)
  • Corrective surgery for thoroughbred yearlings before auction. Do they need it? Should it be disclosed? How much goes on?  As one concerned owner points out, “A stallion retires to stud that might not have held up to racing say in 1965 or 1975 and now you’ve got these horses going into the gene pool. I think that unquestionably changes the face of the genetics going forward.” (Kentucky.com)
  • The US federal Horse Protection Act is criticsed by those trying to prosecute abusers of Tennessee Walking Horses. They say the penalties must be much stiffer. (SF Chronicle)
  • In Britain a couple are fined over a thousand pounds and banned from keeping animals for ten years after keeping a pony in a 6ft by 4ft shed. (Daily  Mail)
  • Korean pop group KARA flash their gams and do the “horse riding dance”, which is apparently all the rage among the young folk. (allkpop.com) UPDATE: Thank you to the Atlantic and Ben Perry for this detailed explanation of the horse riding dance.
  • Documentary Wild Horse, Wild Ride, tells the story of trainers preparing fresh-off-the-range horses for the Mustang Makeover. Think Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Six Ponies and then some. (LA Times)
  • The Seventh Russian polo Open at Moscow. (Living Polo)
  • Przewalski horses return to the wild in China. (Horse Talk NZ)
  • The ill-gotten gains of a city official in Illinois are up at auction: hundreds of top-rank Quarter Horses. (Wall Street Journal)
  • And last but definitely not least, these surprising and moving animal portraits by photographer Charlotte Dumas. Look! Look! (Flavorwire)

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Spotted by Helen Maguire at the UCCA contemporary art gallery in Beijing

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Ponies: the fatter they are, the naughtier they be. Thelwell proved correct by science.

Cheap gelding clinics are becoming a reality in the US. Here’s one in California.

Jane Smiley on National Velvet.

A fell pony riding holiday in Lancashire.

A swimming race for horses that commemorates a Venezuelan battle of 1819.

A wild stallion in Arizona rescues a filly who’s being swept away in a flood-swollen river.

Neglect and the Manhattan Carriage Horse

This week a horse that pulled tourist carriages in New York dropped dead in the middle of Manhattan, provoking cries of cruelty and mistreatment. I’m aware that there’s a long-standing campaign to end the practice of using these horses in the city, and that the only other equines in central New York, at the Claremont Academy, have now gone. I’m aware that some of the carriage drivers may not have great records, that a nine-hour shift is very long and that the worst days of summer in that sweltering city are not good conditions for horses. However, it’s autumn now, not August, and humane societies are satisfied with the welfare measures that are in place for the horses, as Mayor Bloomberg pointed out in this NYT piece:

“The horses here are supervised by the health department, the A.S.P.C.A.,” he said. “They’re well taken care of. And most of them wouldn’t be alive if they didn’t have a job.”

And this, I think, is the nub of it. The grey who died had only been working a month, and frankly from the photos I’ve seen, he did not look neglected. He looked like he was in great shape. Horses are mortal and, like humans, they do die of heart attacks without being overworked – in fact, they’re far more likely than humans to have such an episode. As this Horse and Hound article shows, a horse doesn’t have to be “worked to death” to have a cardiac crisis:

In a recent study funded by the International League for the Protection of Horses 25% of sudden death fatalities were pleasure horses, and exercise doesn’t even have to be that strenuous or fast. Healthy horses are on average 50 times more likely to die during exercise than healthy people, but the causes of death are very different. The human casualties who collapse during marathons are much more likely to have succumbed because of an inherited disorder of the heart muscle or of the electrical activity in the heart. These conditions do not exist in horses to our knowledge. When the sudden death of an apparently healthy horse occurs during exercise, almost half are due to massive fatal haemorrhage (bleeding) from arteries or veins of either the chest or abdomen.  The remaining, largest and most perplexing group of sudden death fatalities has no distinct abnormalities to explain the demise at post-mortem, except non-specific signs of sudden cardiac failure. Unfortunately, the underlying reason for a large blood vessel in the abdomen or chest breaking and causing major bleeding in a horse is usually not clear.

Bloomberg may sound callous when he says that the horse would be dead if it had no job, but he’s also correct. The US horse population is in crisis. Even before the recession a surge in hay prices led to a rise in welfare cases, and this problem  has only worsened – as I noted in an earlier post, there are an estimated 100,000 unwanted horses in the States, and only 13,400 places in sanctuaries and recues. If you want to see what neglect and cruelty look like, here are some current cases in the US, drawn from a quick Google News search of the last week or so:

And that’s without counting the 140,000 horses per year making long, cruel journeys to slaughter in Canada and Mexico.

