Thursday, December 1, 2011

You Can Lead a Horse to Slaughter...

Thursday December 1 2011

Given the choice, how would you prefer to die? Would you choose to slowly starve to death over a couple of months, your body wasting away in the cold winter as you weaken, ultimately unable to move about, laying in agony till a coyote and Ravens come to help you along by gnawing on your wasting flesh?

Would you rather choose an end in a slaughterhouse?

I have not been to a slaughter plant, nor do I ever want to go. However, I have seen the remains of a mustang who starved to death on the range (above photo). I only saw the end result, not the suffering that got him there. I do not know how long he laid in that spot before the end finally came. It could not have been pretty. And I am currently keeping an eye on a large herd in the area that has nothing - NOTHING - to eat on what was once pasture. All that's left is weeds.

Can you say the horses have food if there are weeds left? Well, it might be like you, a human, eating cottonwood leaves that fall from the trees (which, by the way, the horses have done). Sure, someone will try to convince you that you have a plate of food in front of you, but you can't eat it.

There are tall tales about this local herd swirling around: divorced man with 5 kids finds a rich widow who he loves, and who just happens to have many acres and much money. He also happens to be a horse trainer and he also happens to have a horse - half a dozen horses - almost 50 horses - who move onto the land and have now stripped it bare. He was maybe going to train and sell the horses. Or maybe he was a one-man 'rescue operation' - someone heard 2 cowboys in a feed store, talking about an ad on Craigslist of a ranch in the area asking for money for his 'horse rescue'. (A subsequent search for the ad turned up nothing.)

Maybe there were good intentions and love involved. Maybe not. Whatever the real story, these horses have had nothing substantial to eat for weeks now. You can see in the photo the fence line between the horses' stripped pasture but for inedible weeds, and the untouched grass at the neighbor's (and even that is sparse and not particularly nutritious grazing in a winter desert).

Sadly, there are too many stories like this around the US. Even people with good intentions have had to get rid of their single horse. They have had to disperse entire herds. They can't afford to keep them. Hay runs roughly around $200 a ton, in this area. Horses should eat minimum of 2 percent of their body weight a day, or 20 pounds a day for a 1000-lb horse. I can tell you that when it's cold, our horses eat more than 20 pounds of hay apiece per day to stay warm.

Crude math shows one horse will take 100 days to go through a ton of hay. It will take 50 horses 2 days to go through a ton of hay. The Man should be spending $100 a day on hay to feed this horse herd the minimum amount of hay. He's not.

And that's if you can even get hay. Some areas in the south of the country have been unable to get ANY hay due to the drought. What do you do? Sell your herd? You think they'll all go to happy homes? Who's buying horses nowadays? The market is terrible right now, glutted with horses. People aren't even taking in horses that are free.

So far, the local horse herd in question is not starving, although I have started to see the ribs on some of them. There are mares with unweaned foals at their sides. There is a stallion to make more foals. But if they do reach the starving state, and some PETA or like organization steps in, it is already too late. If it ends for many of them like it did for the mustang, it will not be pretty.

Supposedly, The Man was told to move his horses out, but that hasn't happened. And anyway that doesn't mean they won't suffer the same fate at their new place, which he doesn't have anyway. Hay still costs $200 a ton. Some people are worried he might just turn the horses loose on BLM land to fend for themselves. That will be especially tough for them because it's winter, and grass and water is scarce. Nor is it fair to the ranchers who have the grazing allotment for their cattle.

People yell and weep and gnash their teeth against cruelty to animals. They rail against horse slaughter. I get it. I bleed too, hearing the stories and seeing the pictures. But talk only goes so far. It is a start, when it's done in a constructive way, and when real solutions are presented. But what ARE the solutions to replace the 'Happily Ever After' scenario that just will never happen for tens of thousands of horses every year?

For those who are opposed to horse slaughter, I ask: What do you personally do about it? Do you donate to horse rescue operations? Do you take in horses yourself? How many? Do you work with groups to get laws passed that will protect horses from death by slaughter or other cruelty? Do you help law enforcement spot illegal practices? And if not slaughter, what do you propose as an option?

