The Horse Slaughter Debate in the United States

Filed Under: Horses

The current dilemma facing horse owners is how to deal with unwanted horses. The practice of slaughtering horses for human or pet consumption has become increasingly controversial. Unfortunately there are unwanted animals due to medical conditions, personality traits, or changes in the owner’s situation so that they are not financially or physically able to care for these horses. The problem is finding responsible people, groups, or organizations willing to care for them. In the absence of a safety net it is feared that these animals will be starved and neglected, prolonging their suffering. Animal rights groups have effectively shut down the last three slaughterhouses in the United States that would process horses. Now there are additional concerns, including the transport of these animals out of the country for slaughter elsewhere, usually Mexico, where slaughter would be less regulated and less humane.

The problem is actually irresponsible owners: these are people that either won’t or can’t take care of their horses properly. Owners of small animals may be just as irresponsible euthanizing their unwanted pets, bringing them to animal shelters, turning them loose a favorite in rural areas. Unfortunately, few shelters have housing for horses and euthanasia and disposal of a 1,200 pound animal may be an expense the owner is unwilling to finance. Turning the horse out is usually unfeasible and may result in further liability. Instead, owners have conveniently dropped their unwanted horses at a sale barn believing their low bottom offer is toward a new home and not meat on the hoof. We are now robbing irresponsible owners of this fantasy. Much like the owners of small animals who turn them in to animal control facilities, these individuals are often delusional, actually thinking their aging pets with medical problems will find a home rather than being euthanized. The concept of lifetime ownership of a horse is foreign to most owners.

Most horses are also purchased with a specific purpose in mind. When that function can no longer be fulfilled or the owner’s needs change it is often time for the horse to move on to another home. A lame horse is usually unwanted, and if someone does adopt one as a pasture ornament, it may be a financial drain to provide special care for pain control or specialty shoes to ensure mobility. Horses can easily have a life span of 25 or more years which may prove to be a financial burden for most individuals.

In the year 2006 approximately 100,000 horses approximately 1.1% of the U.S. horse population were slaughtered in U.S. plants. Presently there are humane organizations that may handle a mere 6,000 horses. Horses are expensive to house and feed. With the drought, prices of hay have doubled or more since 2005. The horse market has also bottomed out and some owners are unable to sell or even give away their stock. Today more than two million Americans own a horse, giving the United States the largest horse population of any country. A third of these horse owners have a household income of less than $50,000 a year and are having a hard time keeping up with their own cost of living expenses, not counting the cost of living expenses incurred for the horse.

Although there are no longer any slaughter facilities processing horses, a law termed “The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act”, which bans such practice, has already passed the House but to date has not passed the Senate. The pending bill has not totally stopped the slaughter of unwanted horses. Today horses are being transported across the U.S. border in large numbers to be processed in Mexico and Canada. A record number of 44,475 horses were shipped to Mexico in one month’s time for processing at the end of 2007, which was a 312 % increase from the same time period in 2006. In addition, the number of horse exports to Mexico for breeding or recreation has also doubled during the same period. Due to the large increase in recreational horses being shipped to Mexico it is believed that many of these horses are also actually being sent to slaughter. Once a horse crosses the border into Mexico it is no longer an American horse but rather a Mexican horse. There is only a 5 million dollar allotment allocated in horse slaughter prevention legislation for enforcement purposes which will not even touch securing the borders.

There is legislation already in place regarding the commercial transport of horses directly for slaughter. The Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) is attempting to close a loophole in these regulations. The USDA-APHIS believes that horses are being delivered to intermediate points for the sole purpose of avoiding compliance with the regulations. A proposed rule in the Nov. 7th Federal Register would amend those regulations to extend protection to horses that are bound for slaughter but are first delivered to feedlot or stockyards. One such way to update the regulation is to curb the use of double-deck trailers for the transport of horses to assembly points such as stockyards instead of just slaughter facilities.

The AVMA News recently reported an accident with horses in transport to a slaughter facility. The accident involved a double-deck semi-trailer that was carrying 59 horses which overturned in northern Illinois on October 27, 2007. The accident left 18 horses dead with dozens more being injured. The Illinois legislature has introduced legislation banning the transport of horses with a double-deck trailer and, if passed, would join Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont in outlawing the transport of horses in this manner.

For now, the ban on horse slaughter has actually made the plight of these unwanted horses significantly worse. The supporters of this bill need to focus on addressing what to do for the 100,000 horses relinquished by their owners each year.

Now that horse slaughter has largely been eliminated in the U.S. as a way of discarding unwanted horses we have no functioning alternative. Unfortunately, we have yet to develop a safety net for those starving and unwanted horses that are still out there. Humane organizations are limited in scope but could hopefully expand; however it is unrealistic to fantasize that they will be able to handle the future demand. Humane education and euthanasia has to become a realistic alternative. The problem is, “Who will pick up the financial tab?” The drug cocktail used to euthanize a horse can be quite expensive-not to mention disposal of the body itself, estimated to run over $400.00 per animal. Should the taxpayers or horse owners be responsible? Fines should be levied in cruelty cases to help finance future investigations, prosecution, and care for injured animals. When possible, humane organizations should be expanded. Perhaps a state wide license should be developed for horse owners, with fees being used to finance some of these endeavors. Breed organizations could increase registration fees to finance rescue organizations, and even entry fees for shows could be increased to do the same. When all avenues are closed, necessary euthanasia should be used to decrease the suffering of these helpless animals. Maybe each state, county or veterinary school could offer low cost euthanasia and disposal at an owner’s expense in convenient locations. Unfortunately, the more expensive and obscure the service, the less likely it isl be used and the amount of suffering placed on these horses will increase.

Hopefully, if owners are faced with the consequences of their irresponsible actions they will be forced into becoming more mature and responsible members of society. Animals should not be allowed to starve to death through no fault of their own.


“Changes Proposed to Horse Transportation Rules.” JAVMA. Vol. 231, No. 12. News. Pp. 1787 and 1791.

Nolen, Scott. “U.S. Horse Slaughter Export to Mexico Increase 312%”. JAVMA. Vol 232, No. 2/News. Pp. 176-179.

Prada, Paulo. “Leaner Pastures: As Horses Multiply, Abuse Cases Rise.” The Wall Street Journal. A1 and A10.

Winegar, Karin. “The Slaughter Debate, Solving the Puzzle.” Horse and Rider. November 2007. Pp. 43-49.

Topics: slaughterhouses, unwanted horses

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