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The Dark Side of Being a Horse in America: Horse Slaughter and the Politics of Change

After a nearly 20-year career as a ballet dancer, I know what a beat-up body feels like. Cold weather, rain, extreme physical exertion, or even sleeping in the wrong position can spell misery for weeks. It seems like something hurts every day. Each morning is an assessment of the day’s aches and pains. When I was seeking a new profession in the veterinary field, it thus seemed only natural to be drawn to equine massage therapy, helping four-legged athletes recover from their own stiffness and discomfort. People think it’s a strange combination, ballet and horses, but then I point them in the direction of French artist Edgar Degas, who painted, sculpted, and photographed primarily those two subjects.


“Cole,” racing name “Freeze the Win”, being lunged with a saddle as part of his retraining. Image credit: SCTR and Laurie Taylor, TMA Photography


It seemed even more right to me to work with rescue horses, which are perhaps the most knocked-around animals in the equine world, especially ex-race horses, the Thoroughbreds that come off the track with histories of both physical and mental abuse. I have off-track Thoroughbreds, or OTTBs, as they are commonly known, to thank for helping me learn the practice of equine sports massage therapy. One of my favorite patients was Cole (racing name “Freeze the Win”), a big, beautiful bay OTTB, residing at the Norco headquarters of Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue. When I first began massaging Cole, he was a mass of knots and creaky joints, and he was skittish about having certain parts of his body touched, not unusual for horses that have been through what he experienced.

The Humane Society of the USA reports that there are currently nearly 10 million horses in the United States. While that might seem like an enormous number, it’s actually down by many millions from the early part of the 20th Century, when horses were used for agriculture, transportation, and mail delivery. By the time World War I had ended in 1918, the need for war horses had abated, and horses were rapidly being replaced by motor vehicles, thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line.

Horses had been a part of American culture for centuries, and in addition to the utilitarian jobs above, they participated in rodeos, racing, and pleasure riding, all of which are still popular today. But the discrepancy between the number of horses in the US and the number actually needed or wanted grew after World War II, and this has created a huge new horrifying business: horse slaughter.

Killing horses for meat and other uses has gone on for thousands of years worldwide, but the second half of the 20th Century saw a rise in industrial slaughter, the mechanization of the slaughter system, and an increase in the slaughter of unwanted American horses that would have previously been reabsorbed into the equine population or humanely euthanized. Today, somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 American horses are slaughtered annually.

Horse slaughter has become a contentious issue in the equestrian world, with complicated politics that touch on economic, cultural, and emotional philosophies. For the equation to shift in favor of eliminating slaughter completely, a global sea change has to occur, and there are anti-slaughter advocates working valiantly today to get momentum going. A keystone in ending horse slaughter is to first stop American horses from entering into the system, which can seem like a Sisyphean task.


The Pro-Slaughter Argument

horses-rescue-horse-in-fieldThose who argue in favor of horse slaughter have a number of reasons why they believe it should continue. First, there is the financial strain of maintaining unwanted horses, particularly during the current economic recession. Humane euthanasia and disposal of a horse costs in the hundreds of dollars, but unwanted horses can be sold to kill buyers, who will in turn sell them to slaughterhouses by the pound to satisfy a demand for horse meat in Europe and Asia. (The sale of horse meat for human and pet food in the United States was curtailed in the mid 20th Century, partly to protect beef cattle ranchers.)

Pro-slaughter people also see horses as livestock, not companion animals, and don’t believe they should be treated differently than cattle or pigs, for example. In fact, many pro-slaughter individuals fear that if horse slaughter is forbidden, it will pave the way for the elimination of other meat slaughter, affecting the beef and pork industries.

The cattle and ranching industries have often sided with the pro-slaughter camp, citing the rationales above, as well as their dislike of government intervention in general. This attitude is entwined with western and cowboy culture and has found its way to lobbyists in Washington DC, not just to support the continuation of horse slaughter but to encourage the rounding up of wild horses on Bureau of Land Management territory and the elimination of wild wolves in many Rocky Mountain and western states.

The Other Side of the Slaughter Story

horses-close-up-of-horse-standing-in-field-with-red-barnAdvocates against horse slaughter argue that the present methods used to transport and kill horses for meat are inhumane. Before going to slaughter, horses are rounded up in large groups and transported on trucks originally designed for cattle, not for horses with their higher centers of gravity. The horses often travel long distances, standing without breaks, food, or water. They arrive terrified and frequently injured, and some horses even die en route to the slaughterhouses. No exception is made for pregnant mares or foals.

Horses are typically killed using the same methods for cattle, but due to the anatomy of their heads and necks, many animals are merely stunned, not killed instantly and remain alive while they are bled out or dismembered.

The American horses that are sent to slaughter were not raised as meat animals, and thus, they have not been cared for as such throughout their lifetimes. The muscles and organs of these horses may contain pain and performance-enhancing drugs that should not be consumed by humans, but no veterinary records accompany the horses when they are first auctioned off to the kill buyers.

The same lack of documentation for drug history has allowed horses that should never have been sent to slaughter to slip through the cracks, most famously, Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, and Exceller, the only horse to beat two Triple Crown winners in the same race.

Reasons for Unwanted Horses Today

It might seem incomprehensible that so many thousands of horses can wind up in a Mexican or Canadian abattoir (while the horses come from the US, no legal slaughtering currently takes place on US soil). But there are a host of reasons why unwanted horses find their way to the kill pens:

  • lack of money for care
  • property loss due to financial crisis
  • greed
  • death of an owner or caretaker
  • continued automation of farming and ranching
  • overbreeding
  • neglect
  • scarcity of available options, including rescue
  • physical demand on recreational and vocational horses resulting in irreparable injuries and bodily wear (rodeo horses, rental horses, etc.)
  • irresponsible, capricious, and callous horse ownership


Race Horse Slaughter

Perhaps no source for slaughtered horses has come under more fire than the sport of horse racing. While most people are familiar with upscale racing venues like Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, and other venerable tracks like Del Mar and Belmont, they probably don’t know that horse racing has a hierarchy similar to baseball in the United States. Underneath the premier Thoroughbred race courses like those above, are bush tracks (AKA fair tracks) and below those, mostly unregulated tracks for quarter horse and match racing.

Horses that don’t perform well in the most prestigious races at the upper track levels can fall down the pyramid, until they are sold in a claiming race or sent to run at the small regional tracks. If they still fail to make money, they can wind up in the slaughterhouses. Sometimes, even horses that had stellar careers in their youths, making thousands of dollars for their owners, end up at the kill pens. While some tracks have no-slaughter policies, the chaotic environment of constant change and shifting personnel allow for both mistakes and nefarious activity that results in horses being slaughtered instead of finding alternative careers.

According to the Jockey Club, which has since 1894 had the responsibility of overseeing The American Stud Book for Thoroughbred horses, the US foal crop has diminished over the last decade to just over 20,000 newborns in 2015. However, roughly 10 percent of the US Thoroughbred population is still sent to slaughter each year, down from nearly 20 percent five years ago, only because of the reduced foal crop size. Given that US purses (the amount paid out to top finishers at race tracks) have remained above $1 billion per year for over a decade and that the average young Thoroughbred auction price is above $60,000, something is amiss.


Off-Track Horse Rescue

Horse rescue organizations help to fill the gap between the United States horse census and the volume of unwanted horses. Particularly visible are off-track Thoroughbred rescue groups, which usually attempt to either foster horses directly from the track or buy them at auction by outbidding kill buyers. The rescued horses are then taken to a rehab facility, where their health is assessed, injuries are repaired, and they are adopted out to new homes, usually for pleasure riding or amateur competition in jumping and dressage.


Thoroughbred race horses are tattooed along the gum line with a unique registry number, and they can often therefore be identified when they are purchased at auction. Even though it is heartbreaking to see horses that have had years of success at the track wind up in a kill pen, it is overwhelmingly gratifying to rescuers to see them restored to their former glory over time and sent to live out their days with a loving owner.

Many of the alarming statistics above were shared with me by Caroline Betts, founder and director of Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue (SCTR), one of the nation’s top organizations to help rehome race horses. Having worked on some of Caroline’s horses as an equine massage therapist, I can attest firsthand to the amount of work it takes to rehabilitate an ex race horse and that she gets consistently excellent results at her Norco headquarters and nearby satellite facilities, witnessing many happy-ever-after scenarios.

Betts is quick to attribute much of her recent success to two things: improved awareness of the need for Thoroughbred aftercare within the racing world and the advent of social media. The Jockey Club now administers the TAA or Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, which offers accreditation to appropriate off-track Thoroughbred rescues and assists with fundraising through initiatives like donation matching. Programs like the TAA have helped secure a stable financial base for nonprofits like SCTR, without which existence as a charity can be harrowing and for which Caroline Betts is eternally grateful.



 The Effects of Social Media on Animal Rescue

“The TAA would have been unthinkable 10 years ago,” Betts said. But now with the ability to share the plight of horses internationally via social media, horse slaughter and the need for alternatives are finally getting the spotlight they deserve. What used to be a dark secret about the track has been brought to light, and more solutions are being proffered as a result from associations like the TAA as well as race horse breeders and trainers.

Betts has stepped up SCTR’s Facebook and Twitter presence, focusing on the positive outcomes the organization achieves. “People don’t go to websites anymore,” she remarked. They want even quicker ways to get information. So, she turned to social media platforms to spread the word about new adoptable horses and fundraising events, which has helped change racing fans into contributors and volunteers.

There’s a downside to being so heavily involved in animal rescue, though, and it’s made even more pronounced by the plethora of animal charities that are likewise pleading their cases on social media. “Compassion fatigue,” a sort of PTSD among animal welfare workers, can cause anxiety, stress, and ultimately, even apathy from an overload of grizzly information and the feeling of there never being enough help for all the animals in need.

Gender Imbalance in Animal Welfare Charities

Interestingly, compassion fatigue in animal rescue is largely a female problem. This is because statistically, the bulk of animal welfare volunteers are women. Why aren’t there more men involved in animal charities and horse rescue? Finding the answer to that question is a relatively new area of research, and it appears there are multiple possible factors affecting the fact that it’s the distaff side looking after needy animals. Some theories recently postulated include:

  • Women have historically championed animal welfare since the 19th Century, when only men worked outside the home, and women took care of family pets and had time for charity work.
  • Men are typically not socialized to demonstrate compassion in general in the ways women are. Statistically males score lower on “attitude towards animals” tests, meaning they feel less connection to them than females.
  • Participation in equestrian activities overall is overwhelmingly female (the male-dominated fields of Thoroughbred racing and Standardbred harness racing notwithstanding).
  • There is a societal trend that some people call “livestock mentality,” whereby men reduce women to the level of meat, just like animals, causing women to therefore identify more with non-humans.
  • Men and women have been shown to react differently to stress at neurological and hormonal levels. What bothers women about animal suffering may cause them to act directly and provide care, while men may be more likely to open their wallets, for example, to assuage feelings of unease.


The Politics of Changing Horse Slaughter in America

That it is largely women who are trying to make a change by performing horse rescue and advocating against slaughter can be problematic in Washington, where the good ol’ boy network still reigns supreme. Horse slaughter for human consumption is not technically illegal in the United States, but it is a de facto illegal activity because of an amendment added to the Federal budget every year that defunds required USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) inspection of horse slaughter plants.

“That defunding amendment is included by the sheer willpower of advocates in Washington,” said SCTR’s Caroline Betts. There is a fear each year that the amendment won’t go through, and years of progress made against horse slaughter could be undone in minutes.

Washington DC is designed to resist change, according to Alex Brown, educator and author of Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and His Legacy, about the tragic Kentucky Derby winner who shattered his leg in the Preakness Stakes and eventually succumbed to laminitis.  Brown, who is personally against horse slaughter, has laid out a balanced overview of the horse slaughter issue in America in an informative series of Youtube videos.

It would be easy to give up and assume the horse slaughter situation is never going to go away. But progress is being made and it may just be the perfect time to capitalize on it. Within the last year, the European Union has ceased to accept horse meat from Mexico, due to safety concerns about quality standards and the aforementioned drugs that find their way into the meat. Caroline Betts believes this has created a slight decrease in the demand for slaughter, and perhaps the job of pushing that perpetual stone up the hill just got a tiny bit easier. Ideally, one day the need for slaughter will disappear altogether.

Collective efforts on the parts of breeders, trainers, and owners are starting to have an effect with programs like the TAA. The current presidential race is galvanizing both female politicians and female donors who could tip the scales in favor of equine advocacy in Washington. Meanwhile, horse rescue workers continue their challenge of both providing quality aftercare for retired equines and chipping away at the nation’s horse slaughter problem. If Alex Brown has anything to say about it, they will succeed. As he wrote at the end of his video series, “Bad people exploit, good people overcome.”

Cole went on to love his equine massage sessions. A Jolly Ball toy I left for him would mysteriously move around his paddock in the absence of any humans, and we were thrilled to imagine him playing in secret. He became well enough to undergo training several days a week, and had begun working under saddle to go beyond the basic stop-and-go lessons Thoroughbreds get at the racetrack. A routine exam, however, uncovered a heart murmur, and a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation, an arrhythmia that humans can also develop, was made. It was decided that Cole should cease being ridden to protect him and any riders from a sudden cardiac event. Cole now lives in retirement at the Oak Hills family horse property that functions as a boarding stable for Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue. Other than his arrhythmia, Cole is healthy, and best of all, free and happy.


Cole with Caroline Betts, Director of SCTR. Image credit: SCTR and Laurie Taylor, TMA Photography

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