Joe Penn, a Kentucky horse and mule auctioneer, is not a sentimental man -- not once he enters the stockyard. He knows that the value of many horses is measured in pounds of flesh.
But this winter, the horses are thinner than usual, and Penn finds himself wondering what becomes of the creatures with bare ribs and flat rumps, the ones that now sell for as little as $10.
"I wonder," Penn said. "And then I tell myself I probably don't want to know."
In many parts of the United States, horse owners are struggling to feed their animals after a severe drought doubled -- even tripled -- the cost of hay. The drought has exacerbated a glut in the low end of the horse market, brought on by years of over-breeding and the recent economic downturn.
Horses that once cost $500 are selling for $50. On Equine .com, a website for horse classified ads, hundreds of horses -- some malnourished, but many well-fed -- are offered for free.
Local officials are seizing large numbers of horses, and rescue organizations are taking in more than ever, according to Keith Dane, director of Equine Protection for the Humane Society of the United States.
Last year the U.S. Equine Rescue League, which operates in Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina, took in 186 neglected or abused horses -- nearly double the usual number.
With many rescue centers full, fewer options are available for unwanted horses. Some are sold at stockyards -- to good Samaritans, or "killer buyers" who truck them to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada. Others are euthanized, or left to perish in barren fields.
"It's heartbreaking," said Kathy Grant, who runs a rescue center in drought-stricken eastern Tennessee and takes as many as five calls a day from desperate horse owners. "The back roads are where you find them -- all skin and bone, just hanging their heads in the pastures, dying."
Local officials have seized malnourished animals in states such as Florida and Washington. In a particularly extreme case in Randolph County, N.C., officials found eight dead horses scattered across a field and 11 horses that they say were malnourished and crammed into a small pen with no water and little hay.
The overpopulation of horses stems from the large number of people who have become horse owners in recent years. The industry flourished as baby boomers enjoyed disposable incomes, and breeders took advantage of scientific innovations such as frozen semen and embryo transfers. The Washington-based American Horse Council, a national association representing the horse industry, estimates that Americans own more than 9 million horses in 2005 -- up from about 6 million horses in the mid-1990s.
"Nothing is planned. People are just putting mares and stallions out together and letting them do their thing," said Jennifer Malpass, chairwoman of the U.S. Equine Rescue League, who believes irresponsible breeding programs have led to more unwanted horses.
Owning a horse has become a more expensive proposition as the economy falters and large stretches of the nation have experienced moderate to exceptional drought. In the Southeast, which was particularly hard hit, below-freezing temperatures in April damaged the hay crop's first cutting. Scorching summer heat killed off grass that the animals would normally graze on until November. Some farms began using hay as early as June.
Though some horse owners stocked up on hay for the winter early on, others did not have the money or the space to store hundreds of bales. About 34% of horse owners have a household income of less than $50,000, according to the American Horse Council.
The basic cost of feeding a horse is about $2,300 a year. In North Carolina, the hay shortage is so severe that the state's agricultural department is trucking in bales from Canada.
Some argue that the problem was fueled by the closure of the nation's slaughterhouses. Horse slaughter for human consumption effectively ended last year, after courts upheld state laws banning horse slaughter in the last that allowed it: Texas and Illinois.
"People were naive enough to think if we closed down the slaughterhouses, the problem of unwanted horses would go away," said Nat Messer, associate professor of equine medicine and surgery at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who opposes bans on horse slaughter. "The unwanted horses are still out there."
About 100,000 horses were slaughtered in the United States in 2006, according to the Department of Agriculture. Since the plants closed, Messer said, many horses face long, grueling journeys to plants in Mexico and Canada, where some experts say the animals experience considerably less humane treatment. Although higher fuel costs mean it is not profitable to transport many of the undernourished horses, exports have tripled to Mexico, where knives are repeatedly jabbed into the horses' spinal cords.