I have given a former racehorse a home. Just one. I am still wracked with guilt at times when I think of a couple of other special horses I did not track down and try to save. I have been a member of the Exceller Fund for 11 years, giving back something to racehorses who meant so much to me for so many years. It is a pittance, but it is all I can do right now. I would like to take in 100 horses, and I would like to donate millions of dollars to rescue horses from slaughter - but I cannot afford to do so. 

There are 9.2 million horses in the US, according to latest statistics from the American Horse Council. Statistics from the AQHA show over 2 million registered Quarter horses in the US as of 2010, with 83,736 new registrations in 2010. (And these are just REGISTERED Quarter horses.)

Think of that. At the least, an estimated couple hundred thousand horses of all breeds, purebred and mutts, added to the population every year. What happens to them all? They don't all get to live out long and happy lives, cared for by some starry-eyed little girl. There are simply not enough people to go around to take care of all the unwanted horses in the country.

A quick death at slaughter would be merciful for many of these horses... only that is not a reality either. Many are stuffed, overcrowded, into double decker trailers made for cattle, without food, water or stops to rest, on their way to slaughter. They suffer, get terrified, get sick, get beat up, break bones, bleed out, die, on their way to slaughter.

Some states rightly ban the use of double deckers trailers for transporting horses, but it is not federal law, and who enforces it anyway? Understaffed and overworked law enforcement with more pressing problems usually depends on the public to report alledged crimes, so if citizens aren't out monitoring horse transportation, who is?

A new uproar has begun at the news that Congress recently lifted a 5-year-old ban on funding horse meat inspections, which would allow slaughterhouses to reopen in the US again.

Banning slaughterhouses in the US did not stop horse slaughter. It made the journey of the horses headed to slaughter much more difficult, as they are just transported longer distances in sometimes horrid conditions to Canada or Mexico. 138,000 horses were transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010, according to a US Government Accountability Office report. That's about the same number of horses that were killed in the US the year before the last slaughter plant was closed in 2007. The slaughter plants in Mexico are not a pretty sight - look them up on the internet - there is not much humaneness or compassion there.

If a ban on horse slaughter in the US was to be continued, what are the options for the tens of thousands of horses that are unwanted every year? Is neglect and starvation a less cruel fate?

Does one try to stop backyard breeding? How? Does one try to stop horse industries from breeding so many horses, in trying to create the perfect performance athlete? How? Does one try to get a law passed and enforced saying everybody must provide humane euthanasia for their horse at home? How? Do you want a government employee coming 'round your barn every week to check on your horses' conditions, and make sure the vet is coming out to administer the Sodium Pentobarbital?

If slaughter should be allowed in the US, how could it be made better? Pass more compassionate laws transporting horses to slaughter? Make slaughter plants less cruel? I have yet to see Temple Grandin's movie, but, didn't she create a more humane plan for slaughter facilities for cattle? Why isn't this mandatory? How can any of this be enforced?

I don't have answers. This is not intended to be an exhaustive look into horse slaughter. I just know I do not want to watch the slow starvation and deaths of 50 helpless horses in my county, and this possible scenario has illuminated the many sticky arguments swirling around the fate of too many unwanted, neglected, and abused horses.

Kudos to those horse owners who can properly give their horses a respectful and comfortable end. Many cannot and many do not. So, currently it seems there are two options for at least a hundred thousand unwanted horses every year: slaughter, or death by intentional neglect. It seems there are currently only two options for horse slaughter: Canada or Mexico. It seems that with Congress recently lifting the ban on funding horse meat inspections and the prospects of opening US slaughter plants in the US in as little as a month, an opportunity has opened up to demand more humane horse transportation and slaughter practices and their enforcement here in this country, since we have no control over Canada and Mexico.

What do you think of horse slaughter? If you are opposed, what are your solutions? What do you do to help horses who need help? Do you donate to rescue organizations? Have you rescued your own horses? How do you you work to promote horse welfare?


Websites/organizations to check out:

Unwanted Horse Coalition, whose mission is to "reduce the number of unwanted horses and to improve their welfare through education and the efforts of organizations committed to the health, safety, and responsible care and disposition of these horses."

Equine Protection Network has tips on how to help enforce laws of cruel transport.

