New horse council looks to protect our equine friends

MIDDLEBURY — There was not an empty seat in the meeting room of the Ilsley Public Library on Tuesday night, and everyone in the room had something to say about horses.
It was the first meeting of the Equine Welfare Council, and veterinarians, farriers, horse owners and members of Vermont organizations dedicated to the humane treatment of animals had gathered from all over Addison County and as far away as Brattleboro and Chelsea.
They had come together because all had noticed an increase in problems related to unwanted horses in the community, between owners struggling to afford veterinary bills and feed, animal shelters overburdened with horses and few options for the disposal of aging and sick horses. These problems have only increased in magnitude with the downturn in the economy.
Tammy MacNamara, a veterinarian from the Vermont-New Hampshire Veterinary Clinic in East Dummerston, made the trip north because she sees these problems playing out every day.
“(Unwanted horses are) becoming more and more of a problem in the state,” said MacNamara.
MacNamara took it upon herself to adopt three horses from one of the meeting’s moderators, Gina Brown, owner and founder of Spring Hill Horse Rescue in Clarendon. But as she and Michelle Kingston of Brandon both noted, it’s hard to meet the demand for safe homes for unwanted horses.
“I get emails in my inbox every single day from people who can’t afford to keep their horses,” said Kingston. “I’d say I get between 60 and 70 requests per week.”
The requests come both from Vermont and from out of state, and Kingston, who owns six horses, simply doesn’t have the capacity to take on any more. She hopes for a solution to the problem that will allow many people to work together.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Kingston. “It’s $2,000 per year to take care of a horse and to do it the correct way.”
Kingston teaches riding lessons with her horses, and she requires her students to do research on the costs of owning a horse and shows them her own veterinary and feed bills. That, she says, has probably saved horses — her students are more likely to think before purchasing a horse that they may not be able to afford.
But the scale of these individual efforts is small compared to the solutions that Brown and Joanne Bourbeau,  senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States, hope to address with the council.
Brown and Bourbeau hope to model the Vermont Equine Welfare Council after the Oregon Horse Welfare Council. Though there are many organizations in the state dedicated to animal rights and public policy, few are geared toward the specific problems that horses and horse owners face.
Above all, what Brown and Bourbeau were looking to encourage at Tuesday’s meeting was increased communication across the state in order to make resources more accessible.
“It drives me nuts when we have a lot of groups doing the same thing,” said Brown. “Let’s plug people into organizations.”
When Jackie Rose, the executive director of the Addison County Humane Society, talked about her organization’s need for some sort of listing of all the people willing to donate hay or stable space, Brown volunteered to host a public database at Spring Hill Horse Rescue.
Afterward, the group broke out into four separate areas focused on solutions the council hopes to pursue — creation of a statewide foster home program for unwanted horses, the formation of a hay assistance program, creation of a public information and public policy network and creation of a program for veterinary assistance for horse owners, including sterilization, humane euthanasia and carcass removal.
Bourbeau and Brown settled on Addison County as a prime ground for the first meeting because of its central location in the state, but also because they noticed a surge of interest in horse welfare when many in the county reported possible horse cruelty at a farm on Route 7 in December. Large animal dealers Bernard and Louis Quesnel originally had intended to sell several horses to a slaughterhouse in Canada, but a number of private parties eventually bought the 11 horses on the farm.
“The Quesnel case spurred a lot of people in Addison County to want to talk about how we care for horses,” Bourbeau said last week.
During the meeting, it was clear that many of those in attendance had reacted strongly to the case. The topic of horse slaughter sparked a lively discussion ranging from the definition of cruelty to the need for a change in public policy — there are few regulations governing ownership or health of horses, especially those being transported across the border to Canada for slaughter.
But after some discussion, Bourbeau moved the conversation along.
“If horse slaughter is on the table for discussion, we will be going around in circles,” she told the group. “We’ll get further trying to address the causes of this problem.”
Among these causes is the high price both of keeping a horse and of humane euthanasia for the sick and aging ones — it is much more feasible for people struggling to afford a horse to sell it for a low price, or even to give it away for free, than to pay for euthanasia and carcass disposal.
And when unwanted horses don’t make it to a shelter, and when the older ones aren’t euthanized, they can end up as subjects of cruelty or in slaughterhouses.
The Vermont Humane Federation, a network of humane societies in the state, received a total of 335 cruelty complaints in 2009. Of these, horse complaints were the second-most common — 20 percent were horse-related, compared with the 37 percent that concerned dogs. This is not a complete picture of animal cruelty cases in the state — many cases are reported to law enforcement officers instead of to a humane society — but to Bourbeau, it paints a picture of proportions, and of the need for humane alternatives and resources.
Future meetings will be coordinated by email, but Bourbeau and Brown hope to see the council extend its membership statewide.
“Animal cruelty is a community problem, and it requires a community solution,” said Bourbeau in a phone interview last week. “We are looking for a holistic solution.”
For more information on the council, contact Joanne Bourbeau at [email protected], or Gina Brown at (802) 775-1098.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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