During high times, horses became the epitome of American suburban affluence.
Got some money and a big yard? Get a horse, or three. They'll provide rides for the kids, and let everyone know you're doing well.
But the recession smacked suburbia in the face—and continues to land consistent body blows. Meanwhile, those status symbols have been left by the wayside—literally, in many cases—as families slash their budgets to keep above water.
"People have decided that it's OK to stop feeding their animals appropriately, because they've lost that disposable income," said Mike Duffey, a detective for the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, and a member of the Animal Cruelty Task Force of Southern Arizona. "Instead of maybe getting rid of the horse, their option has been to deny foot care, pet care and appropriate feeding for those horses."
Many of those horses end up abandoned, a cost-cutting measure employed when plain-old neglect isn't saving enough.
The Arizona Department of Agriculture has received at least 500 reports of "out of place" horses each year since 2008, with 99 reports in the first 10 weeks of 2012. Equine "concern" calls, which usually refer to allegations of abuse or neglect, have totaled 1,400 or more in three of the last four years.
While those figures stayed flat during the recession, state officials say the legitimacy of those reports rose dramatically as times got worse.
"It used to be that, ballpark, 75 percent of our concern calls were not justified," said Perry Durham, the state's head veterinarian. "A lot of those came from disputes between boyfriend and girlfriend. Now, we're seeing 75 to 85 percent be truly justified calls."
Durham said the number of concern and out-of-place calls would be even higher, except for the fact that some "horses don't exist" any longer, the result of the animals being sold for slaughter, or the state euthanizing hundreds of horses each year that can't be placed with new owners.
Durham notes that it costs an average of $3,000 a year to care for a horse. "In the last 100 years, horses have become ... an item tied to the economy. They're a luxury item. Once money is tight, that's one of the first things that have to go."
While cats, dogs and other domestic animals seem to have numerous rescue groups looking out for their welfare, the horse-rescue community is much smaller.
One such local group, Equine Voices Rescue and Sanctuary, has devoted more of its time and resources each year toward saving the state's abandoned horses. As a result, the nonprofit's monthly expenses have nearly doubled in the past five years, to more than $23,000.
"We will do everything possible to save a horse's life," said Karen Pomroy, Equine Voices' founder and president. "I realized a long time ago that I can't save them all, so we do the best with the resources we have. ... My goal is to develop a network, something on a national scale."
The network, Pomroy said, helps find homes for abandoned horses, whether it be at Equine's Jumpin' Jack Ranch in Amado, or at homes, farms and ranches across the state and throughout the country.
"We have an adoption program, and for every horse we adopt out, we can save another life," said Pomroy, who—with the help of about 150 volunteers—cares for 48 horses at the Amado ranch.
The adoption process, which can be started through Equine Voices' website, involves taking in a horse full-time. Another option, Pomroy said, is a sponsorship in which someone provides financial assistance to help care for a horse that remains at a full-service facility.
"It's a little harder to place a horse than a cat or dog," Pomroy said. "They're sort of falling through the cracks, because they're considered livestock, but they're domestic, and they're companion animals."
Adoption and sponsorship information will be available during Equine Voices' Eighth Annual A Very Special Horse Event. The fundraiser will be held Saturday, March 31, at Brandi Fenton Memorial Park. It will feature auctions, raffles and a program with rescued horses, Pomroy said.
"All 10 horses we'll bring were going to slaughter," Pomroy said. "People will see that they don't have to go to slaughter. They can have a good life."