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Dealing with Unwanted Horses in Nebraska


Horses are amazing athletes and wonderful companions, but are a significant investment of both time and money. In 2005, the American Horse Council estimated there were 9.2 million horses in the United States and it is estimated that 1 to 1.5% of those horses are unwanted, or roughly 92,000 to 138,000 annually. This estimation is based on previous numbers of horses that have been sent to slaughter annually, but the total number of unwanted horses is likely greater than this estimate (American Horse Council, 2005).

Why do horses become unwanted? With the dwindling economy and soaring prices of hay and fuel, the cost of buying a horse has decreased. However, the costs and responsibilities associated with owning a horse have not decreased, but increased. Owning a horse means that you are the advocate (and responsible) for that animals' health, safety, and training. Horses must be provided with:

  1. food of sufficient quantity and quality to allow for normal growth or maintenance
  2. clean, potable water in sufficient quantity
  3. shelter from adverse weather conditions
  4. a clean environment and enough space for periodic exercise
  5. must have their hooves properly trimmed to prevent lameness
  6. must be transported safely

Recent estimates put owning one healthy horse at just under $2,300 a year (including basic care costs associated with vaccinations, deworming, hoof care, nutrition, and shelter).

Unfortunately, horses do get sick, and become lame, become elderly, or have career ending injuries. Also, children (and adults) become disinterested or move away from home, divorce, or job loss may affect an owner's financial resources. Recently, the costs of owning a horse has continued to rise, while individual or family incomes have remained stagnant or declined. The housing and mortgage crisis have also exacerbated the problem of unwanted horses.

The goal of this factsheet is to educate horse owners on options for unwanted horses. This factsheet will cover humane options for living horses and legal options for carcass disposal.

Options for Horses

  1. Market Your Horse Privately. Be creative when advertising your horse. Consider various marketing approaches, including advertising on or with:
    • Websites
    • Riding stable and barns
    • Feed and tack stores
    • Local and regional horse magazines and publications
    • Local paper
    • Veterinarians and farriers
    • 4-H, Pony Club, and other Breed Organizations
    • Local horse shows and events
    • Equine Therapy programs
    • Horse Rescues
    • Local Horse Trainers

    Actually selling (or giving away) your horse may take time, so be prepared to re-evaluate the price you are asking and remain vigilant. Selling your horse privately also gives you some short-term control over who purchases your horse, where it will reside, and what activities it will be participating in.

  2. Horse Rescues. If you are unable to sell or care for your horse, a horse rescue is an option. There is a real cost associated with the rescue caring for your horse and the rescue facility may not be able to accommodate your request based on physical room, the ability to feed the horse, or finances. Below is a list of equine rescue facilities in Nebraska which are registered with the "Unwanted Horse Coalition". This is not an endorsement of the listed rescues by the University of Nebraska, but is meant to provide owners of unwanted horses some options.
  3. Sale Barns. Although sale barns provide an outlet for horse sales, owners have little control over the buyers, where the horse will go, or the price. If a quick sale is necessary, a sale barn is a legitimate option. Sale barns usually charge a fee for selling (and advertising) your horse, can have deadlines for consignments, and may require a negative Coggins and/or a health certificate. Before consigning your horse to a sale barn, make sure you meet and understand the barn's requirements for consignment and understanding that you will have little control over the sale of your horse.
  4. Euthanasia. This is probably the hardest decision a horse owner will need to make, but it is a better alternative than neglect or prolonged suffering. When euthanasia is administered by a veterinarian, it can be humane. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), there are three approved methods for the euthanasia of horses: a chemical euthanasia, with pentobarbital or a pentobarbital combination (euthanasia solution); gunshot; and penetrating captive bolt. Chemical euthanasia is the most humane choice for horses, and is preferred by most veterinarians and horse owners, but is the most expensive form of euthanasia. This procedure requires injection of euthanasia solution into the horse's vein. Euthanasia solution is a controlled drug and must be administered by a veterinarian. Carcasses of horses euthanatized chemically can potentially contaminate the environment, and pose a significant risk of poisoning for prey species (especially birds) unless they are disposed of, or protected from, predation in a proper and immediate manner (see Burial below).

    Gunshot and the penetrating captive bolt are other approved physical methods of euthanasia. When used in the correct manner, they induce death more rapidly than chemical euthanasia. They produce death in the same way, by disrupting the brain and causing loss of consciousness and subsequent death. Euthanasia by gunshot may pose an inherent risk for other animals and humans, and should only be preformed by someone skilled in the method, and in a safe environment.

