Last week Bollinger County Associate Circuit Judge Scott Thomsen sentenced owner Larry Hottel to a 30-day suspended sentence and ordered him to pay about $1,000 in restitution.
When the animals were discovered, Bollinger County chief deputy Leo McElrath said the high price and scarcity of hay made it imperative for law enforcement officers to guard farm animals against neglect. Horses are especially vulnerable to neglect right now because most are kept for pleasure. The market is glutted — Missouri has one of the largest horse populations in the nation — and horse prices are low, a situation blamed on the combination of overbreeding, high fuel costs and the soaring price of hay and grain.
In 2006, the Humane Society of Missouri responded to 293 animal abuse complaints involving horses. Last year that number jumped more than 46 percent to 429. Reports of abandoned horses more than doubled to nine.
Tim Rickey, director of the Rescue and Investigation Department for the Humane Society of Missouri, said the high price of hay is the biggest factor involved. Grass only grows through July at best, and last summer's drought in the state meant horses didn't really have any pasture for a large part of the summer.
"People who don't have a reserve are struggling through," he said.
The price of a square grass hay bale doubled this year in Southeast Missouri, and alfalfa costs more than grass. Hay in round bales is selling for $100 to $120 a ton — more than double its price last year, said Gerald Bryan, director of the University of Missouri Extension Service in Cape Girardeau County.
Finding hay is also difficult, Bryan said. Some is being trucked in from other parts of the state. "Farmers know exactly how many bales they have and how long it's going to last."
The good news is that grass should begin reappearing in early April.
Rickey said there's a deeper problem than the price of a bale of hay. Some people who own horses now bought them because the bottom dropped out of the horse market a few years ago. Horses that once sold for $800 to $1,000 started going for $100 to $200. People who had neither the knowledge of horses nor the appropriate property to keep horses were suddenly owners who didn't understand how much care they demand. That doesn't excuse the kind of abuse the humane society is dealing with, Rickey said. "Responsible people have and always will do the right thing."
A spokeswoman for the animal rights group Last Chance for Animals said the glut of horses is a result of people raising horses without understanding how much care they require. Estimates of the annual cost of upkeep for a horse range as high as $3,500. Some manage to take care of more than one animal for about $1,200 a year plus veterinary bills. Some people who have tried to raise horses as a business have overloaded themselves, said the spokeswoman, an undercover investigator for the organization in Missouri.
"We don't have people that live on a lot of acreage anymore," she said. "We have people who try to start the Ponderosa [Ranch] on one acre."
Trying to cash in on cheap horses doesn't appear to be a good plan for anyone. "To buy a standard horse and think you are going to make money is foolish at this time," Rickey said.
'Feeling the pinch'
Tricia LaFoe, partners with Julia Rupke in Fox Run Stables near Cape Girardeau, said they were lucky and bought 1,000 square bales of hay from a cattle farmer last summer. They paid $5 a bale. Some square bales are going for $8 to $10 apiece right now locally, LaFoe said.
"And it's grass that somebody cut out of their backyard. It isn't really hay," she said.
Some people are saving money by feeding their horses extra grain instead of hay, but hay is necessary to keep horses from getting colicky and to keep their weight on, LaFoe said. The grain horses are fed consists primarily of corn and is higher this year, too.
LaFoe said the stable has not raised its boarding prices despite the higher costs. "Everybody is feeling the pinch," she said.
Betsy and Robert McCoy keep three horses — Tonka, Fancy and Tyler — on their farm in northeastern Cape Girardeau County. When he hurt his back, they stopped riding and sold two of the horses to an individual. After eight months the buyer wanted to return the horses because one of them threw his wife. Otherwise he was going to take them to a sale barn.
"If you take them to a sale barn you don't know where they're going," said Robert, who is retired. (See related story.) He took the horses back.
For the next potential buyer they drew up a nine-point adoption contract that included a stipulation that that they couldn't be sold to a slaughterhouse. That sale didn't work out so the McCoys still have the horses they no longer ride and figure that's how it's going to stay.
Now they ration the horses' hay and feed them more grain. They still eat 30 pounds of hay a day.
The high price of energy is the crux of the problem, said Mark Boardman, who with his wife Donna owns Flickerwood Arena in Fruitland. "It affects the cost of feed, and the drought causes all the grains to go up," he said.
He said most people support their horses with their leisure money. "It's a passion and a pet."
But he understands how owners could be in a bind. "A horse isn't worth much that doesn't have an occupation," he said.
Dr. Linus Huck has an equine veterinary practice in Jackson. He and his wife Becky have 17 horses of their own, horses that wouldn't be of value to anyone else but are to them and their children.
He likens the plight of unwanted horses to that of the potbellied pigs that were expensive until they became overpopulated. "Then people were turning them loose and they ended up in the humane society," he said. "What's going to happen to these horses?"
He saw a thoroughbred dumped at a livestock auction in Fruitland. He and others have heard rumors of horses being dumped at Sam A. Baker State Park. Park superintendent Randy Clay heard the same rumor a few years back and had his staff walk all the 5,000-acre park's trails looking for horses. None were found.
People who can't afford to feed their horse can take it to a sale barn or they can give it away. They also can contact one of the state's horse rescues. The humane society operates Long Meadow Rescue at Union, Mo., the largest horse rescue in the state. Most of the 100 horses at the rescue have been abused. They are rehabilitated and put up for adoption.
A dead horse is also a 1,000-pound problem. When the time comes, most people dispose of their horse by having it euthanized and then selling it to a rendering company, which will haul off the carcass for about $100.
Some people bury their horses on their property, a job that requires a backhoe and must be done in adherence to groundwater rules. Some sanitary landfills will accept dead animals. The animal's body also can be burned. A St. Louis company offers a cremation service at a cost of about $1,000.
The LCA spokeswoman said people who buy a horse need to take responsibility for its life from beginning to end. She doesn't buy the argument that the high price of hay is preventing people from caring for their horses.
"You don't see people saying all of a sudden, I can't buy my dog food anymore," she said. "That is irresponsibility."
335-6611, extension 137