August 16, 2008

As Inland residents give up costly horses, U.S. government puts more up for adoption in Norco

The Press-Enterprise

Terry Pierson / The Press-Enterprise
A burro sounds off during the preview showing of animals available in this weekend's BLM wild horse and burro adoption at Ingalls Park.

Federal efforts to find homes for wild horses may find there's little room in the Inland area, where residents are already trying to get rid of horses they can no longer afford.

The federal Bureau of Land Management rolled into Norco on Friday with 50 horses and burros, but adoptions have been declining -- falling more than 16 percent in 2005 through 2007 -- which the bureau attributes to higher fuel and feed costs. For that reason, at least 30 fewer animals than usual were brought to the annual Norco adoption event.

"There have been less people adopting because they're looking at their bank account," said Art DiGrazia, who heads wild horse and burro operations at the BLM's Ridgecrest office.

If the ads posted on the free Web site Craigslist can be seen as a sign of the times, high hay and gasoline prices are causing tough times for Inland horses and their owners.

The Craigslist Inland Empire page features dozens of listings of horses for sale, often noting that owners must sell "due to financial reasons," "because we need to downsize" or simply "can't afford to feed them all."

Norco boarding stable owner Kevin Bash said he's seen hay prices climb from around $15 a bale in 2007 to $18 or more today, and he hears they may go as high as $25 a bale by this fall.

"It's not just middle-class people (being affected), it's everyone," said Kim Reynolds, who placed several online ads to sell the rescued horses she keeps at her ranch in Murrieta in southwestern Riverside County. "The prices have decreased, and there's not a lot of people standing there wanting them."

Rescues Overwhelmed

While Inland animal control officials said they haven't seen a dramatic increase in horse neglect cases, some rescue operations have seen a spike in need. San Bernardino County Animal Care and Control handled twice as many stray or abandoned horses in the year ending June 30 as it had the previous year, Division Chief Brian Cronin said.

When Cronin's agency can't find homes for horses, it turns to private rescue groups, some of which are swamped.

"The need for helping these animals has far exceeded their ability," he said of the rescues.

Colton boarding stable operator Cheryl Musee has been selling horses whose owners have failed to pay their bills and stopped returning her calls. State law permits this.

"Everybody that was boarding the horses decided that feeding their families was more important than feeding their horses so I kind of got stuck with them," she said.

One customer with five horses gave three of them away because he couldn't afford the board bill, Musee said.

The Bureau of Land Management hasn't resorted to giving horses away, but its budget is being taxed by the 33,000 roaming horses and burros and the 30,000 animals in holding facilities on federal lands it manages in 10 states.

That has put more emphasis on adoptions. Early interest seemed high Friday at Norco's Ingalls Park, where about a dozen people were viewing the wild horses before the scheduled preview event even began. But several of the visitors said they were just looking.

"There's no market for horses of any kind right now," said Cindi Paine, a resident of Pedley in northwestern Riverside County who had stopped by Ingalls Park to see the wild horses but didn't plan to adopt one. "I hope they all get homes but with the recession going (on), I just don't see it."

Some commodities experts predict that development of farmland, drought and growth of grain for biofuels will keep hay prices high in the near future, and other costs of keeping a horse such as farrier and veterinary bills have risen.

But opinions are mixed on the long-term effect on the recreational horse industry.

"I think it's going to go on a straight downhill slide," said Rick Boenisch, a livestock auctioneer in the High Desert community of Pinon Hills. He also helps place unwanted horses for a small fee.

"The average homeowner that just wants to have a horse for their kid, it's just not going to happen," he said.

Others said people who truly want to keep their horses will find a way to do it, regardless of their economic situation.

Corona resident Alesha Watts, a self-described housewife and mother, already has one horse, and she visited Ingalls Park to pick out a mustang to adopt. The expense isn't a concern, Watts said, because she's willing to make sacrifices.

"I'll eat beans and drink water to make sure my animals eat," she said.