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Economic Factors Depress Horse Industry

Anna King
04/11/2008

Here's a story about the souring economy through the eyes of horse traders. With commodity prices up it's more expensive to keep a horse. It's harder to sell them too, with the recent shuttering of the last horse slaughter houses in the United States. Correspondent Anna King visited a horse auction in Enumclaw, Washington and has this report.

TRANSCRIPT

We're at the Enumclaw Sales Pavilion. In the barns behind the sales ring the horses chatter at each other and so do the buyers and sellers. Traders peel horses' lips back to check their teeth. They inspect their feet and talk to the owners — trying to ascertain if they're a good buy.

Dorthy Stevens is here selling three horses. She runs a riding stable in Mount Vernon. Stevens says she probably won't get the money she wants. There are too many horses on the market. That's because the cost to keep them is rising.

The depressed housing market is shutting down lumber mills — the same mills that produce wood bedding for horses. And hay prices are up too. That's because money–hungry farmers are growing corn and wheat instead. Those increased costs have forced Stevens to take a second look at her business.

STEVENS: "We have raised our prices. Our prices went up 6 percent this year, which probably still isn't going to make us rich."

The depressed horse market means people can pick up well–trained animals for cheap.

This rainy spring day there were crowds of people looking for a good buy. Several took home horses only for a couple hundred dollars. But some didn't even sell.

SOUND: Well it's got to bring more money boys they want 25–hundred for that good gelding.

Still, Eastern Washington horse breeder Larry Wilkerson says he's seen worse. In the mid–1980's the southern oil bust flooded the market with well–bred, super–trained horses. He says horses valued at 100–thousand dollars were selling for 20–thousand.

WILKERSON: "Well that's it. It was like selling Ferraris for the same price as a Buick. You are buying them at bargain prices and everyone was able to improve the quality of their herd."

During the 80s horse depression, Wilkerson says he bought quite a few high–quality mares. This time, he's reining back his operation.

WILKERSON: "It's just like the stock market or anything else that goes up and down. Anybody that's been in it long enough you see it come and go. You know it's going to turn back around."

But this time it's different. There's no bottom to the market. Usually when there are too many horses for sale, many of them go to slaughter. But a new law last year closed down the few remaining horse slaughter houses in the United States. It's created a glut of unwanted horses ... further depressing prices.

Ronald Mariotti owns the Enumclaw auction house. He's marketed horses for more than 40 years. Mariotti says it's the worst market ever. He can see it.

MARIOTTI: "I see a lot more skinny horses come to market, a lot more horses that are off flesh come to market. People can't afford to feed them. They shouldn't own them if they can't feed them. I've owned a lot of horses in my life I never had a thin one unless it was sick."

Many of the Northwest's horse rescue operations say they can't take anymore unwanted horses. Pierce County officials are so worried about the starvation, abandonment and neglect they are having a special horse forum later this month.

Auctioneer Mariotti has been in the business long enough to see the ups and downs. He says ultimately the price of horses, and his sale commissions, will climb back into the saddle. But who knows when.

AUCTIONEER: Auctioneer's call ... 725, 750 My God almighty folks, side passes and does it all, what do you want? 725, 750, cheap filly.

I'm Anna King in Enumclaw, Washington.

AUCTIONEER: "Auctioneer's calls..."

© Copyright 2008, NWPR

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