Tens of thousands of horses in the United States, including many in Virginia and Maryland, are unwanted. Some of them are healthy, genetically superior horses that are too expensive or difficult to manage for their owners, while others are victims of illness, disability, or indiscriminate breeding.

Dr. Julie Settlage, clinical assistant professor of large animal surgery at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, says she hopes to change that.

“We need a way to take care of the unwanted horse,” she said. “Ideally, there would be no unwanted horses, but unfortunately that is not the case today. We address overpopulation of cats and dogs through local humane societies and education programs about spaying and neutering, but in many areas we have no mechanism in place to deal with equine overpopulation.”

In recent years, Settlage has worked to address this problem in the New River Valley. She organized the college’s second annual Equine Gelding Clinic on April 13, with the help of clinicians and students at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, as well as veterinary practitioners in the region. The clinic provided no-cost castration services to horse owners who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

“A typical castration procedure costs about $150 to $200 per horse,” Settlage said. “Castration makes it easier for the horses to be adopted, so the owner is not only saving money on the procedure, but also increasing the value of their horses.”

Dozens of veterinary students arrived at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in the early morning to take the vital signs and medical history of the 15 stallions at the recent clinic. With the help of clinicians and referring veterinarians, the third-year students performed anesthesia and surgery. In order to participate, horse owners had to be referred to the clinic by a veterinary practice in the region.

The Unwanted Horse Coalition, a project of the American Horse Council, partnered with the college to offer the gelding clinic. The clinic also received support from the college’s Office of Academic Affairs and from Zoetis, which provided some of the medication for the procedures.

“We are not only helping to educate horse owners about the care and safety of horses, but also providing services to horses that might have otherwise fallen through the cracks in the equine industry’s safety net,” said Ericka Caslin, executive director of the Unwanted Horse Coalition and a 2004 animal and poultry sciences graduate from Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We have sponsored 66 of these clinics to date, including many at veterinary colleges, and are thrilled to provide hands-on learning experiences for students.”

Settlage also hopes that the Equine Gelding Clinic builds a sense of civic responsibility among participating students. “This service-learning event not only helps the horse owner and horses, but also helps build technical skills in veterinary students and opens their eyes to the real world,” she said. “By castrating these horses, we are reducing the number of unwanted horses being born in the future and creating geldings that are easier to house and maintain, thereby making them easier to adopt.”

Equine overpopulation has become a bigger problem in recent years. With the dip in the economy, many horse owners have had to cut back on veterinary care for their horses, leading to sick or injured horses. Horse slaughter had also been an option for some owners until 2008 when Congress cut funding for meat inspectors at slaughter plants. Late last year the federal government restored funding for those positions so slaughter plants may open once again.

The recent clinic involved 82 students and 14 faculty members at the veterinary college. Four area veterinarians — Dr. Kim Gemeinhardt, Dr. Kristy Jo Monroe, Dr. Victoria Graham, and Dr. Kristie Flemming — also volunteered their time. Several veterinarians in the region sent in stallions for the clinic, including Dr. Robert Bell of Log Cabin Vet Inc.; Dr. Victoria Graham of Bouncing Wonders Veterinary Service; Dr. Kristy Jo Monroe and Dr. Sam Johnson of Blue Ridge Veterinary Services; Dr. Suzanne Shalet of All Around Equine; Dr. Marge Lewter of Craig County Veterinary Service; Dr. Meg Taylor of Valley Vet Clinic; and Dr. Cathy Lombardi of The Oaks Large Animal Vet Clinic.

Written by Michael Sutphin.

Share this story