From the Bay to the Blue Ridge, To the Blue Ridge

Tackling a Touchy Issue: Too Many Horses

By Julie Reardon

“How can you call yourself a horse lover and be in favor of killing horses for food?” This is a typical reaction that I and other horsemen in the Blue Ridge get when asked why we’re not outraged that horses are still being slaughtered for food. The Blue Ridge Mountains did not ring with roars of outrage, nor did hunt country residents lock arms and march en masse across the river when President Obama quietly signed into law the bill that lifted the U.S. Ban on domestic horse slaughter in 2011, but 11 years later, there are still no places in this country that will process horses so those sent to slaughter are trucked to Mexico or Canada. Often a lengthy and cruel trip, to processing plants without the humane safeguards and regulations that this country requires.

An emotion-fraught topic for horse lovers, horse slaughter was once an option, albeit not a popular one, for owners of animals that could not otherwise be rehomed.  Like the general public, Virginia’s horsemen and women are squeamish about the thought of eating horses for food, but unlike those that have never lived with and cared for them, most tend to take a more pragmatic view on what’s viewed as a necessary evil.  A dead horse is like the 800-pound gorilla in the room—it’s there, but no one wants to look or even acknowledge how difficult it is to deal with. A dead horse is large, and it’s not easy to move.  Many places forbid burying them, most landfills will not take them, and cremation is expensive and not readily available. Horsemen predicted the disastrous unintended consequences when the ban on slaughter went in force in 2006.

By 2007, the last three slaughterhouses that processed horses in the U.S. closed their doors. Without that outlet, an already depressed horse market plummeted even more. Coinciding with the recession and massive job loss, there was a steep increase in cases of abandoned, starving and neglected horses.  Many who otherwise would’ve sold horses they couldn’t afford, found no market for them and could no longer feed, care for or even dispose of them.  Just as the problem seemed to be improving, the pandemic caused more unwanted horses and more economic woes. Feed costs, especially hay and grain, have skyrocketed over the past 3 years, taxing both owners and rescue organizations that historically cared for unwanted horses.  While there are bright spots such as the racing Thoroughbred industry’s commitment to retired runners, other rescue groups became overwhelmed; and there simply aren’t enough of the good ones to keep pace with the burgeoning surplus of unwanted horses. Scammers cashing in on an emotional issue have proliferated, diverting funds to themselves instead of helping the most vulnerable animals in need.

Horses generally live twice as long as dogs or cats; most live to 25 or 30 years, some as long as 40 years. And euthanizing a horse is not cheap—it can cost upwards of $2,000. Someone who cannot afford to feed a horse or pay the vet bills on a gravely ill one, likely cannot even afford to have it humanely put down. A vet visit for lethal injection costs hundreds of dollars and rendering plants, if you can find those that still accept them, charge similar fees to pick them up. Landfills won’t take them. Hiring a backhoe to dig a large enough hole costs $500 or more; and that’s if you own the land and are even allowed to bury a horse on it.  Carcasses that contain drugs and chemicals for treatment of illness and/or lethal injection can contaminate groundwater, and many locales forbid any livestock burial at all.

Although horsemeat was never considered table fare in this country, horses were routinely slaughtered for export abroad and for the pet food industry. Congress never banned slaughter outright, but mandated USDA inspections of facilities that slaughtered them for food in 1996. Ten years later, funding for the inspections was withdrawn. Without inspections, the meat couldn’t be sold, so the industry died, to the cheers of the animal rights lobby that thought they were helping  horses by ending what they viewed as a barbaric practice. In truth, over 100,000 U.S. horses annually were still slaughtered for food, but they now had to be trucked out of the country, enduring grueling trips and a final end out of the reach of U.S. laws for humane dispatch.

Even radical animal rights lobbies such as the Humane Society of the U.S. and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals agreed the slaughter ban had backfired. “To reduce suffering, there should be a ban on the export of live horses in the U.S., even if that means opening slaughter houses in the U.S. again,” said PETA spokesperson David Perle. However, even banning export for slaughter as well as slaughter itself, does nothing to solve the problem of what to do with all the unwanted horses. Despite lifting of the ban, there are no plants that slaughter horses in the U.S. currently in operation, and funding for the needed inspectors is unlikely.

In Loudoun County, the Equine Rescue League is the local rescue that does its best to save and rehome abandoned and unwanted horses; it’s been in operation for 32 years. Originally on a farm east of Leesburg, it moved operations northwest to Lovettsville. “My mother, Patricia Rogers, started it in 1990,” explains operator Cheryl Rogers, and said they’ve stayed busy and at capacity most of those years. The ERL was busy this fall with a big intake of three groups of horses whose owners passed away. “Only one had any kind of provisions for taking care of them,” said Rogers. One was a group of 17 beautiful purebred Morgan horses, and the ERL has successfully placed all but 4 of them since taking them in. But even she admits that’s just a drop in the bucket. With over 80,000 horses trucked out of the country for slaughter annually, many under horrific and unregulated conditions, clearly creative solutions are needed.  For more information, you can visit them online or on Facebook

Another resource for struggling horse owners seeking to do the right thing, and people that wish to help them, is the non-profit organization United Horse Coalition, This is a broad alliance of equine organizations that have joined together under the American Horse Council to educate the horse industry about the issues facing horses At-Risk, or in transition. The group seeks to provide information for existing and prospective owners, breeders, sellers, and horse organizations regarding the long-term responsibilities of owning and caring for horses, as well as focusing on the opportunities available for these horses. Through industry collaboration, the UHC seeks to promote education and options for at-risk and transitioning horses.

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