EDITED TO ADD: Aaaaand the necropsy results. Charlie had only been on the job a few weeks after a working life with an Amish farmer, and by the looks of it, a more thorough vetting should have been done.  He had a tooth problem and stomach ulcers. Would a five-stage vetting have picked up the ulcers? The teeth should have been one of the first things to be checked. Whether either of these resulted in a heart attack, I have no idea, but if something like a cracked tooth wasn’t assessed before he started work in the city, then there needs to be stricter monitoring of the horses chosen for work.

EDITED TO ADD: the vet who spoke on behalf of the ASPCA on the necropsy has retracted her allegations of neglect. The ASPCA promptly suspended her. From the NYT:

… a few days later, the society’s head equine veterinarian took it upon herself to issue a “correction” stating that in fact there was no evidence that the horse, Charlie, was experiencing any pain, that the ulcers he had were common in all breeds of working horses, and that any implication that Charlie was being abused was misleading.Now the vet, Pamela Corey, has been suspended without pay by the society in the latest volley over the contentious subject of carriage-horse welfare in New York City.

The society declined to discuss why Dr. Corey had been suspended but said it had gone back and forth with her over drafts of its original news release about Charlie’s death. “We believe there are no factual differences between our original statement of 10/31/11 and the one Dr. Corey asked to issue,” said Elizabeth Estroff, senior vice president of communications for the A.S.P.C.A.

Here’s a link to an open letter concerning the pressure Dr Corey felt she was under to spin the necropsy results – which, along with Charlie’s body, have not been released by the ASPCA.

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December 4th, 2011, update. A new piece in the New York Post:

An NYPD cop-turned-animal-welfare agent is stepping forward to charge that the ASPCA is cutting ethical and legal corners in its attempt to abolish the city’s horse-carriage industry.

“It’s like targeting. It’s like racial profiling,” Henry Ruiz said of the agency’s efforts to uncover wrongdoing in the century-old industry.

Ruiz said the ASPCA commissioned an independent study about four years ago that determined the horses were well cared for. He said the study was never released because it clashed with the ASPCA’s agenda. The agency claimed no such study exists.

In his nine years with the ASPCA, Ruiz said he never witnessed cruelty involving a carriage horse.

But he said that didn’t stop the agency from routinely dispatching agents to patrol the horse line outside Central Park, especially around the Christmas holidays.

“You were supposed to give out at least 10 [summonses] that night,” he recalled.

Necropsy report for the horse here.

Salvos Across the Equine Gene Pool: a Reader

This is not so much a post as a string of links to some interesting, thought-provoking essays elsewhere and a question: what is “pure blood” and should it matter?

Let me explain. Roughly speaking, until the nineteenth century and even the twentieth century, the vast majority of horses and ponies in the West were not bred by someone who wanted to “preserve a bloodline” or produce a very specific set of characteristics. The aim was to make a “type” of horse to do a specific job, using the sires and dams that were available – ideally with good conformation. It was thoroughbreds whose breeders, inspired by Arabian breeding practices, changed the game. You can see that in the etymology of the words “thorough bred” “pur sang” “voll blut”. Soon it wasn’t enough to have a good horse, it had to be a “pure horse” (The warmblood bucks this trend, in theory. More anon). To a large extent, this probably did improve the quality of many horses: stallions were selected for meeting certain characteristics and performance criteria. But could the preoccupation with “breeds” over “types” eventually cause problems?

Here are my scattered thoughts and links.

1 – I just finished reading John Bradshaw’s In Defence of Dogs, which deals, among other issues, with the problem of pedigree dogs:

“Until very recently, the amount of variation in the domestic dog was sufficient to maintain genetic health. Multiple domestications and back-crossing with wolves meant that dogs worldwide still have an estimated 95 per cent of the variation that was present in wolves during the time of domestication. Most of this variation lives on today in street dogs and mongrels, but pedigree dogs have lost a further 35 per cent. That may not seem much, but let us imagine the scenario in human terms. Mongrels maintain levels of variability that are similar to those found globally in our own species. In many individual breeds, however, the amount of variation within the whole breed amounts to little more than is typical of first cousins in our species. And we humans know that repeated marriages between cousins eventually lead to the emergence of a wide range of genetic abnormalities, which is why marriages between close relatives are taboo in most societies. It is astonishing that the same consideration is not given to dogs.”

Over just the last six generations, inbreeding [of golden retrievers] has removed more than 90% of the variation that once characterised the breed. … In a recent sampling of Y (male) chromosomes of dogs in California, no variation was found in fifteen out of fifty breeds, indicating that most of the male ancestors of each and every dog in those breeds have been very close relatives of each other.”

