The horse is a symbol of the American West and a necessity of ranch life but recently many have been found starving and left to die. This once-respected animal is now a victim of the economic downturn, where good intentions have met with unintended consequences.
In Nebraska alone, more than 315 neglected or abandoned horses, many found starving, were seized this year. In October in Dixon County, 80 were found ankle deep in manure and mud, the ribs exposed. In April, more than 200 horses were confiscated in Morrill County. In July in Fillmore County, 35 were confiscated, five of whom have died.
"They were so malnourished, they were eating the bark off trees," Bill Burgess, Fillmore County sheriff, said.
Those problems are not confined to Nebraska. So far this year, officials have seized more than 312 horses in New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Texas and Iowa.
Nancy Perry, VP of government affairs for the Humane Society of the U.S., told ABCNews.com that the poor economic climate, as well as high hay prices have led to the increase in animal neglect.
The market for horses themselves is down as well.
"People who used to be able to afford two horses can now afford four or five," said Kristie Biodrowski, a field supervisor for the Nebraska Humane Society. "Now you can pick up a horse for about 50 bucks."
The Unwanted Horse Coalition just released a survey of 23,000 people involved in the horse industry. It found 87 percent of the respondents believed unwanted and neglected horses to be a big problem, compared with three years ago, when only 22 percent believed it was a problem.
"It's just like a dog or cat when the owner can't keep it anymore, they dump it," said Deputy Sheriff Bob Hester, lead investigator on the Fillmore County case.
Nebraska State Senator Cap Dierks, a rancher who owns cattle and horses, calls the situation "a travesty."
"There is more pain now for the horses than ever," Dierks said.
Sheriff Hester and others lay the blame for horse neglect on another factor: the closing of slaughterhouses.
Organizations such as the Humane Society of the U.S. and local politicians advocating for constituents whose property values were being decreased by a slaughterhouse in the neighborhood, succeeded in closing most of the establishments that slaughtered horses. In 2005, Congress cut funding for the USDA to inspect horse meat. Without proper inspection available, the remaining slaughterhouses closed. The last one shut down in Illinois, in 2007.
"The slaughtering of a horse is a whole lot more humane than letting them starve to death," said Hester.
But now companies that used to slaughter horses in the U.S. have moved their operations to the borders, both Mexico and Canada.
Lloyd Woodward, general manager of Central Nebraska Packing Inc., which processes horse meat for zoos, confirmed that the company used to get meat from Texas and Illinois. Now that meat is imported from Canada. He says the supply is unpredictable and it's more expensive, but it's the horses, he adds, that are suffering from the change.
"It's resulted in cruelty and inhumane treatment to the horses," Woodward said.
Pam Weise, a spokesperson for the Nebraska Humane Society, said that in the Omaha metro area, the society usually receives one or two horses every couple of years.
This year and last, it's taken in 30.