Common Ground - By Jay Hickey

The horse community has been at odds for nearly a decade over the issue of slaughtering/processing horses for human consumption. Neither side has been willing to acknowledge that the position of the other may be well-thought-out and heartfelt.

Indeed the various sides cannot even agree on what to call this activity. “Slaughter” identifies those who support a federal ban; “processing” identifies those opposed.

Central to the debate is the issue of “unwanted horses.” And even the scope of the problem of unwanted horses is hotly debated. Some declare there are no unwanted horses. Others retort the problem is growing dramatically and the horse industry is headed for a disaster.

Regardless, something is happening out there with our horses, and we need to pay attention.

The Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC) was organized to reduce the number of unwanted horses and improve their welfare through education and the efforts of organizations committed to the health, safety, and responsible care and disposition of these horses.

But even the motives of the UHC, which includes many of the major horse associations and operates under the umbrella of the American Horse Council, are questioned. Some supporters of a ban maintain that the UHC is simply a “front” for pro-slaughter groups, even though the coalition includes organizations that support a federal ban.

In fact, the UHC was organized to educate horse owners and encourage them to “own responsibly.” From the outset all member organizations agreed the UHC would not take a position on federal legislation or get involved in lobbying.

As the late actor Strother Martin said in Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” And while we fail to communicate, our horses suffer.

Too many people on both sides of this issue believe that “if you aren’t with me, then you are against me” and there is no common ground.

Well, the recently released 2009 Unwanted Horses Survey may have identified some common ground. The survey, commissioned by the UHC and available at, documents the disparate opinions on the causes of the problem, but it also provides an opportunity for discussions by people of goodwill that could guide the industry in dealing with these horses.

Honest and thoughtful dialogue is needed between those at the center of this debate. Neither side can meet the challenges alone.

While we may reach different conclusions on a federal ban, we can also work together in a common effort to help these horses. Both sides want to improve the welfare of horses. That is the common ground.

We can agree that the decision about what to do with an unwanted horse is not an easy one. We can agree that if we can educate people before they get into that position and give them more alternatives when they do, then we can keep horses from becoming unwanted.

The UHC survey suggests there are common areas to explore. With more than 23,000 participants, the survey documented the disparity in the industry regarding a federal ban. But it also found that the overwhelming majority perceive the problem of unwanted horses is escalating, that there is common ground on the need for more owner education, on increasing the ability of private facilities to care for unwanted horses, and on increasing the options and resources available to euthanize and dispose of horses.

Indeed many owners indicated they would be willing to donate funds to facilities to care for horses, funds that the many facilities already laboring at the front of this issue need.

We must remember that as members of the horse community, we all share a common concern—the welfare and safety of the horse.

While the debate continues on a federal ban in Congress, in the states, and in the public forum, we can put aside our differences long enough to work together on the common goal of improving the lot of these horses. No one should believe that the challenges will be easy, or the solutions come quickly, or that differences will disappear, because they won’t.

But we should acknowledge that all are concerned about the welfare of horses and work together to ensure their well being.

Jay Hickey is president of the American Horse Council.  The Unwanted Horse Coalition operates within the AHC.

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