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By Bess Davis, The Dickinson (N.D.) Press, Published October 12 2009

Glut in US horse market worries owners, sellers

Two years ago, the last horse-slaughter plant in the U.S. was shut down in Illinois. A few months after that, the economy started a descent into what is now the longest recession since World War II. These two circumstances, though unrelated, have combined to create a glut in the country’s horse market that has many area horse owners and sellers concerned.

Larry Schnell, partner and manager of Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange in Dickinson, said there has definitely been a downturn in the horse market.

Stockmen’s holds two or three horse sales a year, totaling about 500 to 700 horses, and Schnell said prices have dropped nearly 50 percent from two years ago.

“Young colts that were born this spring are worth between zero to 50 bucks a piece,” he said.

Older horses, ages 10 to 15, that were going for $400 to $500 two years ago are now selling for about 12 to 18 cents per pound, or about $150 to $200.

“And that’s for the best of them. The young horses are the ones that are worth the least,” said Schnell.

Thomas Dukart, owner of Duke’s Boot Repair Saddlery & Pawn in Dickinson, said between the recession and last year’s drought, taking care of horses has gotten more expensive than some people can manage.

Dukart said last year he had to drive 70 miles to get hay for his horses, but the high yields after this year’s wet season show a more promising outlook.

Dukart also said that boarding, which can sometimes be an expensive venture, can be a tricky prospect in the area for residents without land.

“College kids board anyplace somebody will take one,” said Dukart, adding that he’s kept horses at his place a few times. “There are no stables here that really cater to boarding a bunch of horses.”

Eudell Larsen, Dickinson State University rodeo team coach, said he hasn’t heard of any of the students having difficulty finding boarding in the area for their horses.

Before horse-slaughter plants were made illegal in the U.S., horses that didn’t fit into a market or were too old to be bought could be sent for rendering, but now many owners who can’t afford to take care of their horses and can’t sell them have no choice but to send them to Canada or Mexico for slaughter.

Dean and Shirley Meyer have owned and bred horses in North Dakota for 40 years and are cutting back their breeding operation to include just five mares at their land a few miles south of Dickinson.

The Meyers, who used to breed as many as 100 bucking horses, had only a half-dozen colts this year and are taking two of them along with the majority of their brood mares to a horse sale at the Billings Livestock Auction in Billings, Mont., at the end of the month.

Between the difficulty selling horses and the lack of time the Meyers have to ride their horses while managing their oil-field delivery business, scaling down their breeding operation is the logical choice.

Dean Meyer said he understands the intentions of the push against the horse-slaughtering industry, but said the inhumanity of watching a horse starve to death is worse.

“I think the people who were against horse slaughter were very well-intentioned. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” he said.

The Meyers, who also have cattle near Killdeer, haven’t had as much trouble getting a good price for their horses, saying that the well-bred market is fairing better against the downturn, but without the safety net of the rendering plants, there’s no security for getting a good price.

“Before, regardless of anything, you could get $500 for a horse no matter what,” said Shirley Meyer. “When you take away that basis, it gets hard.”

Recent legislation in Montana has opened the way for the possible building of a horse-slaughter plant in the state, though no concrete plans are in place.

The North Dakota House and Senate approved a bill in March appropriating $50,000 to the study of cost and potential markets for a horse-processing plant.

State Rep. Rod Froelich, D-Selfridge, co-sponsored the bill, saying a rendering plant could offer a humane way for horsemen to recover value on horses.

The Dickinson Press and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.