Horses with no home: As economy falters, animals left behind in the wake

By BETSY COHEN of the Missoulian

Riley Lewis and 7-month-old appendix quarter horse Mocha wait for their turn in the auction ring Tuesday morning at the Missoula Livestock Exchange. “I didn’t want to bring her,” says Lewis. “She doesn’t even know what’s going on and what’s going to happen to her.” — Photo by LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

It’s a wet, sloppy Tuesday for the Missoula Livestock Exchange’s monthly horse auction.

Trailers rumble in, one after the other, just before the sale begins.

The air is taut with tension as owners unload their horses and park them in a sea of connecting metal corrals.

In this unfamiliar place, the horses whinny. They pin back their ears. Some kick out, lose their footing and fall down in the slippery muck. Others stand wide-eyed in the middle of pens, so their neighbors can’t bite them.

Among them is a 7-month-old quarter horse filly named Mocha.

Young, middle-aged and old, the healthy, the starved and the crippled – all the horses are here for the same reason.

“Hay is too expensive,” explains Carl Penner of Hamilton, who has brought a horse to the auction. “It costs a lot to keep them.”

And so, people sell them – or try to.

Horses are suffering as the economy falters, and not just in Montana.

It’s a nationwide problem, said Gene Greimann, a longtime Hardin veterinarian.

“It’s pretty clear we’ve got a situation,” he said. “And it’s pretty critical.”

Montana has seen a rash of horse neglect and abuse cases in recent months, most recently in the Bitterroot Valley, where two Georgia outfitters are accused of abandoning their pack horses, one of which nearly starved.

In the Billings area, Greimann said, “people are turning horses loose on the Crow Reservation, and we have had several ranchers who have found stray horses starved, laying down and banging their head on the ground in misery.”

Because the horses lack brands, there’s speculation they’re being dumped by people who couldn’t sell them at the Billings livestock auction, he said.

Problems with strays on the reservation have become so severe, he said, that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has had to round up horses and auction them off.

“The BIA is trying to get them a better home, but I don’t think they sold 10 to 20 percent of those horses,” he said.

Things aren’t much better at the Missoula auction.

Out in the corrals, Mocha’s owner, Riley Lewis, hears upsetting news: Babies – weanlings – are selling for $10 and $15. Even the best saddle horses – the well-fed ones that have been bathed, groomed and shod – are going for just a few hundred dollars.

Her heart sinks as she brushes Mocha.

With two horses at home and a 10-month-old son, Lewis doesn’t have time for the youngster. She’s hoping a family will fall in love with the well-behaved, glossy filly – an appendix quarter horse, or thoroughbred-quarter horse cross – and buy her for $100.

But in her heart, Lewis knows better.

Mocha will likely be sold for meat.

“I didn’t want to bring her,” Lewis explains, her voice heavy. “She doesn’t even know what’s going on and what’s going to happen to her.”

Buyers at Missoula’s monthly sale can get a young horse for, in some cases, less than they’d pay for a shelter dog.

Those that aren’t sold – and that’s most of them – go for

15 cents a pound. Meat buyers haul them to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. (See related story.)

Sales volume has actually increased 20 percent in the last six months, but there’s more supply than demand, according to Kent Kerchal, Missoula Livestock Exchange manager.

Two years ago, Kerchal sold a 10-year-old palomino gelding for $10,000. In September, when the auction held its fall catalogue sale, an annual event that attracts top-end horses, the high price of the day was $5,100 for a gelding saddle horse.

Last week, the auction house worked hard to get the high bid of $2,100 for an attractive 5-year-old gelding, and even harder to get $400 for an flashy pedigreed 4-year-old quarter horse mare that’s never been ridden.

“Nothing is selling very good right now, be it a horse or a truck,” Kerchal said. “Especially if the horses aren’t broke. And it’s especially tough on the mares and the young ones.”

A trip through the auctioneer’s corrals shows some horses in rough shape.

Most are matted and muddy, and several have gouges on their back. One has an open gash that stretches from its leg to its hoof. Another’s leg balloons with infection from an untreated cut.

Jacqui Davis takes it all in as she roams the sale lot before the auction begins, looking for a “project” to take home.

