Joe Penn, a Kentucky horse and mule auctioneer, is not a sentimental man - not once he enters the stockyard. He knows that the value of many horses is measured in pounds of flesh.
But this winter, the horses are thinner than usual, and Penn finds himself wondering what becomes of the creatures with bare ribs and flat rumps, the ones that now sell for as little as $10.
"I wonder," Penn said. "And then I tell myself I probably don't want to know."
In many parts of the United States, horse owners are struggling to feed their animals after a severe drought doubled - even tripled - the cost of hay. The drought has exacerbated a glut in the low end of the horse market, brought on by years of over-breeding and the recent economic downturn.
Horses that once cost $500 are selling for $50. On Equine.com, a Web site for horse classified ads, hundreds of horses - some malnourished, but many well-fed - are offered for free.
Local officials are seizing large numbers of horses, and rescue organizations are taking in more, according to Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States. Last year the U.S. Equine Rescue League, which operates in Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina, took in 186 neglected or abused horses - nearly double the usual number.
With many rescue centers full, fewer options are available for unwanted horses. Some are sold at stockyards - to good Samaritans, or "killer buyers" who truck them to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada. Others are euthanized, or left to perish in barren fields.
"It's heartbreaking," said Kathy Grant, who runs a rescue center in drought-stricken eastern Tennessee and takes as many as five calls a day from desperate horse owners. "The back roads are where you find them - all skin and bone, just hanging their heads in the pastures, dying."
Local officials have seized malnourished animals in states such as Florida and Washington. In a particularly extreme case in Randolph County, N.C., officials found eight dead horses scattered across a field and 11 horses that they say were malnourished and crammed into a small pen with no water and little hay.
The overpopulation of horses stems from the large number of people who have become horse owners in recent years. The industry flourished as baby boomers enjoyed disposable incomes, and breeders took advantage of scientific innovations such as frozen semen and embryo transfers. The Washington-based American Horse Council, a national association representing the horse industry, estimates that Americans owned more than 9 million horses in 2005 - up from about 6 million horses in the mid-1990s.
"Nothing is planned. People are just putting mares and stallions out together and letting them do their thing," said Jennifer Malpass, chairwoman of the U.S. Equine Rescue League, who believes irresponsible breeding programs have led to more unwanted horses.
Some animal lovers are already taking pity on unwanted horses.
Upon moving to Kentucky last year, Christopher Takacs, 50, a guitar sales distributor from California, was so moved by the plight of an abandoned racehorse that he built a barn. In the last six months, Takacs, who had not owned a horse before, has taken in eight and set up an equine rescue center that he hopes will eventually house 40.
Until then, he says he has no choice but to turn down requests. As many as 16 horses in a neighboring county might have to be put down, he said, because they have no pasture or hay.
"I just couldn't take them," he said. "I can't afford to feed all the horses of Kentucky. I wish I could."
Jenny Jarvie writes for the Los Angeles Times.