You don’t have to be an equestrian to think horse slaughter is cruel.
To Americans, horses aren’t like cows and pigs. They aren’t something we associate with cowboys and the wild west, not Sunday morning breakfast. At the same time, they’re livestock. Livestock that we can ride and can become our best friends. But livestock all the same.
When you grow up in the horse world, it’s especially hard to think about using horses for food. But banning slaughter doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands of unwanted horses still out there, so it’s something we have to talk about.
Here, we show you both sides of slaughter and make it a little easier to understand.
Surprisingly, horse slaughter isn’t actually against the law in the United States. Instead, the slaughter industry can’t function because of a winding budget law. A budget law most recently signed by President Obama in 2014 blocks funding for horse slaughterhouse inspections. Without inspections, there can’t be slaughterhouses.
That doesn’t mean horses aren’t bought in the U.S. and sent to Canada and Mexico where slaughter is legal. About 137,000 slaughter-bound horses still make it over the border every year, according to the ASPCA. They often go without food or water before meeting their end in a slaughterhouse.
Of course, there’s plenty of cruelty in the rest of the meat industry. But beef, pork and other meat operations are massive, and there are a lot more inspections and regulations that go into them. And there are millions of people who depend on the meat industry for meals or their jobs. Horse slaughter is a much smaller problem to tackle.
So it’s no surprise that horse slaughter bans have reached a national stage. In 2015, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced the John Rainey Memorial Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act to Congress. If passed, the bill would officially make “equine (horses and other members of the equidae family) parts to be an unsafe food additive or animal drug,” meaning horse meat can’t even be used in dog food. It would also ban the shipment of horses for slaughter both inside of the U.S. and over its borders. But since its introduction, the bill was transferred to its appropriate committee and hasn’t resurfaced.
This bill brings up a big concern that many anti-slaughter advocates use as their justification. Is horse meat even safe for people — or animals — to eat?
A scoop of bute, another of colic guard, and something for hoof growth every day. We know about all the supplements they give their horses. They’re perfectly safe while horses are alive, but there’s no research into how these supplements would affect horse meat. We also know about the not-so-safe drugs that some people give their horses. Horses aren’t bred and regulated for consumption, so there’s no way to know what horse is in that dog food, or what drugs could’ve been in it.
Often, slaughter-bound horses aren’t actually unwanted, according to the Humane Society. They’re sent to auctions and have a chance of being bought by sanctuaries and other rehoming efforts, but kill buyers outbid those who would take a horse in. Rescues don’t have huge budgets, so it doesn’t take long before they lose out to high bidders.
There’s still an obvious reality: no matter what we do, there’s no way we can find homes for every unwanted horse. Some will still end up in the hands of kill buyers.
But legalizing slaughter itself would be a slippery slope. It could lead to a culture where slaughter is normalized, and where it’s easy to dispose of an unwanted horse. This in turn could lead to breeders who don’t worry about the quality of the horses they’re turning out, backyard owners breeding a foal because it’s cute, and horse associations unwilling to regulate breeding. Send them to auction. Problem solved.
Arguing for the legalization of slaughter isn’t easy. Let’s just start by saying no one wants innocent horses killed. But it’s a potential solution to a big problem, a necessary evil that could help end overpopulation.
There’s no denying the problem of unwanted horses. The most recent estimate from the Unwanted Horse Coalition, approximated in 2007, says about 117,000 horses go unwanted every year. The Morris Animal Foundation thinks it’s impossible to even guess the number of unwanted horses in the U.S.
Even without an estimate, equine cruelty and unwanted horses are no secret. Videos of abused horses who get cleaned up and now live as adored pets circulate Facebook. But those success stories don’t show the whole picture.
Those horses are the lucky ones. Because most unwanted horses aren’t the multimillion-dollar Grand Prix winners everyone dreams of owning, or even something that could win at a 4-H show. They’re bred in backyards by someone who wanted cute foals, but they’ve since grown into untamed pasture ornaments. They’ve suffered an injury or illness and need significant rehabilitation. They grow old and can’t perform their old job anymore. And when their owner falls on hard times or just doesn’t want to keep them, they become unwanted.
As much as the Humane Society wants to save every horse, they only have two sanctuaries that can hold a total of 900 horses, according to the Morris Animal Foundation.
No sanctuaries have the funding and space to take in every unwanted horses. And getting them into sanctuaries shouldn’t even be the goal. We should focus on finding permanent homes for rescue horses — or stopping the flow of unwanted horses in the first place.
Solving that problem takes more than breed registries or federal laws. It takes a culture shift. After all, it would be impossible to enforce a breeding ban on horses. There are simply too many animals, and there’s not enough funding for protecting the ones who are already alive. Breed registries are supposed to weed out and discourage breeding lower-quality horses, but about 75 percent of unwanted horses are actually registered, according to the Morris Animal Foundation.
If we really want to end slaughter, it’s up to us to shift how people think about breeding. Horses need to be held to a higher standard before they’re bred. Think long and hard about breeding your favorite lesson horse or open-show winner. Think about what would happen to that horse if you couldn’t care for it anymore. Is it of high enough quality that it would definitely find a new home? Or could it easily become unwanted?
Instead of breeding a less-than-perfect horse, take a look at your local sanctuary or what’s for sale in your area. You could save an already-living horse from slaughter, and you don’t have to deal with the risk of breeding a new animal that isn’t what you wanted.
Because no equestrian wants to see horses slaughtered. But to end slaughter, we first have to change the culture that makes it necessary.