SCOTTSDALE - Bridle in hand, 12-year-old Madison Marino guides Sassy out for an afternoon stroll in the corral at Horse Rescue of North Scottsdale. They’ve been together for two weeks now, and Sassy has become a favorite as the shelter tries to find the mare a new owner.
“We don’t rush them,” Madison says. “We wait until we find them the perfect home.”
Sassy’s previous owners couldn’t afford to feed her and couldn’t find anyone to buy her.
That kind of story has become increasingly common over the past year with hay prices rising, Arizona’s housing market slumping and the overall economy uncertain.
Horse Rescue of North Scottsdale is caring for more than 60 horses at its three facilities, more than twice as many as last summer.
“People just don’t have the cash,” said Madison’s mother, Holly, who runs the shelter. “They can’t afford to feed their families, let alone their horses.”
Many horses don’t make it to shelters. More and more frequently these days, according to the Arizona Department of Agriculture, owners are simply turning horses loose in the wild.
The agency doesn’t have an exact number for horses abandoned in the wild, but it was a sizeable portion of the horses it seized last year, said Ed Hermes, an Agriculture Department spokesman.
“It’s definitely a statewide problem,” Hermes said.
The agency seized 528 horses on public and private land in 2007, up from 454 the year before.
Hermes attributed that increase primarily to feed costs, as well as a lack of demand for older horses no longer fit to work or perform.
Droughts in the Southeast U.S., along with higher gas prices, have caused the price of hay to double and even triple nationwide, Hermes said.
At Care For Horses, a shelter in Sierra Vista, director Ann Jost said she’s been receiving more calls over the past few months about healthy horses that owners no longer can afford. Jost, whose sanctuary only deals with animals that have been abused, points to rising feed prices as the reason for those calls.
“I do believe it will be more of a problem in the future,” Jost said.
Karen Pomroy, founder of Equine Voices, a Green Valley sanctuary for horses that have been used for testing by the drug industry, said she gets calls every day from owners looking to unload their horses.
“We need to look into slowing down the over-breeding and start taking responsibility for the care of these animals,” Pomroy said.
Holly Marino’s shelter faces higher feed prices along with the increased demand for space. She said she’s desperate for volunteers and donations to cover the $1,800 weekly cost of feed.
“We need help continuously with money for hay,” she said.
The Agriculture Department also is strapped dealing with the horses it seizes, Hermes said.
The agency’s policy is to pick up stray horses that are not being fed and watered and hold them up to 14 days while trying to locate the owners. If owners can’t be found, the horses are put up for auction.
Marino said that because many horses are sold at prices far below market value, auctions are havens for meat buyers looking for bargains.
Despite the recent closure of the last three slaughterhouses in the U.S., horses still are being shipped to slaughterhouses in Mexico, where the meat is shipped to Europe and Asia. Horse exports from the U.S. to slaughterhouses in Mexico increased more than 300 percent from 2006 to 2007, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Marino, whose organization doesn’t put horses up for auction, said she hates the thought of such positive animals being slaughtered.
“They depend on us,” Marino said. “We ought to take that seriously.”