By Roland Halpern
Executive Director, Colorado Voters for Animals
In 2007, with the passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, the three horse slaughterhouses operating in the United States were shuttered. The act stripped federal funding for horse meat inspectors, meaning horse meat could not be sold as food for human consumption. This didn’t mean people in the U.S. were deprived of horse meat — most find it repugnant — but there is a market in Asia and Europe where it is considered a delicacy.
Though it became illegal to slaughter horses in this country, there were no laws preventing horses from being sold to Mexican and Canadian slaughter plants. In fact, every year hundreds of Colorado horses are trucked across the borders for slaughter and processing into food for markets overseas.
The horses may be private surrenders or sales by owners who can no longer afford the care required, or they may be wild horses from Bureau of Land Management roundups. Even though BLM rules state the horses cannot be sold for processing into food, the $1,000 adoption incentive is too attractive for some. An unscrupulous person can adopt up to four horses and there is lax follow-up on where the horses go after ownership transfers.
Equids, which include horses, mules and burros, often end up at livestock auctions where greedy “kill buyers” have only profit in mind. Private individuals, rescues and sanctuaries wanting to buy the same animals are often outbid by kill buyers, as selling horses for slaughter can be lucrative. Last August, a National Geographic article included the story of two brothers who purchased a horse at auction for $400 and sold it the next day for $1,200. Excited by the fast money, the brothers now buy between 100 and 150 horses a month for slaughtering purposes.
Studies show the vast majority of equids sent to slaughter are healthy, which makes sense considering slaughterhouses don’t want to, or can’t, sell horse meat that isn’t of prime quality. Horses that don’t “make the grade” are rejected. In 2011 an investigation by the Equine Welfare Alliance found as many as 5,000 horses a year were simply being abandoned after rejection at the Mexican border, treated like garbage by the kill buyers.
Unlike other livestock, horses are not raised for human food and are often administered drugs and vaccines that have never been tested for safety in humans. Phenylbute, a commonly used medication for treating pain and fever, bears a warning label stating: “Treated animals should not be slaughtered for food purposes.” Horses purchased at auction don’t usually come with a medical history and it’s apparently not considered important. Export affidavits required by the USDA simply ask about the absence of infectious or contagious diseases during the prior month, and assurances the transport vehicles were properly disinfected.
Slaughtering horses is an ugly and brutal business. Transporting the animals often results in injury with one study reporting 79% of horses had some level of bruising, or worse, upon arrival at one slaughterhouse. Unlike cows, horses’ longer necks and tendency to be skittish make them harder to stun. An undercover investigation of one Canadian slaughterhouse revealed captive bolt stunning, the preferred method of rendering equines unconsciousness before slaughter, was only effective 40% of the time on the first try, with multiple attempts — up to 11 in one case, required. Even then, some horses were dismembered while still conscious.
Ironically, our own legislature declared “horses are a cherished part of our Western Heritage and an important aspect of Colorado’s culture and economy,” yet little, if anything is being done legislatively to protect these cherished creatures that helped settle the west, blazed trails into unknown territory, plowed our fields, rounded up cattle, aided military operations and delivered the mail.
Today most horses are used for recreation, sport, therapy and companionship purposes, and many owners consider their horse a part of the family. A vast majority of the public is opposed to horses being slaughtered for human food. A 2022 Lake Research Partners poll found 83% of Americans were so opposed, a significant increase over the 69% of Americans opposed in 2006.
In an effort to address the situation, state Sen. Sonya Jaquez has introduced SB23-038 in the state Senate, the Prohibition on Slaughtering Equines for Human Consumption Act, which would prohibit the purchase of a horse, donkey or mule in Colorado if the buyer knows, or reasonably should know, the intent of the transaction is to send the animal for slaughter and processing into human food. Rep. Lorena Garcia is sponsoring the bill on the House side.
Let’s hope successful passage will put an end to this barbaric and unnecessary practice.
Roland Halpern is executive director of Colorado Voters for Animals, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocacy organization whose mission is to identify and help elect animal-friendly candidates and work with lawmakers to pass sensible animal protection laws.