Standing in a corral behind the Merced County Animal Shelter, Kristi Caseri watched three horses enjoy their breakfast.
Two of the horses looked like skeletons draped with skin. The third, a chestnut mare, looked better, but was still thin.
"We seized these horses last Friday," Caseri, animal control supervisor for the shelter, said. "The veterinarian said their body scores are ones and twos, out of a possible 10."
Unfortunately, skinny horses that aren't being taken care of or fed enough are becoming a common sight in the county. Between the bad economy and the high cost of feed, many horse owners are finding themselves unable to take care of an animal that can eat 20 pounds of feed a day.
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The county has seized a number of horses in the past couple of months because of neglect, Caseri said. In May, 14 horses from the west side of the county were taken after a citizen complained about the horses not being fed. Those horses ranged in age from 6 months to 4 years.
"One of the horses we thought was a weanling ended up to be 2 years old; it was so stunted," Caseri said.
It's not just county animal shelters that are being overwhelmed with horses. Rescue organizations throughout the state are also seeing a huge increase in the number of animals needing rescue.
Gina Roberts-Caglia runs Silverwings Horse Rescue in Sanger, near Fresno. Her organization has been helping horses since January 2008, and Roberts-Caglia said the number of needy animals just keeps going up.
"Our calls for rescue have increased three-fold in the last year," Roberts- Caglia said. "And the price to feed them has almost doubled."
Roberts-Caglia said her organization has placed 36 horses and has 22 still waiting for homes. "We had to put a halt to taking any more horses until we place some," she said.
Another California horse rescue, Horse Plus Humane Society in Oroville, has seen the number of needy horses skyrocket.
"A typical case is a person losing their home, or their job, and they have no way to take care of their horse," said Cathy Fonseca, a volunteer with the nonprofit. "There's nothing wrong with the horse — the people just can't afford it."
To help people deal with unwanted horses, the society offers a euthanasia clinic once a month. Fonseca said the organization also maintains a surrender site, where horses can be left with no questions asked.
The group hosts a gelding clinic once a month to castrate stallions, Fonseca said. "We have a waiting list for that, and as soon as we have the money, we give the owner a certificate to have the horse gelded."
Fonseca said the organization gets about 20 calls a week from people who want to surrender their horses.
"We have a $150 surrender fee, but if the people can't afford it, we will still take the horse," Fonseca said.
Caseri said she sees horses being neglected all over the county. "On my days off, when I'm out driving, I see animals that need to be checked out," she said.
People who believe horses, or any large animals, aren't being taken care of can call the shelter, and an officer will check out the complaint, Caseri said.
Roberts-Caglia said she doesn't know the answer to the problem, but she had some advice for horse folks.
"Breeding should be slowed way down," Roberts-Caglia said. "Ultimately, people who own horses need to take responsibility for this creature that has taken care of people down through the ages."
To report neglect of animals, call the Merced County Animal Shelter at (209) 385-7436. Silverwings Horse Rescue can be contacted at (559) 787-2575 or (559) 906-8504. Horse Plus Humane Society can be contacted at (530) 282-5565.
Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org