FORT WORTH — With drought-ravaged pastures turning into dust, water tanks drying up and the price of hay skyrocketing, equine rescue groups across Texas are being inundated with horses surrendered by cash-strapped owners or simply abandoned on back roads.
"I've taken in 14 horses in the last two weeks," said Bob Williams of Ranch Hand Rescue in Argyle. "Law enforcement agencies can't keep up with the numbers of animals they are rounding up on country roads. Nobody knows what to do. I'm telling you it's an epidemic.
"The problem is everyone used up their winter hay supply during the summer. Between the drought and the wildfires, there's no hay in Texas," said Williams, noting that the cost of forage has more than doubled in a year.
The drought is a serious problem for the $5.3 billion Texas horse industry, said Dennis Sigler, an animal science professor at Texas A&M University and horse specialist for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. "It's a statewide problem. People don't realize how important the horse industry is in Texas. It's right up there with cotton," he said.
Cattle ranchers, whose pastures were withered by the hottest and driest summer on record, have been trucking in loads of out-of-state hay, selling off herds or shipping them north to greener pastures. But that's not an option for most of the estimated 181,000 people who own the nearly 1 million horses in Texas, Sigler said.
With the drought expected to continue into next year, dwindling water supplies are an even greater concern for Sigler.
"The tanks are dry and wells are going dry, and some water suppliers are restricting water use for livestock," he said.
With the horse market glutted, people can't even give horses away.
Every day, beleaguered owners are asking the Humane Society of North Texas to take theirs, said Sandy Grambort, equine services manager in Fort Worth. The society is now caring for 40 head.
"We used to take in 20 to 30 horses a year; now we're getting that many every month. Some months we're getting 50 to 60," she said. "It's a double whammy with the economy and the drought. It's putting the horse industry in a pretty serious crisis."
Melissa Orten of Rendon, who has been raising and showing quarter horses, paint horses and Arabian horses for 30 years, recently surrendered four of her nine prized show horses to the Humane Society.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done to swallow my pride and ask for help," Orten said. "We have income, but with the cost of hay, we couldn't make it work. It just drowns you."
Orten, 54, and her husband, Jeff, an insurance adjuster, had their manufactured home repossessed a year ago and are living in a storage building that was a tack room on their 8-acre property.
"That wouldn't have happened if I had let go of the horses earlier," she said, noting that she has "sold down" from 16 head.
"I've tried to sell the four I'm surrendering, but the market is flooded," she said. "I just want to make sure they get good homes. I don't want them sold for slaughter in Mexico."
Orten thinks she's found an adoptive home for her best horse, a 5-year-old mare that she says won a world title at a paint horse show in 2008.
"She's got champion bloodlines. I've got $10,000 in her and I'm giving her away. It's heartbreaking," she said.
Instead of removing the horses, Grambort is giving Orten "hay assistance."
"We can't support people's horses, but we can supplement them. The goal is to keep horses in homes as sort of a stopgap," she said.
Kathy Voelkel-Jones, who owns Fieldstone Park, a boarding and riding stable in Mansfield, is also feeling the pinch. "Hay is costing twice as much as last year. I've been hauling it in from Nebraska and Arkansas. I had to go up $50 a month on boarding, which caused three people to move," she said.
After spending $20,000 on hay in the last two months, she's now trying to sell 15 of her 30 horses.
"I've been in business for 25 years, I have a $2 million facility that is paid for and I can't even cover costs. I'm borrowing money from my mother. I've never seen anything like this," Voelkel-Jones said. "Somebody tries to give me a horse every week."
Auctioneer Rusty Addison of Lipan saw the start of the stampede to sell in August when he held his monthly Friday night sale in Stephenville.
Trailers were lined up down the road as 763 horses hit the auction block.
"With no grass and high hay, it really hit home in August when there was no rain in the forecast. People were looking ahead at their winter feed bill," Addison said.
"Last month, we got 450 horses and everyone that showed up said, 'Sell them. We can't afford the hay.' For sure, a lot of people sold horses they didn't really want to sell."
Some horses are being abandoned, and donkey-dumping has become so pervasive that Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue in Miles quit taking in animals three weeks ago when its facility reached capacity at 450.
"We've taken in 600 in Texas this year. We've got a list of 300 more waiting to come in, mostly from law enforcement agencies," said Mark Meyers, who founded the rescue group. "I think it will be a crisis this winter. I don't think it will just be abandonment. I can see hundreds of donkeys being shot by their owners this winter."
Navarro County deputies picked up 40 donkeys in one rescue and are holding 24 others, Sheriff Les Cotten said. "It's costing taxpayers a lot of money. This is a real problem."
Officials in Tarrant and Parker counties say they haven't seen an increase in abandonments, but donkey-dumping has doubled in Johnson County.
"We've seen a 100 percent increase in the last year. We have 24 right now," sheriff's Capt. Mike Gilbert said.
Ellis County deputies have rounded up 68 abandoned horses and donkeys this year, compared with 12 in 2007.
Denton County sheriff's deputies have picked up 25 to 30 abandoned horses and donkeys this year. "We've seen good, quality animals that were just dumped," Deputy Ron Sisney said.
Horse lovers were happy in 2008 when Texas banned the slaughter of horses for human consumption. But the restriction is now having an impact, Sisney said, noting that it can cost hundreds of dollars to euthanize an animal and dispose of the carcass.
"It flooded the market, and it has been detrimental to the horse industry," he said. "People are hurting, and they are turning them out instead."
Ten years ago, a horse could be sold for $500 to $700 for slaughter in Texas, Sigler said.
"The simple fact is, without these outlets for some of these horses, there's an unintended consequence," he said. "The rescue facilities are full and the only alternative is humane euthanasia and that costs money."
Texas horses are still being shipped to slaughterhouses in Mexico, he said. "From what I hear, if a horse is fat and healthy it probably only sells for $50 to $100.
"Right now, there is no bottom for the horse market. Unless a horse has usefulness as a ranch horse, riding horse or show horse, they have no value," Sigler said.
But slaughter opponents like Williams cringe at the thought.
"People call me crazy. But it's a beautiful thing to watch a neglected horse regain their health. We're saving them so they won't be sent to Mexico," he said.
Williams is trying to draw attention to the hay shortage with an online petition on change.org asking Gov. Rick Perry to use state resources to bring hay to Texas farm animals. The petition had drawn nearly 4,400 signatures as of Friday.
"This is a desperate situation," Williams said as he checked on a malnourished horse in a foster-home pasture.
"I've got 29 horses now and more coming," he said. "I don't even want to think about what will happen if we don't get rain in the spring."