This put me in mind of Fell Foal Syndrome, HYPP, assorted genetic problems in Friesians, Minxy the ill-fated miniature horse, the bug-eyed, seahorse-headed Egyptian Arabians who are unrideable…

2 – The new blogger at Fugly Horse of the Day asked readers to guess the breeds of a series of horses. Today she revealed that most of the commenters had gotten it right, they were all mustangs. She then embarked on what can only be a deeply unpopular polemic about America’s nominated “wild horse” and alternative national symbol:

“I’ve done some research on mustangs over the years, I’ve owned one, trained many and ridden one I would have liked to try to turn into a cowhorse. Each one was a very different type of horse. They were little and arab-y like, in the middle like a QH, big and draft-y or a horrible mix of it all. My overwhelming impression was I could easily find the domestic equivalent at an auction, or in someones backyard, or rarely, through a good breeding program. They had good feet and good bone, or bad feet and birdy bones, they were “primitive” in their coloring or they were red. Some had stubby appy tails, some had flowing tails, some were big, some were small, some didn’t seem like horses at all. OK, no more Dr. Seuss, you get my drift. I didn’t hate them, or consider them a waste of space, they were just horses. …

I learned there are pockets of different horses tucked away here and there with DNA which goes back to the Spaniards horses. Some go all the way back to the first horses reintroduced to America. This is kind of cool. I can see the value of preserving these little drops of history.I like the idea of watching a herd of ancient history running free through a national park. It does not make me think these horses are extra special, better than others, or worth more than any decently bred horse from a good breeding program. It seems to me small pockets of animals, holed up in a little tiny undiscovered part of the mountains for hundreds of years, will end up much like the royal families of yore which only married their kids off to others of royal blood. They ended up with weakened bloodlines, an influx of disease and mental instability. …

When I read about these rare pure bloodlines going back to the Arabs and Andalusians I think, Huh? Don’t ALL breeds go back to Arabs and Andalusians? Aren’t there still some Arabs an Andalusians out there? …

Then there are the other mustangs. The ones developed by ranchers turning out their own studs and shooting the wild ones to create their own herds. Or sprung up from the drafts and saddle horses turned loose before the World Wars or the Great Depression. These are nothing but grade horses folks. Nothing wrong with a good grade horse, but nothing to be revered either.

Shoot, we’re breeding a whole new kind of mustang right now in 2011. With horses being dumped in record numbers, natural selection should kick in any minute. We should be ready to start saving the elusive, yet kind of stupid, ‘Bushama Mustang’ in just another couple of years.”

It was the original FHOTD blogger who introduced me to the ever-increasing roll call of new “breeds” from “Gypsy Vanners” to “Warlanders” – to give two of the more reputable examples. Everyone wanted to have a “rare” horse, a “special breed” with an exotic history. It wasn’t enough to have a good individual horse. It had to have history and pedigree.

3 – An Australian racehorse breeder is launching a legal attack on the national Thoroughbred industry’s ban on artificial methods of reproduction. As this is a global requirement in horse racing, it will be very interesting to see the result. All other sportshorses can be bred using AI and often embryo transfer. Horse Talk covers the debate:

“Smaller breeders – the vast majority in Australian thoroughbred breeding are small operators with an average of three mares – would benefit from not having to ship their mares to stud, and would also be able to gain access to semen from top horses around the globe, Tonking argues.

McHugh does not put much stock in the central argument from the Australian thoroughbred industry that it would become a world pariah if articificial insemination was allowed. He has proposed a separate registry for artificially bred thoroughbreds. France, he has pointed out, allows such separate registries and it did not appear to have damaged its industry.

The whole debate is fascinating. The arguments offered by McHugh are hard to challenge. Yes, relaxing the live-cover rules would give smaller breeders access to stallions around the globe. It would undoubtedly save them money. Australia’s ban on thoroughbred artificial insemination goes back to at least the 1940s. The practice was banned to prevent any skulduggery, and to ensure that mare owners got the stallion service for which they were paying.

However, in the modern era of DNA identification, that argument has long since been buried. Does the requirement for live cover effectively create a restraint of trade? If you’re a smaller breeder unable to afford a top stallion’s stud fee, but able to afford a straw or two or semen from a similarly-rated sire, it is hard to argue otherwise.”

What then happens to the mid-range sires, the rare ones with no Northern Dancer blood? The ones that represent an outcross and variation in one of the smallest gene pools in the equine world? Where are the limits when top stallions can already cover a hundred or more mares a year? (I blogged a little about “partbred” racehorses here)

4 – A video, rather than an article. When I made my return, of sorts, to the horse world, one thing which struck me was the breeding of specialist horses for eventing, dressage and showjumping – to the extent that there are now futurity competitions for foals and youngstock in these categories. Performance is paramount. As a lumpen outsider, I’ve started to wonder if dressage horses in particular might become too specialised in a few generations. Maybe I should just relax and enjoy the sight of the dressage-bred foal which raised a record price of €200,000 at the Oldenburg Elite Foal Auction last week in Vechta. He’s even called A la Dressage: