Excerpt from August 2012 Desert Exposure article, “Led to Slaughter” by Laurie Ford.

The moment Zippy, number 25 at Harkers Horse Auction, settled his silky white nose on my mother’s shoulder and nickered softly, we knew that he was coming home with us. What we didn’t know was that as a two-year-old quarter horse with no skills, Zippy fit the perfect profile of a slaughter horse and our quick decision most likely saved his life. It was 1995, and although the slaughtering of horses for human consumption was legal in the US, the concept was still surreal to me. This perception was to change over the next two decades as Zippy and two other horses at risk for slaughter, Carl and Mommy, became a part of my life.

“Mommy,” with the brand of a Native American tribe on her rump. Her wild past, skittish behavior, and the financial woes of her owner made Mommy the perfect candidate for slaughter. (Photo: Laurie Ford)

“Mommy,” with the brand of a Native American tribe on her rump. Her wild past, skittish behavior, and the financial woes of her owner made Mommy the perfect candidate for slaughter. (Photo: Laurie Ford)

On that brisk fall day the auction, referred to by humane slaughter expert Temple Grandin as “a used car lot,” was full of horses of every breed, size and age that owners were trying to unload before winter arrived. Good riding horses were still in demand and horses like Zippy were not. In the far corner of the sale barn were corrals full of other undesirable horses: geriatrics that had outlived their usefulness, injured horses that didn’t warrant repair and the emaciated who stood motionless in a corner, their heads sunk low to the ground as if the weight was too much to bear. These were the souls given a sympathetic glance, accompanied by a mumbled “poor thing” as onlookers quickly moved on to escape the pathetic sight. These horses’ chances of being bought by anyone other than the “kill buyers” — people who frequented auctions all over the country to fulfill contractual obligations with the slaughter plants — were slim to none.

Despite the cessation of federally funded horsemeat inspections in 2006, and the subsequent closure of the country’s last three equine slaughterhouses, US horses continue to be transported across the borders for slaughter. Numerous bills have been introduced to Congress in an attempt to ban the sale, transportation and slaughter of horses for human consumption; all have been unsuccessful. The most recent, The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011, was trapped in the House Committee on Agriculture on the day that the door to horse slaughter in the US was quietly reopened last year.

On Nov. 18, 2011, President Obama signed into law a bill that reinstated the federal funding of plant inspections and restored the American horse slaughter industry.

This spring, plans to slaughter horses in Roswell, NM, by Valley Meat Co. were uncovered in an investigation by Front Range Equine Rescue, a Colorado-based organization. The company has applied with the US Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service for inspection of the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

Reopening the door to slaughter will revive the salvage market for unwanted horses in the US and bring back the lucrative business of selling and buying horses for human consumption. It will restore the demand for lower-priced horses and accommodate the needs of indiscriminate and irresponsible horse breeders. While this may eliminate pain and suffering for some animals, a large percentage, close to 90%, are basically healthy and still have years of service and loyal companionship to offer.

While the majority of horses currently being slaughtered supply a foreign demand, this market will face uncertainty in the near future when the European Commission imposes more stringent regulations on horsemeat. At present, sworn statements are the primary source of verification that slaughter horses are drug-free—dubious proof considering that most horses in the US have consumed many of the prohibited drugs, including wormers and antibiotics, at some point in their lifetimes. Phenylbutazone (“bute”), an equine aspirin, is routinely given to racehorses and other performance horses, as part of their daily regime to combat pain and sore muscles.

While the horse-slaughter industry will continue to fluctuate, some factors in the horse world will never change. Horses will continue to become debilitated with old age and crippling injuries. Economic woes will persist and result in horses being abandoned, neglected and plagued with pain and suffering. (While at one time these were the horses that made up the “unwanted” populous that fed the slaughter pipeline, a new subset that has evolved over time — young and healthy horses — is also at risk.) And, regardless whether slaughter takes place in the US or in bordering countries, horse auctions will continue to be the primary clearinghouse for many of these horses and the principle source supplying slaughter plants with horsemeat.

Even as far back as 1995, overbreeding was cited as one of the major contributing factors to the growing numbers of unwanted horses that went to slaughter. While backyard breeders bore the brunt of the blame, the horse industry itself was guilty of indiscriminate breeding in a continual quest to create the ideal performance or race horse.

As a two-year-old quarter horse with no skills, Zippy fit the perfect profile of a slaughter horse.

As a two-year-old quarter horse with no skills, Zippy fit the perfect profile of a slaughter horse.

Zippy was registered with the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), the largest breed registry in the country. But due to flaws in his conformation he was not up to industry standards and was labeled as unwanted excess stock. He was the offspring of the AQHA sire Impressive, whose bloodlines pass on a genetic defect called HYYP, a disease of the muscle that can result in paralysis. Despite the risk of this inherited disease, descendants of this horse continue to be bred due to his exceptional performance. While the industry claimed to “actively protect the welfare of the horse,” quarter horses were contributing the highest percentage of horses to slaughter.

Excessive overbreeding was a common practice in the horseracing industry as well. An estimated 50,000 thoroughbred and standardbred foals are born each year in hopes that one will become the next Triple Crown or Hamiltonian winner. Of these foals, fewer than 30% will ever hear the start bell of a race, and fewer than 50 will ever win anything close to these noteworthy races. The cheering fans in grandstands at racetracks all over the country remain oblivious to the fact that the result of a race not only determined the payout on their bets, but the status of the horse’s life as well. Two-thirds of the horses whose racing careers have ended are rewarded for their efforts with slaughter, abandonment or euthanizing, and the plight of the foals that never even made it to the track is just as dismal.

Images of wild-spirited mustangs were galloping across the TV screen and through the pages of National Geographic during the 1990s, but in reality, efforts were being made to rein in the growing numbers of these historical symbols of the west. No longer always viewed with awe and respect, these free-roaming horses were considered a growing problem decimating rangeland and competing with livestock for precious resources. In an attempt to manage herd sizes, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would annually gather excess horses and burros to place in holding facilities or offer for public adoption. A maximum of four animals could be adopted at a time with the simple pledge that they would never be sold for slaughter. Although the purpose of the 1971 Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burro Act was to protect the animals, it was still not considered a crime if the adopter later reneged on this vow and sold the horse for slaughter.

In 1995 it was even discovered that the BLM had been channeling hundreds of horses into the slaughter pipeline through employee adoptions. Although such activity ceased after a thorough investigation, these western icons continued to fall through the cracks to be slaughtered for human consumption.

Zippy, Carl and Mommy, all different breeds of horses with dissimilar backgrounds, had shared one common factor: They all fit the profile of the slaughter horse. In the time it took you to read this article, hundreds of horses were stunned and slaughtered, or set en route to meet the same fate. So far this year we know that 46,989 horses have been exported to Mexico alone for this purpose — almost a 50% increase from last year. Over 6,000 horses also crossed the border under other pretenses. What we don’t know and will never be able to quantify is the extent of pain and suffering these horses were subjected to in the process, and if it will improve, or worsen, in the future.

Read the full article here.