“I think people have been holding out trying to sell them for high dollars, but they can’t,” she says. “I get upset because I feel they shouldn’t starve their horses before they bring them here.”

She peers between the metal bars and scrutinizes the big-eyed beasts in every pen.

“I wonder why aren’t the activists here,” Davis says. “Why aren’t they here to see what happens to horses when people don’t take care of them?”

She lingers at a corral that holds a ribby horse whose awkward, stretched-out stance indicates a crippling lameness.

A slip of paper on the gate describes this skinny resident.

“For meat only,” it reads.

Davis shakes her head in wonderment.

“An old horse like this? If it’s hurting, I wouldn’t bring it to this hell,” she says. “I would have it put down humanely.”

No matter what people think about putting horses down, or selling them for slaughter, the fact is horses are in crisis and something needs to be done about it, said Victor horse breeder Theresa Manzella.

Manzella spearheaded Willing Servants, a Bitterroot grass-roots organization founded in response to a case of equine neglect this past summer. Two women came across a near-dead gelding tied to a tree in the Bitterroot Mountains. A father-and-son duo from Georgia face cruelty charges in the case.

The abused horse was dubbed Able, and his sorry tale prompted calls from animal lovers nationwide, offering to help. Able’s story also sparked communitywide discussions about what to do with unwanted, neglected or abused horses.

Manzella’s motivation in forming Willing Servants was simple: “I realized there is a huge hole in our animal welfare system and I want to help.”

If enough volunteers step forward, Willing Servants will apply for nonprofit status and work to prevent equine abuse by increasing the penalties for offenders.

The group’s other main objective, Manzella said, is to help unwanted, neglected or confiscated horses find new homes and to raise money to help care for these animals.

“We are only limited by funds and our creativity,” Manzella said. “Our goal is simple: To be proactive about trying to help these horses through our network of equine professionals, and help match these horses with people who will take care of them.”

As for the legal end of things, the fledgling organization is getting a helping hand from Darby lawmaker Rick Laible.

Laible said he’s working on a bill that will redefine horses as domestic pets – not livestock – and will impose stiffer penalties for people involved with horse abuse cases.

The issue is close to his heart, Laible said.

“When you see evil, you want to fix it. It happened in my valley, and I’m a horse owner. That somebody would treat an animal as these men did defies excuse,” he said. “What happened to Able I don’t want to ever happen again.”

Back at the Missoula auction, bids come in low and slow for every sale, despite the auctioneer’s best efforts.

When the time finally comes for Riley Lewis to walk Mocha through the ring, she’s filled with doubt.

Mocha shows off her calm and trusting nature, willingly following Lewis.

With each reluctant step, Lewis feels worse.

Her mind races: “Why did I bring Mocha to this? Why are we here?”

The moment of truth comes when the filly brings a final high bid of $15.

Lewis decides not to sell. In fact, in the end, she’s the one who pays: It costs her $62 to pull Mocha from the auction.

She later confesses, “I don’t think I would have sold her (even) for $100.”

On the drive back to the Bitterroot Valley, Mocha nibbles at grain as her trailer rolls down the highway, nearing the end of the strange field trip.

Lewis smiles the whole way home.

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2 Responses to “Horses with no home: As economy falters, animals left behind in the wake”

  • AMEN Patty, what a sorry cruel bunch to sell horses to slaughter to be eaten by Europeans. this country has lost all its class. And also horses slaughterers are not only cruel predators but bold faced liars who want to robo breed horses and then through them away to be cruelly slaughtered when they can exploit them no other way. And all horses slaughterers, puppy mill owners and factory farms lie lie lie. Horses are not being left all over the place, and horses slaughter is not euthanasia. Horse slaughter is horrific cruelty that starts at the auction – read above -horses with gashes in their backs – this is animal cruelty and these people are cruel to horses. Breeding orgs like AQHA that care nothing for horses only breeding fees and tax schemes and profiting from cruelty to horses. Join Americans Against Horse Slaughter to stop these cruel predators from using, busing and cruelly killing horses. Oh AND READ CAREFULLY THE STORY ABOVE , RESPONSIBLE CARING OWNERS DO NOT ABANDON THIER HORSES TO SLAUGHTER!

  • wht a sorry nation , sell horses to slaughter to be eaten by Europeans. this country has lost all its class.

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