The plight of the unwanted horse may be the most important horse issue of the 21st century. Estimates suggest that 100,000 horses per year become "unwanted," leading to saturation of rescue and retirement facilities around the country and a strain on their financial resources. Is overbreeding to blame? Is it because horse processing plants were closed? Just as a combination of factors have lead to the surplus, only a wide variety of ideas and programs will begin to solve the problem.

One solution is stallion castration. Several U.S. programs are making castration more affordable, including a new program in Minnesota. This state has seen more than a 400% increase in horse seizures for humane issues since 2006, and this has overwhelmed rescue groups. In response, a coalition of organizations and individuals formed the Minnesota Horse Welfare Coalition (MHWC), with representatives from the Minnesota Animal Humane Society, University of Minnesota (UM), Minnesota Horse Council (MHC), Minnesota Association of Equine Practitioners (MAEP), and several rescues. Participants agreed that stallions are not adoptable, as one could be responsible for up to 100 foals a year, and behavioral issues are common.

How does a coalition persuade owners to castrate their stallions? Free castration is certainly an incentive, but is it more than just a short-term solution? The national Unwanted Horse Coalition's theme, "Own Responsibly," pairs well with castration programs. The MHWC chose to offer free castration as an incentive for education. To qualify, a stallion owner must attend eight different educational seminars offered by the Minnesota Horse Expo, UM's Horse Owner Education program, or participating veterinarians to foster responsible ownership. The required topics of at least one hour each are general horse care; reproduction; nutrition; facilities/ manure management; behavior; vaccinations/deworming; equine dentistry; and they must either attend a lecture on the unwanted horse or volunteer for two hours at a horse rescue. The MAEP was very supportive, and soon veterinarians statewide agreed to a fixed reimbursement price for castration and immediate pre- and post-surgical care. The MHC provided the money to launch the program and pay for at least the first 25 castrations.

The Minnesota program was named "The Gelding Project: Helping the Unwanted Horse, One Stallion at a Time," and it launched at the Minnesota Horse Expo in April 2009. An interested owner purchases a $5 voucher sheet to track his or her participation in qualifying educational seminars. (The nominal cost was imposed to discourage voucher loss.) Participating Minnesota owners must be at least 18 years old. The MHC has posted educational sessions and eligible horse rescue facilities for volunteering on its Web site. Once an owner meets voucher requirements, he or she schedules an appointment with a participating veterinarian, who confirms the stallion is halter broken, has two descended testicles, and is healthy. The voucher covers castration, anesthesia or sedation and analgesia, and postoperative antibiotic and tetanus vaccination or antitoxin, but not the farm call. The vet submits the voucher to the MHC for payment, and the participating owner fill outs a survey questionnaire about the program.

Colts and stallions that are seized by or surrendered to rescue organizations require castration, too. The program's need for financial support was combined with an opportunity for veterinary students interested in equine medicine. Certified equine rescues in Minnesota can now apply to participate in a castration clinic this fall organized by the MHWC. Vet students will perform up to 20 castrations under the close supervision of equine veterinarians, who will volunteer their time and equipment. This pilot project, to be held at a county fairground, will be expanded to other locations if warranted.

Tracy A. Turner, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, and his wife, Julia H. Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, are lifelong horse enthusiasts. They raise dressage and eventing horses, as well as sons, on their small farm in Stillwater, Minn. Turner is an associate with Anoka Equine Veterinary Services in Elk River, Minn., and Wilson is an associate professor of Large Animal Medicine at the University of Minnesota.

Originally published in the August 2009 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.