Dr Temple Grandin's webpage:


  1. Very thoughtful piece on a tough problem. You make excellent points. I reviewed 20 hours of undercover video for Canadian Horse Defense Coalition and wrote an opinion as to whether these were humane deaths. (links to the video and my report can be found here -- warning the videos are graphic) The problem is that our slaughter systems are designed for cattle. As you know horses are not cows! Since the "Horse Industry" (and I include the backyard owners as well) is responsible for the supply side of this equation, seems they should be responsible for developing a humane death for these horses.
    Many years ago a catholic bishop in San Francisco said it was a shame to kill so many dogs in our shelters, why not give the dogs to the immigrants from Asia who eat dogs. As you can guess his comments pleased no one.
    We in the USA especially live in culture who considers animals disposal. As a vet I have had people take the old dog to the pound and go buy a new puppy. Millions of pets are killed yearly in the US. Am I for or against horse slaughter for food. I myself would never eat horse, but I am not against you making that choice as long as the horse doesn't have to suffer for your choice. Dr. Mel Richardson

  2. Lots of interesting stuff being talked about since this ban on funding got lifted. I agree with a lot of what you and other bloggers are saying. We've essentially just funneled all those slaughter bound horses into taking longer trips to places that aren't regulated at all. If we have to send horses to slaughter, let's do it on US soil, where we can keep an eye on it.
    I think the sharing of information is changing our world. People are outspoken, and just like you, are watching their neighbors and essentially policing themselves these days. No one likes to see horses dying of starvation, that's for sure. Back yard breeders and people who own herds like the one you're watching, are very frowned upon now. People can't afford that many horses, yet keep breeding, with no thought to the consequences. The rest of us who clean up the mess have really had enough of that.
    I think this: I don't like slaughter, I think it's a horrible way for horses to go. BUT I think it's a necessary evil, unfortunately. Yes, I own 14 horses, most of which were slaughter bound at one point in their lives. I spend about $40 a day to feed them right now. I support rescues. I try my best, and I think a lot of us do.
    Great post. Lots of good points and lots to think about.

  3. I'm for a humane end to suffering when there are no obvious good options. Having watched horses waste away over three consecutive winters, and horse rescues being opposed to even go "look" at these horses, a humane end would have been a happy solution. Those animals had no shelter (not necessary in Indiana), no hay, no grass, and tried to survive off the bark of trees. The little mule in fact ran out of bark and attempted to climb the tree to get some more and got his front leg snagged in a limb, where upon they shot him. He was the lucky one. Is a humane death so cost prohibitive? ~E.G.

  4. Forty years ago when I got my first horse it was expected and accepted that old or useless horses went to slaughter plants and were made into glue and horse meat. When did we get so emotional about it?

    The horse, once dead, doesn't care who eats its carcass. Are worms more worthy to eat the carcass of a horse than a gourmand in France? The only question should be, how humane is the slaughter. If the horses are handled humanely and without needlessly terrifying them, and the bolt is placed correctly and the throat cut quickly the horse won't "suffer" more than a minute. Contrast that with all the other possible deaths a horse can have: the pain of a twisted colon; being torn apart, still alive, by a pack of wolves; slowly starving to death or dying of thirst; being caught in a cattle guard by the hooves while trying desperately to reach water, breaking a leg in the struggle, and lying helplessly for four days while the buzzards circle overhead.

    We have to stop this emotional nitpicking about how an animal dies and what happens to the meat. NATURAL death is nearly always prolonged, painful, and cruel. Yes, death by injection is probably less painful than the possibility of being shot twice by a stun gun because the first shot was misplaced. But I'd rather see that doomed horse die in a way that his life and death are not a waste -- let the owner get a few hundred dollars for his meat, let people eat the meat if they wish, why should they have to pay several hundred dollars to euthanize and dispose of the animal if someone is willing to pay them for the meat and hide?

    A horse is LIVESTOCK, not a house pet.

    I'm glad our government finally got something right for a change. Banning slaughter in the US caused more suffering for horses, AS WE TOLD THEM IT WOULD, and has damaged the entire industry by driving down the price of horses and putting pressure on the hay supply due to horses that would otherwise have been sold for slaughter being fed in "rescues" far beyond the point where there is any economic justification for keeping them alive.

    No horses' lives were saved by the banning of slaughter. Every horse ever born will die exactly once. Better it be quick and relatively painless than slowly and cruelly through misquided "good intentions."

