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Economy forces horses from their homes too

Strapped owners in Southern California are turning the animals over to shelters, which are struggling to meet the need.

March 04, 2009|Ann M. Simmons

The calls and e-mails keep coming, and they are increasingly desperate: "I've lost my job. I'm losing my home. I can't afford to keep my horse. . . . Can you take it?"

The answer is usually no, said Jill Starr, president of Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue in Lancaster.

The ailing economy, soaring feed prices and the high cost of euthanizing old or sick animals are forcing many horse owners throughout Southern California to relinquish their pets, according to owners and caretakers.

Horse shelters are being flooded with requests for help, officials said. In some instances, owners have simply abandoned their animals, turned them loose or taken them to auction, where they risk being purchased and sent to Mexico or Canada for slaughter.

In Los Angeles County, 188 horses were either abandoned, abused or otherwise surrendered to authorities last year, up from 37 in 2006, officials said. In Riverside County, 246 horses were impounded, compared with 70 in 2006. And in San Bernardino County, 61 horses were taken in, up from 20 in 2006.

Some horse owners are turning to nonprofit rescue centers such as Lifesavers, which also runs a sanctuary in nearby Kern County. But such facilities are also struggling with increased expenses and fewer donations.

"The economy is hitting us hard," said Starr, who spends about $20,000 a month on hay to feed the 225 horses at both facilities, which now are at capacity. "I've had to say no to a lot of people. What good can we do if we take the horses but we can't feed them?"

Newhall resident Shannon Bonfanti said she is distressed over having to sell three of her six horses, including Isaac, a 21-year-old trakehner gelding; Honey, a 13-year-old palomino mare; and Performing Star, an 8-year-old thoroughbred mare.

But the cost of feeding the horses runs about $600 a month, Bonfanti said, adding that her freelance work as a pattern maker in the garment industry no longer guarantees daily assignments. So money is tight, and Bonfanti's husband has threatened her with divorce if she doesn't sell some of her equines.

"They're all my babies," Bonfanti said. "It's like selling one of your children."

Irvine resident Ginny Williams, who lost her job last month in the automobile industry, said she is seeking a home for her horse, Chip O One, a 16-year-old thor- oughbred. Williams also recently underwent knee surgery and expects to be laid up for a year.

"So I can't care for him," she said. "It's just killing me."

Hesperia resident Beth Foster said she was recently forced to give away one of five horses, has found a buyer for a second and is now trying to sell a third.

Foster said her husband, a self-employed plumber, is the family's main breadwinner and business has been slow. "We're just trying to stay afloat," she said.

Meanwhile, websites of horse industry publications are brimming with sales ads. Prices run the gamut. But some, such as the half-Arabian mare recently featured on HorseTopia.com, are being offered for $1. Other sites, such as HorseQuest.com, dedicate space to horses being given for "free to a good home."

Economic hardship is often listed as the reason.

"We see parallels in the market between horses and houses," Warren Wilson, publisher of California Horsetrader, said in an e-mail. "Lower prices, fewer buyers, longer time on the market, increased inventory."

A shortage of horse buyers has pushed some owners to desperate measures. Stories abound of people abandoning their horses or surrendering them to shelters.

In December, a man arrived at Lifesavers hauling a horse trailer. Inside were a white thoroughbred and a brown quarter horse. "They were emaciated; skeletons with some hide on them," Starr recalled.

The man told Starr the horses belonged to a friend, who had abandoned them to his care. But he could not tend to them, he told Starr. He had his own horses to nurture.

Starr suspected the man was probably the true owner. But she took in the horses anyway, because they looked so frail and underweight, she said.

In Ventura County, Cindy Murphree, board president of Oak View-based California Coastal Horse Rescue, said she gets up to 20 requests a day from people who can no longer afford to keep their animals.

But with donations down and feed and veterinary bills up, Murphree said she has become more selective, accepting only horses for which she might be able to find a home.

Even then, there is no guarantee that the new home will be permanent.

In the last two months, four adopted horses have been returned because of their owners' financial hardship, Murphree said.

One of them, a quarter horse, had been taken in a year ago by Becky Hill. But in January, the veterinarian's assistant, who owns four other horses, returned the adopted equine. When her fiance lost his computer repair job two weeks before Christmas, the financial burden became too much.

"We've been trying to make ends meet," said Hill, a 33-year-old mother of three. "I feel bad taking the horse back to the rescue, but I have kids as well."

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