The Fate of Horses: a Lesson in Unintended Consequences

Minnesota Public Radio Commentary

December 27, 2011 - By Karin Winegar

The grave isn't as big as you'd think, given the size of the animal.  The neighbor with his backhoe can scoop it out in 10 or 20 minutes if the ground isn't frozen yet, and that's when I must make the decision: Will this horse make it through the winter? Or is it better to call the veterinarian to bring the little violet box of pentobarbital?

I make the call while my horse can still walk to a patch of ground away from fences and buildings, where I hug his neck and kiss his forehead before the wordless, soundless moment of the injection when the vet says "stand back" and the great warm body drops over.  And the animal I have loved and ridden for 20 or 30 years is severed from me.

Most horses are not buried after a long life and happy old age, however.  So horse owners look this issue in the face, in its big moist brown eyes, often.

In 2005, Congress passed a rider to the USDA appropriations bill banning funds for federal inspection of horses being trucked to slaughter plants.  That put the last two U.S. plants — Belgian-owned facilities in Illinois and Texas — out of business.  Congress meant well; animal lovers and the Humane Society, which lobbied for the measure, meant well.  But rescues are overrun, horses are abandoned to starve, and slaughter is outsourced.  Last year, 138,000 American horses were trucked to plants in Mexico and Canada, according to the Government Accounting Office.  The number being slaughtered was about the same as before the ban.

"The horses are traveling farther to meet the same end ... in foreign slaughtering facilities where U.S. humane slaughtering protections do not apply," the report states.

So last month, Congress reinstated the funding for inspections.  Now, so-called unwanted horses may again be slaughtered in the United States and their meat shipped to countries that are no more squeamish about eating horse than eating chicken.

Most of us who own horses, and those who do not but have seen "Cavalia" or are familiar with "Warhorse" or "Secretariat" or "Seabiscuit" or "Black Beauty", want horses to have good homes forever.  My horses will, but most do not.

Too many are foaled with the best of intentions but something — job loss, farm foreclosure, illness, the price of hay — intervenes.  Too many horses are foaled because the owner hopes to profit from them at the track; then a fractured sesamoid or bowed tendon or lack of speed sends them to auction, where the slaughter buyers pay by the pound.  Too many horses are born because an owner didn't geld that colt soon enough and ran him with the mares. Too many foals are sent to slaughter because they were only created to keep a mare on a urine line producing estrogen-rich urine for Premarin, a drug prescribed to postmenopausal women.  Too many horses are born because when a mare is not in foal she's called "open" and somebody thinks she should be "full" because he might make a buck.  And he did, too — maybe not at the reining championships, but ultimately because she went to auction by the pound.

Many are "unwanted" because their owners didn't learn to ride well enough or got frightened or decided a horse, pony, mule or donkey was too much work, time, manure and money, or because the kids outgrew it.

For some Americans, horses are livestock that should be useful before and after death.  For others, not taking lifelong care of our horses is a bit like idolizing Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Benji and Marley while allowing their kin to starve and die.  We do that, too: Roughly 4 million a year are euthanized in animal shelters (60 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats) because there are no homes for them all.

But we are responsible for what we have tamed.  There's the good boy I rode through the pine forests and swam in the pond and taught to side pass, who nibbled apples and carrots from my hands, who is losing weight now no matter how much senior horse feed I pour for him, whose teeth are mostly gone, who stumbles and falls at times, whose spine and ribs are daily more visible, whom I no longer ride.  So I make the call.