  5. I understand the heartfelt reaction to say that horses should not be slaughtered. No horse lover likes the idea. I like even less the idea of those long frantic journeys that are the unintended consequence of well meaning legislation.
    I have led a horse out of his stable to a patch of grass where the vet euthanized him with one humane shot. The horse never suspected a thing and just keeled over dead. The carcass was hauled away to the local hunt kennels to feed the hounds.
    The horse's owner was too upset to be there herself. She had tried every possible solution to save her horse but he was perpetually lame and in pain. We were all sad but there was no better solution.
    In England we don't eat horses but horses are shipped by the truck load onto cross channel boats to Belgium, France and other countries who consider them edible.
    Most horses are now microchipped and there are rules about ownership verification before slaughter as the theft of horses to sell for slaughter was a growing industry.
    I can't justify that I will eat lamb, chicken or beef but that I will forbid other cultures to eat horse. I can stand up for the most humane treatment possible for all animals in life and death.
    I think it would be a great improvement if there were facilities available, governed by strong rules and stringent oversight so that we could control what is experienced by these animals we claim to love so much, yet prefer to ship out of sight, out of mind, rather than manage responsibly.

  6. Hate to see what you're living close too, of course here the trees hide a lot! Humane Slaughter is better than most alternatives - i.e. starvation.

  7. There will always be horse slaughter.

    But instead of U.S horses being sneaked over the borders to Canada or Mexico and suffering from horrible treatment and abuse, at least if we make it legal here in the U.S, and control where the horses go (not to Mexico for sure!) we can create and enforce laws for the humane treatment of the horses as well as protect humans who plan on eating possibly chemically tainted horse meat.

    And we can also protect horses better by having brand inspectors who will be assigned the task of checking brands and making sure that the brands they see are not on horses that have been listed as stolen or that their owners or breeders have instructions for return if their horse is discovered inside a slaughter house.

    By keeping it legal in the U.S, we have more control, unlike now, where we have none at all.

    Good post, bringing up a touchy subject.

  8. When we closed the slaughter plants, we no longer had a "base" price on horses. If you have no price per pound to give you the bottom line value on a horse, then it makes all horses worth less. This does not mean you are ever going to sell one to a kill buyer, but the industry needs that base price. You can not give them away in many areas, because no one wants to take on another mouth to feed where hay is in short supply. Now each horse will at least have that bottom value.

    And maybe, some will start taking in horses who are slaughter bound again, where they would not take in a "free to good home". Many like to feel they RESCUED a horse.

  9. Very thought-provoking post. After watching the videos Dr. Mel posted, I'm not sure that starving to death out in the desert isn't the better option. I'm not sure I'd want to be shot multiple times by that idiot with the .22.

  10. Death no mater how humane is not easy to watch but there are alot of very good reasons to put live stock down, food, leather,by products and feed for other animals along with not enough resourses to properly take care of the animals.
    Animals don't have retirements with grandchildren on their knee.

    they don't get to go fishing when they no longer have a job and they can't always go to where the grass is greener they eat bark or thier own poop to get by and stand neglected up to thier knees in thier own waste so a moment of fear and pain is nothing copared to prolonged agony of neglect.
    As for the idiot who had to take several shots to put an animal down if this was his job he may have put a hundred animals down with one shot but that would not be the point or the purpose of the film so you won't see that.If watching vidios of animals being slaughter bothers you then don't watch them, just be glad there are people willing to do these nessesary jobs.
    As a child my father told my sister and I "your cat and dog are your pets take good care of them and play with them and let them be your pals but the pig,goat,horse chicken and cows are live stock some we'll eat and others like the horse we may have to sale if times are tight and we can not afford to care for them properly so do not get too attached they are not pets and a large animal can hurt you if you do try to play with them as pets."

  11. Putting an animal down no matter the reason or how humane is not pleasent to watch for any animal lover but my guess is that in our modern relationship with animals, most of the pain and suffering animals are subjected too is by animal lovers because most people who don't like animals pretty much stay away from them and do not have the interaction needed to inflict pain and suffering on animals.
    Horses being slaughtered for food or leather or other uses is not a waste. Standing in a pen all day day in day out.The money that could be used for a better life for the family is going for moms cause of saving the world one horse at a time, thats the waste.
    As for the idiot with the 22 if putting down animals is his job he has probably put down hundreds with one shot but thats not the video you are giong to be shown because that is not the point of the video.
    The pass few years western culters have begun to think of all animals as pets. We get our meat at a store the leather is already tanned and in the form of belts or shoes or purses.We've lost the connection.
    If watching animals being slaughtered is upsetting then don't watch and be glad there is somebody willing to do this nessesary job.