    The penetrating captive bolt method of euthanasia is safer than gunshot euthanasia because it does not release a projectile (e.g., bullet). There are two types of captive bolt: penetrating and non-penetrating. The penetrating captive bolt induces death by firing a rod into the brain. The non-penetrating captive bolt causes a severe concussion that stuns the animal but does not kill it. The non-penetrating captive bolt is not considered a humane method of euthanasia.

    Gunshot and penetrating captive bolt euthanasia are less expensive than chemical euthanasia and do not present the risks of environmental contamination or animal poisoning. These techniques are considered aesthetically displeasing to many horse owners, but they are effective.

Legal Options for Carcass Disposal

Nebraska horse owners do have some options for disposal of an equine carcass. The State of Nebraska regulates these options and involves the Nebraska Department of Agriculture (NDA), Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ), and Natural Resources (DNR). The legal options for horse carcasses in Nebraska are burial, composting, and rendering. There is a state-wide, non-equine specific statute on carcass disposal that states "within 36 hours after knowledge of the carcass, it must either be 1) buried at least 4 feet deep; 2) burned completely on the premises; or 3) disposed of to a rendering facility.

  1. Burial. Burial can be the most cost effective way of disposing of a carcass (if you own equipment to prepare the site), but may not be an available option in all areas of the state. The NDEQ states that the carcass must have 5 feet separation from the bottom of the burial pit to ground water, 4 feet (approximately) of compact cover soil, 300 feet from streams, creeks, ponds, and lakes. These regulations are in place to prevent contamination of groundwater. Burial should include a soil cover of sufficient depth to prevent exposure of the carcass by burrowing, digging, or scavenging animals (and other vectors of disease) and erosion. During winter months (when the ground is frozen), breaking the ground for burial may be difficult or not an option until spring. Furthermore, individuals must check city and county regulations as they may vary considerably.
  2. Composting. Composting can be an environmental friendly option when dealing with an equine carcass. Compost does need to be managed (adding water, nutrients, and rotating the pile when needed), and is considered labor intensive by many. In Nebraska, only carcasses less than 600 pounds may be composted.

    Equine carcass composting research conducted at West Texas A&M University determined that a mix of 50/50 cattle manure and hay waste or a 50/50 mix of stall waste (horse manure and bedding) worked better as compost compared to 100% stall waste when composting equine carcasses. To compost a single carcass, researchers placed it on a bed of chopped straw before adding other materials. To jumpstart the process, it is advised to add pre- composted materials (because they already contain the needed bacteria) before adding the carcass.

    The key to any compost pile is the moisture and nutrient content. A compost pile should be about 50% moisture. Excessive moisture can cause compost to leach harmful chemicals into the soil, and it can displace oxygen within the pile, which creates an anaerobic condition that produces an unpleasant odor and phytotoxic (toxic to plants) substances. The temperature of the compost pile can be a good indicator to determine if the process is working properly. Temperatures in the pile can reach 131 F-155 F within 24 hours and should remain there for several weeks to a month. These sustained high temperatures will also destroy most pathogens and weed seeds. It is also recommended to turn the pile every three months. After three months, only a few large bones should remain. At six months, no identifiable pieces should remain. The entire process from start to finish will take about seven to nine months.

  3. Cremation (Incineration). Cremation can allow horse owners to retain a physical part of their horse, but can be expensive. A burn pile on the property cannot attain a complete incineration and is not a legal carcass disposal option. Generally, incineration is completed by a state-licensed facility under strict emissions and temperature guidelines.

    The air curtain incineration process requires an excavation typically 10-12 feet deep and as long as the manifold on the incinerator. This process directs high velocity air across and downward into a pit creating a turbulent curtain of air that reaches a temperature of approximately 1832 F. Please contact the Department of Environmental Quality at 402-471-2186 if this method of carcass disposal is to be used.

  4. Rendering. Rendering is an option for carcass disposal, but does cost between $150 to 200 per pickup. There are a few options in Nebraska that take equine (large animal) carcasses. Contact your local veterinary for rendering services provided to them. This is not an endorsement of the listed rendering services by the University of Nebraska, but is meant to provide horse owners with legal carcass disposal options.
    • National Bi-Product, 402-291-8800
    • Bob's Farm Service in Wahoo, 800-424-6739, $100-175 depending on distance

    Decisions on how to deal with unwanted horses is a concern for most horse owners as at some time horses must be sold or put down. Educated and humane decisions must be made to avoid unnecessary neglect and abuse of horses. More information on dealing with unwanted horses and "responsible horse care can be found at the "Unwanted Horse Coalition" web site at:

Sources: Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, Environmental Guidance Document, April, 2007.

By Kathy Anderson, UNL Extension Horse Specialist