How, and Where, Our Horses Die

Shortly after college, I lay on my bed, with my cat next to me, reading an article about animal testing. I turned the page, and there was a photograph of a conscious cat with a metal cage over its head, and with screws/electrodes drilled into its brain. I don’t remember what the testing was for, or what the publication was, or why I was reading it. All I remember is that photograph. And in that moment, I became a vegetarian, animal cruelty becoming my cause.

I was passionate, eschewing products that tested on animals, moralizing about cruelty to animals, often quoting words frequently attributed to Peter Singer but which in fact were written by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham: ”The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (quoted in Pollan). That the animals that we eat suffer was to me, at that point, the only trenchant point.

So what, bored readers may be asking, the hell does this have to do with horseracing?

Earlier this year, the last horse slaughterhouse in this country was closed, due to the activism of passionate, committed people. Horse slaughter was found to be illegal by a variety of courts, and for months now, not a single horse in this country has gone to the slaughter house.

Great news, right? Well, maybe, not so much.

As the New York Times recently reported, an expected but unintended consequence of the closing of the last slaughterhouse now means that horses too broken down or unwanted to find a home are shipped to Canada and Mexico, to be slaughtered there. And some people argue that the horrific conditions on these journeys far exceed those suffered by horses when they were slaughtered domestically.

So what is a horse lover to do? What is a horse lover to think? What action can a horse lover take?

We can join the anti-slaughter cause, and unwillingly contribute to horses being packed on trailers to die painfully in another country.

We can work to end the transport of horses for slaughter, knowing that we are saving horses from long, hot, cramped, painful journeys to slaughterhouses in other countries where they will die in agony.

We can end both slaughter and transport, and wonder what will happen to all the horses left with people who no longer can or no longer want to take care of them.

As I wrote in an e-mail conversation with some TBA members recently, “Is a horrific death worse than a horrific life?” I don’t know…and that’s why I struggle with where I stand on this issue. Can death in a slaughterhouse be preferable to a prolonged, starved, painful life on a farm, owned by people who can no longer can take care of their horses? It’s not a question I’ve been able to make: by my actions sentencing horses to horrific slaughterhouse death, or by my actions sentencing horses to horrific slow starvation and degradation?

Folks who know me know that I’m always finding/fostering stray cats and re-locating them, and at first, I refused to take the cats I found to shelters that weren’t “no-kill.” Having now logged way too many hours in those places, I am no longer so strident; indefinite life in those cages is not preferable to a quiet, painless death by euthanasia. It breaks my heart to think about those cats being put down, but it breaks harder to think of them in those cages day after day.

And I’m not a vegetarian anymore; that choice lasted about a decade, after which, for various, mostly selfish reasons, I re-joined the ranks of the carnivores. Now, I make it a point to find meat that is raised and killed ethically, and I am fortunate enough to live in an urban area, with a Whole Foods not too far away; you can read their pledge to sell only meat that is raised, transported, and slaughtered humanely.

This topic is far too complicated to cover completely here; I haven’t touched on the responsibility of owners and breeders, and of how we might reduce the number of unwanted horses in our country. But for now, in my perfect world (and Patrick, Mr. Future Racing Commissioner, please do add this to your list), humane, affordable euthanasia would be the alternative that we don’t have now. We wouldn’t be forced to choose whether horses should suffer on farms, on trailers, or in slaughterhouses. It would be great if all the horses in this country could live a happy, hay-filled, gamboling life in a gorgeous pasture; as that’s not the case, the least we can do is find a way to end their lives pain-free, with dignity and peace.

7 thoughts on “How, and Where, Our Horses Die

  1. Excellant post. I agree with you 100% and sometimes find myself “straddling the fence” even though I am thankful that the slaughterhouses are closed. For years, going back to my teens even, I knew horses were slaughtered; however, I was not aware of all the particulars, such as human consumption, transport methods, and it was not only the sick, infirmed, and killers that were sent to slaughter. But as the saying goes, with age comes wisdom.My heart goes out to those horses whose owners won’t “step up” to their responsiblities. On Monday’s news, the newly opened KY Equine Humane Center, which has only been open approx 10 mos. is full and just turned away 58 horses from 1 person. They may start euthanizing if people don’t come forward to adopt. I would love to adopt one or two but I know my financial limitations and that is one of the reasons I work a second job during tax season is so I can keep my horse. Now thanks to the economy and the drought from the summer, I can’t help but worry how many more horses will end up suffering. I am afraid the numbers will become much higher as people become more scared over the economy and who will suffer, the horses. I guess, I can find comfort in knowing my limitations and knowing my horse won’t ever suffer due to my lack of irresponsibility. But it still makes me want to cry.