    1 remnt, life long animal lover and horsemen.

  12. I wish every town had its own slaughter capacity. Our local butcher used to slaughter horses for people--it was done humanely and quickly and often at home. Where I grew up in Southern Oregon there is a big cats facility--two actually--one is a bit questionable, the other is part of a breeding program for endangered species. A few people have tried to stop them from accepting older or unwanted horses to feed to the cats--misguided sentimentalism. They provide an excellent means for many responsible horse owners to end their equine's lives humanely. We all need to tell our non-horsey friends why we support local, US slaughter!

  13. I love what anonymous said. And I would totally donate my dead horse to a big cat or wolf rescue facility, or even a zoo, to feed the animals there. What an awesome idea! It just completes the natural circle of life and, just like our own organ donation options we have for us humans, it would ensure that our horses would go on to nourish other animals.


  14. Thanks everybody, you've all left some thoughtful comments.

    I was hoping to hear from more anti-slaughter folks. I did hear from one privately who was opposed to slaughter and opposed to animals suffering.

    So am I. So are all of us. I just haven't heard any alternate solutions to how they propose to handle the 100,000 unwanted horses that will die and that do die every year anyway.
    - The Equestrian Vagabond

  15. People can defend the idiot with the .22 all they want. There's no excuse for shooting a horse in both eyeballs before finally finding the head spot ... when you're inches away from the horse. I've watched enough livestock being slaughtered, and have also done it myself, and I stand by my statement that the guy with the .22 is an idiot -- and probably a major part of the reason why this video was made in the first place. Put a competent person behind the .22 and you'd have a much different result -- and reaction.

    Merri, I agree. It would be interesting to see what the anti-slaughter folks have to say.

  16. This is an excellent site to visit, if you are undecided about horse slaughter. If you can look at this without emotion, it poses real questions about the current situation in the US regarding what to do with unwanted horses.

  17. Excellent article Merri, I just wish we lived in a perfect world where all humans and animals could eat to their needs, but we all know that's utopia.

  18. Well written Merri. It's such a tough debate. All of us horse lovers can cry about the slaughter issue all day long, but in the end it does come down to the amount of starving, neglected and abused horses and what is in their best interest. There are TOO many horses, yet people just keep on breeding them. There is NO FEED, yet people keep breeding them. The economy stinks, yet people keep breeding them... What is left is a whole bunch of poorly bred, conformationally unfit, neglected and pitiful horses left to be abused and starve because nobody can give them the perfect life we all WANT them to have. I HATE the horse slaughter issue, but really, if a horse is going to end up slaughtered anyway, I would hope that the poor thing would at least be treated as humanely as possible on it's road to a better life (horsey heaven). Will it happen? Will the US have any better polices to control it? I have no idea...

  19. Thanks Merri as always your thoughts and words are food for thought. Breeding is part of the equation. I try to do my part to the best of my ability. Always questioned by others.

  20. Hey Merri - based on this article, Temple Grandin IS involved in designing the new US slaughterhouses. I think that's amazingly good news, and I have a glimmer of hope that they'll be humane-for-horses.

  21. Bravo Merri. Thank you for putting words to the issue without pointing, yelling, blaming, etc. Well done.

  22. SUCH an incredibly painful subject to even have to think, like any other decision involving the death of animals, crushes my heart.

  23. Thank you for your article. This is such an emotional issue, but needs to be brought out to be discussed.

  24. Merri excellent, thoughtful and thanks for saying it so well.

  25. I'm late to the conversation but thank you for having it.

    Many of my non horse friends expected me to be mad at Obama on this issue, but I explained that it's like so many things in life.

    Slaughter of horses should be humane, rare, and legal.

    Interesting that it's the sale of the body for meat that gets people upset. We cut the tail and mane to make a remembrance of our dear one, we plan to donate our own organs so they can be reused...