by Denise Steffanus, Thoroughbred Times
On February 25, the Kentucky House of Representatives unanimously voted in favor of proposed legislation to establish the Kentucky Equine Health and Welfare Board.
Designated as House Bill 398, this bold move to provide Kentucky horses with an advocate concerned solely with their health and welfare is the mission of five prominent Bluegrass-area veterinarians—Frank Dwayne Marcum, D.V.M.; Doug Byars, D.V.M.; Norm Umphenour, D.V.M., Mike Cavey, D.V.M.; and Gary Lavin, V.M.D.—who in 2009 formed the Kentucky Equine Health and Welfare Alliance.
Shortly after its inception, members of the Alliance and other Kentucky veterinarians sought out Kentucky legislator Tom McKee (D-Cynthiana) with its proposal to help Kentucky’s horses. McKee is chairman of the Agriculture and Small Business Committee and a lifelong farmer. Together, they drafted the current bipartisan bill, sponsored by McKee and eight of his colleagues.
“We felt that there was a need for a vehicle to get secured funding for the horse, and we thought the legislative approach was the best way to do that,” Marcum, president of the Alliance, said. “If we get the Kentucky Equine Health and Welfare Board established, then we can focus on direct welfare needs for the horse across the state, not just the Thoroughbred or the Quarter Horse, but all horses.”
The proposed legislation would establish a 13-member board of veterinarians, educators, researchers, lawmakers, farmers, breeders, and owners, including one veterinarian representing the Alliance. The board’s responsibilities would include:
A voice for the horse
The Kentucky Association of Equine Practitioners, the Kentucky Horse Council, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners have established committees to address the health and welfare of the horse. Lavin, one of the Alliance’s founding members, is the namesake of an annual AAEP award, the Lavin Cup, that recognizes exceptional efforts on behalf of the welfare of the horse.
According to Byars, the Alliance is different from these organizations in its approach to health and welfare issues in that it was conceived to represent the horse’s best interests alone, not those of the industry or special interest groups.
“The AAEP, for example, represents equine practitioners,” Byars said. “The Equine Health and Welfare Alliance was designed to represent the horse.”
Byars and his colleagues intend to act as a voice for the horse in the current efforts to address the growing problem of the “unwanted” horse, although that term may be a misnomer. Byars talked about the escalating numbers of horses being turned loose on open land in Kentucky because owners are no longer able to care for them because of plummeting incomes and the soaring cost of living.
These abandoned horses may not be unwanted; their owners may find their backs up against the wall, trying to support their families in a crisis, and they may feel they have no other alternative for their horses except euthanasia or selling them at a livestock auction, where they risk entering the slaughterhouse pipeline out of the country. With equine rescue organizations full, and most horsemen tightening their belts and unable to help their fellow horsemen by taking in additional horses, the horse becomes essentially a homeless deaf-mute, with no one to speak for it.
“The horse is Kentucky’s signature animal, but I think in many ways it has been taken for granted. It’s a species that pretty much has fallen through the cracks,” Byars said, noting that horses no longer are considered livestock, but they do not fit into the network set up to protect small companion animals. “It’s protected by the benevolent people in our industry, but generally speaking, a lot of the horse industry doesn’t do as much proportionately for the animal itself.”
“If you think how much the horse has contributed to all civilizations—it founded our country and it’s been the beast of burden for many civilizations—it’s served man well,” Marcum said. “This [the welfare of the horse] is a noble mission.”
On the agenda
The first order of business for the proposed new state board, after the bill is passed by both houses and Kentucky’s governor signs it into law, would be to hold public hearings and to conduct a fact-finding mission into Kentucky’s current horse dilemma.
“We need to get our arms around what the problems really are,” Byars said. “Kentucky has recently been identified as one of the poorer states in the nation as far as neglect and abuse laws. We need to determine the degree of the problem and get some facts and figures to start with, and then move forward. If horses are being abandoned on strip mines, we need to find the numbers, determine what statutes protect those animals, and if there aren’t statutes, we need to be proactive in getting legislation passed.”
Marcum said the proposed board’s primary focus will be to get help for neglected or abused horses and provide them with sanctuary through the cooperative efforts of various organizations and universities throughout the state, as well as private funding. H.B. 398 provides for establishment of an equine health and welfare fund, under the state treasury, to further the board’s mission. The Alliance, which operates separately in the private sector, has applied for charitable status under section 501(c)(3) of the United States Tax Code.
Marcum stressed that the proposed board is not intended to investigate horse owners and confiscate abused or neglected horses.
“By no means do we see this as a police action,” he said. “Our focus is entirely on support. We want to help someone who has good intentions and has the best interest of that horse at heart.”
Marcum described what he believes might be a typical scenario as a person who originally had good intentions to take care of a horse but through financial problems found he or she no longer could care for it. The owner would then be able to surrender ownership of the horse to a health and welfare facility. These facilities, through voluntary certification, could qualify for help from the state fund, the Alliance, industry resources, and private donations.
“The Health and Welfare Alliance would be able to facilitate that transition from the owner to the rescue facility, as well as be able to support the rescue facility,” Marcum said. “We don’t want to take an animal away, but we want to offer a solution to the problem, which is the animal being abused or neglected.”
The Alliance envisions help coming from the state’s institutions of higher learning, who may be able to dedicate students to this work as part of their curriculum, as well as provide space for horses at the various small farms they operate as part of their educational facilities. The Alliance also hopes to enlist veterinarians, as well as other equine professionals, to volunteer in caring for rescued horses.
“I think there could be a measure of support to bring this concept to fruition that probably wouldn’t end up costing all that much,” Marcum said.
Membership in the Alliance is open to anyone who is interested in helping maintain the health and welfare of the horse.
Marcum and Byars would like Kentucky to take a leadership role by being the first state to enact legislation specifically to address the health and welfare of the horse.
“The scope of the mission is much more broad than just abandonment and neglect,” Marcum added. “As situations change, other issues related to safety and disease may become more relevant.”
“Hopefully, with the help of Representative McKee, we can move Kentucky into a leadership role where it can be proactive with legislation in supporting the horse,” Byars said. “There is no state in the country that has this form of initiative. So we want to see Kentucky be the flagship, as it should be.”
H.B. 398 next goes to the appropriate Senate committee, most likely the Agriculture Committee. If that committee votes favorably, the bill will go to the full Senate for a vote. If passed, the bill will need the governor’s signature to become law.
McKee said he does not expect opposition to this bill.
“This is not a Thoroughbred bill,” he said. “It’s intended to be an all-inclusive equine initiative.”
“We hope it will serve as a template for other states to move forward on the same platform,” Marcum said. “Kentucky, being the Horse Capital of the World, should be the one recognized to take that leadership role.”
For more information on the Alliance and to follow the progress of H.B. 398, visit www.equinehealthandwelfare.org