EDITOR'S NOTE: An overpopulation of horses and a sluggish horse industry are adding to the dilemma of whether slaughtering horses is a reasonable alternative to an animal crisis. But several would-be slaughter companies who want to process horse meat to foreign buyers for a profit further complicate the issue. Also of concern are the strong emotions on both sides and the question of whether government should be held responsible for such a problem and whether our desire for the ethical treatment of horses should outweigh our responsibility to make difficult decisions to ensure their survival.

Just how big is the problem of equine overpopulation, the animal welfare issues involved in protecting the animals and the cost of a meaningful solution? It depends on who you ask, of course, but by any standard, the problem is really big and getting worse. 

For the best part of a century or two, horses in America were the backbone of farming and ranching industries. Cowboys worked their cattle from horseback, farmers hooked them to wagons and plows and even the U.S. Army used them to move soldiers across the frontier and from battleground to battleground during several wars.

With time and technology, such as gasoline combustion engine and the introduction of cars, trucks and tractors, the need for the horse began to decline. But the interest in riding for sport and pleasure increased, and many farmers and ranchers still managed to find uses for the animals—still do.

But animals must eat, and they need water to drink.  Domestic horses also need care from time to time, including the services of a veterinarian. And wild horses need grazing land and a good water source.

If you are enjoying reading this article, please check out Southwest Farm Press Daily and receive the latest news right to your inbox.

But droughts cause pasture and forage to die and water sources to dry up. They force horse owners to supplement feed with expensive hay, when it can be found, just to sustain their animals.

As the current drought intensified, the number of abandoned domestic horses rose sharply; many were abandoned and left to survive on their own. Others roamed across rural roads and highways in search of water and forage. Far too many could find neither.