As the economy worsens and the cost of caring for horses increases, livestock officials say abandonment is becoming more common. The closing of U.S. slaughterhouses has also had an adverse affect. In the past, unwanted horses could have been sold for slaughter. But the last few processing plants in the United States were closed in...

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SELAH, Yakima County — Kerrie Regimbal thought her days of rescuing horses were behind her.

A wife and mother, she had spent the past four years taking in more than 30 starved, abused and neglected horses. She found homes for nearly half of them and kept the rest.

Despite a reluctance, she’s had to rescue six more in recent months.

“I hope no one calls with a desperate plea,” she says. “I have a hard time turning people away.”

As the economy worsens and the cost of caring for horses increases, livestock officials say abandonment is becoming more common. The same holds true in the Yakima Valley.

Although no local or national numbers are available, many believe the problem is growing.

Regimbal bases her opinion on the Web-based message boards she reads daily from financially strapped owners seeking to sell or give away their horses.

A few weeks ago, she took in two horses from a woman who lost her house to foreclosure and had to move in with her son in Montana.

“I get e-mails, phone calls. I also belong to some rescue boards,” Regimbal says. “I know what’s out there, what’s happening locally.”

If she had the means, Regimbal says she could take in a new horse every week. But she already keeps 11 horses on her own property, plus nine on other land above Wenas Lake and two in Union Gap. There’s no room to add more.

Many factors are contributing to the neglect and abandonment of horses — including the recession, overbreeding and the rising cost of horse care, horse groups say.

The Washington, D.C.-based American Horse Council estimates basic care for horses at $1,800 to $2,400 a year. The cost of euthanizing and disposing of a horse is also costly, averaging $500 to $1,000 per animal, depending on location.

U.S. slaughterhouses closed

The closing of U.S. slaughterhouses has also had an adverse affect. In the past, unwanted horses could have been sold for slaughter. But the last few processing plants in the United States were closed in 2007.

This has resulted in about 95,000 American horses being shipped to Canadian or Mexican slaughterhouses last year — according to the U.S. Humane Society’s summary of federal counts and foreign trade statistics.

Chuck Walker, who owns a feedlot in Zillah, says he’s seen plenty of desperate people forced to choose between paying for their horses or their mortgage. They’ve looked to him for help because they can’t find other buyers, he says.

Walker takes in as many horses as he can, and has 15 to 20 on his property at any given time. But Canada, where he ships the livestock for slaughter, is inundated with horses. Even he has to be picky on the condition of the animals he takes.

“Normally, I can take more, but with the plants closing in the U.S. I’ve been pretty limited to what I can take,” he says. “The plant in Canada is so flooded with horses now. They’re picky. They don’t want thin ones.”

Regimbal says she’s heard people are abandoning horses on the Yakama Indian Reservation, although tribal officials say they can’t substantiate the rumors.

People may think the wild herds on the reservation will adopt the domesticated animals, Regimbal says. But wild horse herds violently reject newcomers, which can’t fend for themselves.

“Chances are, they will starve to death,” she says.

Randy Sutton, animal control officer for the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, says he hasn’t heard of worsening problems with horse neglect or abandonment, at least in the Yakima Valley.

But those found guilty of such an offense could be sentenced to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Second-degree animal cruelty applies to dogs, horses and other domesticated and farm animals. People found guilty of this misdemeanor have either abandoned their animal or have failed to provide it with food, water, shelter and other life essentials.

Punishments vary depending on the specific offense and whether the law was broken because of economic distress.

Laurel Lefebvre, president of Old People’s Riding Club, says there’s no easy solution to the horse crisis. Her 35 club members, who live in Yakima and Klickitat counties, also hear stories of horses being abandoned or neglected but don’t know what to do about it.

What matters most, Lefebvre says, is that the animals be treated humanely.

“It’s really tough,” Lefebvre says. “I wish that people wouldn’t just turn their horses out. … I’d rather see an animal put to sleep than see it suffer.”

Erin Snelgrove can be reached at 577-7684 or esnelgrove@yakimaherald.com.