  2. While this is obviously a well thought out post, it is important that the public be aware of the fact that slaughter is NOT euthanasia. We anti slaughter folks know that some horses must die. All we ask is that they have a dignified, pain free death. The transportation to slaughter is inhumane where horses are loaded on trailers for hours or even days without food or water.You obviously care about animals and have stated yourself that they deserve a dignified end of life. Slaughter does not provide that. It is the brutal butchering of horses that sense the fear and pain. No one would tolerate these actions for dogs and cats and our horses deserve no less.Again, I must stress that slaughter is NOT euthanasia. Since chemicals can not be used when horses are slaughtered for human consumption, it is a painful, horrible death. Many of these horses are taken directly from the race tracks when they can no longer perform. They are not horses who are out in fields starving. Actually, it has been proven that there is no direct correlation between animal abuse and horse slaughter. With a little effort, these horses can be rehomed and go on to new careers. I am an owner and when my horses racing days are over, I take the time to make sure they find new homes. Unfortunately, some just find it more convenient and expedient to call the meat man. This is unacceptable and we must do everything we can to stop the slaughter of our American horses so that they can end up as a delicacy on foreign dinner plates.Euthansia YES….Slaughter NO

  3. ShelleyA: Thank you for taking the time to post and for reiterating what I think I wrote; a phrase like “horrific slaughterhouse death” certainly conveys that what horses experience in a slaughterhouse is nothing like euthanasia. And I don’t believe that I ever suggested that slaughter should continue…of the three options I listed, none was that slaughter be allowed to continue. My point is that right now, there are no good options for unwanted horses, and I find that heartbreaking and tragic.

  4. I whole heartedly agree with your last point, and it breaks my heart on a daily basis. We must find a means of providing humane euthanasia and appropriate treatment of the remains. Unfortunately there are always going to be idiot owners and breeders who don’t properly care for their animals. I’m not sure what the solution is to human ignorance.

  5. Very moving post, Teresa. I agree with your sentiments 100%. These horses are our heroes and should be given every comfort possible. I can’t and don’t want to imagine these animals being slaughtered, but I thank you for calling attention to this matter in the way that you did. People need to know about this, and it’s up to us the racing fans to force changes.

  6. My heart goes out to all the sincere, good people having problems caring for their horses, finding hay this winter. Unlike dogs and cats who wind up at shelters, horses are mostly bred intentionally. Research shows that low cost dog / cat spay and neuter programs will (in about 10 years) reduce costs and greatly reduce the overpopulation and need to euthanize. Solutions approach: How about a registration fee for foals to go into a well-managed fund for retierement, rescue and low cost veterinary euthanasia? (especially Quarter Horse breeders who have among their ranks irresponsible over breeders and paid pro-slaughter lobbyists who are madly spinning the yarn about a hundred thousand “unwanted” horses a year) How about a small % of the pari mutuel handle to go to retirement? Kind of, pay as you go. I’m lobbying for an outright ban on slaughter and transport .. and creative approaches to care for the horses we have… for the reasons other posters have said. Plus, basic Economics: Examine the USDA charts over time and you’ll see that foreign demand runs the slaughter numbers, not the other way around. A visit to foreign meat industry websites, yes, some of them in French, tell the tale of how they get supply from all over. They have been preparing for about two years for our closing of US slaughter houses by setting up channels to slaughter our horses across the borders. This hugely profitable industry is not about provding poor, overburdened Farmer John a euthanasia service. Slaughter is about making money getting American horse meat on the table overseas. However they need do do it. There’s more money to be made stealing horses, which happens to tens of thousands of wanted, fit and sound American horses every year. Nowhere on the foreign industry sites is there a peep about how American values and their consumption of our horses are on a collision course. They simply don’t care. The EU prefers American horses (even advertise “Eat An American Derby Winner”) but will import from wherever they need to fill the demand. Recently, French demand for horse meat rose about 3%, so we can expect the supply of “unwanted” horses to go up the same. Even though economics is part of this, it’t not the whole picture. Horses are not “fungible goods.” They are not orange juice futures. They are living beings who helped build this country, walking side by side with us down the centuries. Horses feel, see, hear and smell what’s going on in the kill chute, and an unfortunate number of them wake up after they are stunned to expereince the processing fully conscious. (Source: former USDA inspection veterinarians and slaughter house workers) We have a choice. We can either play into the hands of the tax avoiding Belgian horse slaughter corporations, who manipulate our markest to satisfy their growing demand for “Kentucky Derby Winners” or we can find ways to solve the problems of irresponsible overbreeding, weather and market fluctuations inside our own shores. There are options coming forth every day, and when we can turn our energy from passing the legislation and putting out fires, like the South Dakota proposed slaughter house over the weekend, we’ll have more human resources to focus on caring for the horses we have. Slaughter is the irresponsible, easy way out. We’re way, way better than that.

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