Horse Slaughter/Animal Cruelty

She Started on a Track—And Finished on a Plate!
By Susan Wagner

Satya - May 1999

The crowds of people who attend horse races probably have no idea what the beautiful and well-trained horses competing go through in order to compete, and where most of them end up. While the majority of Americans consider horses to be companion and recreational animals, most are still unaware that horses are indiscriminately bred to produce champions. Those breeding practices are what leads to the pain, suffering and death of thousands of horses every year.

The majority of the 100,000 to 200,000 U.S.-bred horses who are slaughtered each year for human consumption in this country and in Canada is the unwanted surplus from the horse industry. Whether they be race, show, camp, Amish work or carriage horses, barren broodmares, polo ponies, or lame animals from ranches, riding academies or school riding programs, equines who cannot “perform” are the ones who make up the greatest number of U.S.-bred horses slaughtered every year. A large majority of them are racehorses, including thoroughbreds, standardbreds, quarter horses and Arabians.

The meat from these unwanted horses is then exported from Canada and the U.S. to Europe and Japan for human consumption. You cannot talk about horses in sport without mentioning the slaughter industry. Slaughter is the common denominator of every aspect of the horse business. It is also an industry that has operated in virtual secrecy until very recently. It is an industry that the majority of Americans deplore.

According to one former slaughterhouse manager, it is the meat from young, healthy thoroughbreds and standardbreds which is the most desirable. This is because the meat is tender. Older horses and large Amish work and draft horses have much tougher meat that is less expensive and usually ground into hamburgers. Horse meat is much pricier than beef, with some cuts selling for between $15 and $25 a pound.

On the Block

Just last month, I was informed that a “truckload of thoroughbreds” are hauled from Penn National Racetrack in Pennsylvania to the slaughter auction in New Holland every week! In my opinion, the weekly slaughter auction in New Holland is one of the worst in the nation. Located in the heart of Amish country in Lancaster County, New Holland auctions 300 to 500 every week. I’ve also been aware for years of an Amish horse trader known as “the Meat Man,” who makes two stops at Freehold Raceway (a standardbred track in New Jersey) every week to cart off the unwanted and injured harness horses to auction. Many of these horses are no more than two or three years old.

During one of my visits to New Holland, I saw an injured thoroughbred in a secluded back pen. Sources told me that he was later sold to slaughter and transported to Bel-Tex, the largest equine slaughter plant in the country, located in Fort Worth. He was shipped with a broken leg in a double-decker cattle trailer (which are illegal in many states, including New York, for the transportation of horses). Sometimes it takes as long as three days for slaughterbound horses to travel to their destinations, during which time they are often cramped into tight quarters and have to go for days without food, water or rest. On one occasion, we purchased a crippled yearling colt who was down (non-weight bearing) in one of the “kill pens” (large pens at the auctions designated for individual killer buyers or middlemen for the slaughter plants where they stockpile their horses). It was sickening to see this young horse being trampled by the other horses. Luckily, we were able to buy and rescue him. He surely would have never survived a trip to the slaughterhouse. Sadly, he was in such bad condition that we had to put him down, but at least he had a dignified death free of pain and suffering. The transportation of horses to plants is just as horrifying as the actual slaughter itself. Sadly, the inadequate federal bill passed in 1996 (the Agricultural Market Transition Act, which was opposed by 16 groups in the animal rights and protection movement), did nothing to improve the inhumane conditions of these animals.

Not Dog Food

Many Americans believe that some horse meat is used in dog food. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In March, a U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian revealed that virtually no horse meat is being used in pet food. It’s just too expensive and too much in demand overseas. (It should be noted, however, that one horse slaughterhouse in Nebraska does produce a five-pound loaf of frozen horsemeat that is sold to zoos and sanctuaries which house large cats and other carnivores.)

Ten years ago, there were as many as fourteen equine slaughterhouses in the United States and five in Canada. Today, there are five left in this country (two in Texas, one in Nebraska, Illinois and Oregon) and four in Canada. The U.S. ships about half of the horses slaughtered annually in Canada across the border to that country, when the horses are still alive.

Media exposure by venues ranging from The Baltimore Evening Sun to Hard Copy have resulted in greater public awareness of the horse slaughter industry and has contributed to the decrease in the number of horses slaughtered in this country. In the early 1990s, it was estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 thoroughbreds alone were slaughtered. Today, that number has significantly decreased, but it is still alarmingly high. Rescue groups, such as Equine Advocates, do what we can to keep up with the unending stream of racehorses who need homes, but we cannot possibly provide home for all the thousands of horses who need them. There are other problems as well. Racehorses, particularly thoroughbreds, are often high-strung and have to be completely retrained and/or rehabilitated for them to be placed as pets. Many need to be turned out (put out to pasture) for a year or more in order to recuperate from injuries sustained during racing and rigorous training. Also, they need time to get the drugs out of their system.

Three New England thoroughbreds we adopted out last year all needed extensive rehabilitation. Two had severe foot and hoof problems, while the other had a serious neck injury. While we were extremely grateful their respective owners had decided to donate them to us rather than sell them for meat at a slaughter auction, it was painfully clear that once they could no longer race, their care and maintenance collapsed. All were thin and suffering neglect.

In the Starting Gate

One former quarter horse jockey (who now races thoroughbreds) told me a story I shall never forget. He said that he had been sitting on his mount in the starting gate waiting for a race to begin, when he saw something like steam coming from the horses back and smelled a putrid medicinal odor. Suddenly, the horse just dropped dead beneath him. The horse had been drugged to such an extent that he had suffered a massive heart attack.

The great filly, Ruffian, was one of the most successful and beautiful thoroughbred racehorses ever. She remained undefeated until one day in 1995 when she was forced to compete in a match race (a two-horse race where horses have to run at high speed for the entire race). She broke down while in the lead and had to be humanely destroyed. It was one of the worst examples of greed and avarice in the history of racing. Thousands of horses, some famous and some not, have broken down since then. In an article in the New York Times, one trainer commented on the increased number of breakdowns in racing suggesting, “maybe horses [are] reaching the limit of what their structures could support. Something in the skeleton gives. Maybe we’ve bred them to the brink.”

I have painted a very gloomy picture of horses used in sport. There is, however, a very bright light at the end of the tunnel. This past November, California voters passed a state initiative banning horse slaughter. It prohibits any horse from being bred, sold or transported from the state for the purpose of slaughter. The California racing industry supported this historic initiative. This is a very promising step. If horse slaughter becomes illegal across the country, as it should, and as the majority of Americans oppose the practice, horse meat will no longer have any value. It will become less practical to over breed horses, knowing the industry will no longer be able to discard its unwanted horses quickly for a profit.

This legislation would affect every aspect of the horse industry in a positive way. We can already see a difference in the racing industry where horse rescue is becoming the politically correct thing to do. However, education and public awareness are still the most important factors in stopping the abuse and exploitation of horses in all areas, particularly in sport. We must always keep in mind that most Americans regard horses as companion animals, just like dogs and cats. Consequently, we must demand that they be accorded the same right as other pets are given, including a dignified death through humane euthanasia. Horses give so much. They are a part of our history and culture. We owe it to them to stop the abuse and slaughter.

Susan Wagner is the president and founder of Equine Advocates, Inc., a national non-profit equine protection organization based in New York. Its mission is to rescue, protect and prevent the abuse of equines through education, investigation, rescue operations, and the dissemination of information to the public. For more information – 

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