People in the horse business say they’ve never seen anything like it. Last winter, as the recession hit hard and hay prices skyrocketed, horses were abandoned in state parks. The Humane Society fielded calls about half-starved horses standing in farmers’ fields.

Owning a horse is expensive in the best of times. But when your house is foreclosed, you lose your job, or your pay is cut, that horse can become an intolerable burden. As pastures freeze over, the specter of starving steeds again worries local horse experts. “It’s probably going to be a whole lot worse this winter,” says Barbara Baker, who runs a shelter for abandoned horses in Howell.

Baker’s rescue group, Horse’s Haven, has no more space: there already are fifty-five horses on the farm and another twenty-five that she has placed in foster homes. Still, Baker says, she gets 400 to 500 emails and phone calls a week from desperate people–and law enforcement agencies–looking for a place to put unwanted horses. “I get calls from sheriffs all over the state. There’s no place to put ’em.”

At the Humane Society of Huron Valley, cruelty and rescue personnel are undergoing extra training, and staffers are trying to locate possible foster homes. Last winter, says director Tanya Hilgendorf, there were some “pretty severe cases of starved horses.” She, too, expects the crisis to deepen this winter.

“This is a dire situation,” she warns.

The 2007 Michigan Equine Survey found 150,000 horses in Michigan–more than half of them in private residences. Today, boarding stables around Ann Arbor are tightening their belts, and many individual horse owners are desperate for a way to get out.

In late October, former Pioneer High equestrian coach Marie Seddon found 900 horses advertised online in Michigan for $500 or less. Most were ten years old or younger, the prime age for good horses. Prices that low mean that people are willing to unload their animals at a loss–before last winter, a decent riding horse cost at least $2,000, and good show horses went for much more.

“Horse people will do whatever they can to keep a horse,” says Diana Murphy, director of Voice for Horses, an equine shelter in Toledo. “But now, there are free horses all over the Internet.” And that’s creating another problem, she says: “People are getting horses for free, but they’ve never owned a horse, so they don’t know what it costs to take care of them. So now they’re trying to get rid of them.”

At a recent auction near Onsted, in Lenawee County, twenty or so horses were up for grabs. Some had seen better days: one saggy old horse stood listlessly in a pen. Other owners rode steeds that looked perfectly serviceable around the barn. One man optimistically said he hoped to get $1,000 for a horse with no registration papers. But experienced hands say it’s impossible to count on a fair price at an auction these days. One woman was trying to sell a mare and her yearling, horses that had been practically dumped on her in exchange for some riding lessons. Another woman told of a friend who had paid $75 to register her horse at an auction but got only $50 for it.

The market is so depressed that some auctions have closed down. So have some rescue operations, as the growing need exhausts their resources.

Suzanne Dooley-Hash, an emergency room physician at the University of Michigan Hospital who lives in Chelsea, adopted two miniature mules from Horse’s Haven, where she volunteers. If she had more land, she says, “I’d adopt more horses.” But, she cautions, between feed, farrier, and vet bills, “it’s a lot more expensive than you would think.”

A few stables have closed, and others are feeling the pinch, some of them lowering their boarding fees. Rose Sheffer, who runs Rose Haven Farm in Grass Lake Township, says she has a “smaller, more committed group of people” boarding and training there and is getting by with creative adaptation–offering more group lessons, for example.

Though you can get horses, trailers, and tack dirt cheap right now, it’s no time for dilettantes, says Sheffer. The economy, she says, has “taken out some people who probably shouldn’t have been in the horse business to begin with.”

Those people have lost money. The animals stand to lose much more. Says Barbara Baker, “It’s going to be very, very bad.”

In the worst cases, horses are left to starve because their owners can’t afford the $400 or so it costs to euthanize and bury them. Fearing hundreds of horses are at risk of this fate in coming months, some local horse people and organizations are planning a radical solution: a last-chance clinic for unwanted horses.

Organizing as Help MI Horses, the group–which includes Seddon, Skyline High equestrian coach Halley Sissom, Romulus stable owner Emily Simmons, the Michigan Equine Partnership, and the thoroughbred horse rescue group CANTER–hopes to host a weekend clinic by mid-January. As at similar events in Denver and in northern California, owners could bring unwanted horses to offer for adoption. Those that are unclaimed would be euthanized at no cost.

When Help MI Horses approached the Humane Society of the United States for financial support, it found the national organization adamantly opposed to the idea. “We don’t want to set a precedent of euthanasia-on-demand,” says Keith Dane, director of equine protection for HSUS. “We don’t subscribe to the philosophy that if an animal is no longer of use to you, it should be euthanized.”

But the plan has the backing of Michigan’s state veterinarian, Steve Halstead. He believes he can get vets to donate their services to examine and, if necessary, euthanize the horses. HSHV’s Hilgendorf also supports the idea. “We would prefer to see all horses adopted,” she says. “But all the rescue places are full. If there’s no alternative, as a last resort, I think it’s the most humane thing to do. It’s better than horses dying of starvation out in the field.”

Fake Hay

In 2008, a rainy summer resulted in one of the worst hay harvests in memory, pushing prices from $1.50 or $2 a bale to $5 a bale. This year’s harvest was better–but hay farmer Lee Maulbetsch of Northfield Township says he can’t afford to charge much less than a year ago.

“I don’t think we’ll see a drop in price,” says Maulbetsch, who’s been baling and selling hay for thirty years. “There’s not many people in the business anymore.”

Maulbetsch says grain prices were at a historic high last year, and a lot of farmers switched acreage from hay to more profitable beans. And with so many horse owners getting out of the business, demand has dropped.

“We used to have loads lined up all the time,” he says. “Now we’re taking care of our core customers. We’re not seeing the shoppers like we used to.”

But he is seeing something unprecedented–enterprising competitors who are literally undercutting his hay business: “If there’s weeds on a lot, anything green growing on a construction site, they cut it down and bale it up” and pass it off as cheap hay.