Driving through Central Kentucky's horse country, it's easy to believe horses live the life of Riley. Five or six sleek beauties grazing peacefully in the middle of a spacious, rich pasture, gleaming barns in the distance, five-plank fences sporting fresh paint.
But those are the one-percenters of the thoroughbred economy. The flip side of that perfect picture is horses making do on crowded, weedy pastures neglected by owners constantly on the verge of bankruptcy.
And that's in good economic times. People buy a little land, feel flush, think they gotta have a horse. After a few years of feed bills and vet bills and fence maintenance, it's too much. One local amateur skipped town leaving his horses stranded in a fenced pasture with no access to water. If someone hadn't found them, they would have died of dehydration.
From the Courier:
"A lot of people ... just don't get it," said Ponke, 45, of Cottrellville Township in St. Clair County (Michigan). "They just don't understand what it takes to take care of an animal properly, and it's sad."
After slaughterhouses were shuttered in the U.S. in 2007, experts say that -- coupled with the poor economic climate -- caused neglect and abandonment cases involving the country's 9 million horses to rise dramatically.
Michigan State University equine professor John Shelle estimates that the number of unwanted horses in Michigan has grown by the thousands. No concrete statistics are available, but he points to the number of rescue organizations near or over capacity.
It's a national problem that officials hope will end with new legislation.
On Nov. 18, President Barack Obama signed a bill permitting federal funding for inspection of horses intended for human consumption, allowing slaughter facilities to reopen across the country.
Supporters of the legislation hope providing slaughterhouses as another option for horse owners will reduce neglect and abandonment, while critics argue they're inhumane and the real problem is over-breeding.
Government agencies and animal welfare organizations have reported a rise in investigations for horse neglect and abandonment since 2007, according to a 2011 study by the Government Accountability Office, an independent federal agency based in Washington, D.C.
The study points to the end of domestic slaughter and an ailing economy as key factors in the increase.
Slaughterhouses across the country closed in 2007, following the government's decision in 2006 to yank federal funding for inspecting horses at slaughter.
The Government Accountability Office's report found horse exports to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico then skyrocketed -- increasing by 148 percent and 660 percent, respectively -- from 32,789 horses exported for slaughter in 2006 to 137,984 in 2010.
A study conducted in 2009 by the Unwanted Horse Coalition, a national group aimed at improving the welfare of unwanted horses, found that 87 percent of horse rescue facilities that were interviewed think the number of unwanted horses is becoming a problem, compared with 28 percent in 2006.
The rise in neglect and abandonment cases is taking a toll on animal control officers and horse rescue groups.
MacKillop is angered by people who put horses on Craigslist for free in an attempt to get them off their payroll. A quick search of metro Detroit and northern Michigan lists a handful of "free" horses ready for adoption on the popular online classifieds site.
The result: new horse owners who don't realize what it takes to care of such a large animal.
"I hate to see animals suffer ... it's a really bad situation out there," MacKillop said. "It irritates me, these free horses, anyone will go take them."
Horses are not overgrown dogs - they can't survive in developed areas without human help. Horses demand hard work, constant attention, significant money and long-term dedication. Don't indulge an urge to get one until you know what you're doing.