(*Warning! This is an extremely hot-button issue and may not be suitable for all readers. Discretion is advised. Also, article is unavoidably long.)

“As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.”

-Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

I’m going to jump right out there and declare my personal life philosophy.

I believe it is morally criminal to inflict needless pain, suffering and terror on any breathing creature, human or animal. And no breathing creature, human or animal, should be sentenced to spend its final days/hours in abject fear. I learned 20-years ago that I can live very well, and very nutritionally, on an abundant variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, grains and very little flesh of any kind.

I realize fully that the majority of the world does not agree with my choices  and that’s fine. It does, however, strengthen my resolve when I read the words of world-famous people who share my view, such as Mr. Tolstoy.

Immanuel Kant (philosopher, 1724-1804) once said, “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”

What about horse slaughter? How does it fit into the scheme of things? Where does it rank? Are we able to discuss the subject with objective reason and logic as opposed to emotional overflow? I’m going to try.

The last of the three horse slaughter facilities, located in Illinois, was closed in 2007. Two plants were located in Texas. A resident living in the small Texas town with one of the plants was quoted as saying, “The smell and sounds coming from there were horrible.”

The facilities were closed on a technicality, which was created by the federal government, after funding for inspectors was eliminated. Enter the law of “Unintended Consequences.” Plants in the United States were closed but tens of thousands of horses continued meeting their fates in slaughterhouses. Only the locations changed. Now, horses are crammed into trailers and trucks, some double-decker. Stallions and mares are shoved into the same vehicle. There are even babies. The majority of the horses are absolutely healthy, since they, after all, provide the most, and best, meat. It’s very easy for the healthy ones to trample the few old, sick and injured while “elbowing out” there own piece of still-suffocating space.

These are long, ugly rides with the final destination being the bloody floors at kill houses in Canada and Mexico.

We need to look at facts and work from those points, since this is a situation that should be predicated on one thing….the welfare of the horse.

People in the U.S., with only a few exceptions, do not consume horse meat. But, it will probably surprise most to learn that wasn’t always the case; especially in the 1940s during World War II. Horse meat was eaten. It wasn’t a long-lasting practice and, today, the biggest and most consistent consumers are in Europe and Japan, where it’s considered a tender, sweet-tasting delicacy.

Many pro-slaughter supporters insist the number of horses making that bleak trip to Canada and Mexico was created by the closure of the plants. According to available data, however, this is not true, and if we’re going to arrive at anything that is positive for the horses, we can work only with the truth.

This slaughter argument actually has similarities with the abortion issue and there may never be a one-size-fits-all solution for either one. Regardless of your personal views on abortion, there is one element on which everyone probably agrees. That is: abortion should never be used as a form of “birth control.” The same is true of slaughter.

Many of us won’t own up to it, but by and large, we over-breed horses. The absolutely amazing advances in equine reproductive technology have, in many instances, allowed production to outstrip demand. Does anyone really think all six of those babies out of a Quarter mare in one season will succeed on the track and/or be lucky enough to have a “forever home?” Slaughter, then, becomes our “birth control.” We all are aware that nearly every industry has been adversely affected by the economic downturn prompted by the recession, but there’s a significant difference between the horse business and other industries. In most cases, manufacturing industries will severely curtail production and turn to selling inventory. The breeding industry, because of the way it’s economically structured, can’t (doesn’t) follow the same course.

We throw around the term “unwanted horses” rather loosely. The serious recession and overall tough economic environment a few years ago accounted for more ill-kept horses than the lack of slaughter. Thousands and thousands of people lost their homes during the mortgage meltdown but it wasn’t because those were “unwanted homes.”

There were 90,000 horses slaughtered in the US in 2005. Nearly 20,000 of those were sent, live, to Canada, Mexico and Japan. France alone chewed down on 300,000 horses in 2003. The total horse population in 2005 was 9.2-million. American Horse Council data says 10-percent of the entire population dies of accident/injury, illness or natural causes each year. That 10-percent, then, accounted for 920,000 horses. That’s a lot of decomposing horses or renderings or incenerations or whatever, but there has been no concern voiced regarding the possibility of a negative environmental impact. (The opposite is suggested by some associations and organizations.) Also of interest is that the reported equine abuse cases did not rise in California after the state banned slaughter for human consumption. Horse theft, however, decreased by 34-percent. Horse thieves are much more active when they can make good money on the hoof.

The American Veterinary Association says there is no way to track stolen horses when, indeed, there is at It’s estimated that 40-50,000 are stolen each year. The number seems to rise in direct correlation to the per-pound price.

The Quarter Horse industry prides itself on growing and growing and….. There’s nothing wrong with that, provided that growth is sustained in an appropriate manner. Unfortunately, though, slaughter plant records say 70-percent of all horses positioned in front of the captive bolt gun are Quarters. According to those same records, only 10-percent or less of all slaughter horses are old, sick, injured.

All these issues may become moot points in the final shakedown. The European market is in a constant argument with itself about accepting horses from the US because of the drugs most of them are given during their lifetimes. Statements must be signed attesting that a horse sold for slaughter has not been administered Bute for at least 180-days. We all know how to get around that requirement….just lie. Some countries, however, wised-up and performed their own testing, finding levels of several medications that are not approved in animals for human consumption. The European Commission Food and Veterinary Office found serious violations as recently as 12-months ago. For those of you who prefer to not eat horse meat, be careful since it’s sometimes mixed with beef and sold back to the US.

A huge spending bill (H2112) signed during President Obama’s administration covered several different agencies, including the USDA. Rep. Jim Moran (D) spearheaded an amendment that retained the ban on funding horse slaughter inspectors. The amendment passed but was stripped out at the last minute by just three congressmen. This particular appropriations bill was critical for keeping the government viable. It had to pass and it did. Interestingly, one report states that nowhere in the bill is horse slaughter specifically mentioned. That same report further states that Congress did not allocate new funding for horse meat inspections, thereby passing the estimated cost of $5-million per year to taxpayers.

The European Union has tightened its rules regarding imported horsemeat. The only way to fulfill some of these regulations is to hold horses on a feedlot until they test clear of drugs. This is not economically feasible since it comes close to doubling the price of the horse. Simply put, the United States was never geared to raise horses for human consumption on a broad scale.

The racing industry consistently expresses serious concern over its public image. The over-riding objective seems to say that image will be considerably improved through the elimination of medications/drugs. And, indeed, it will but what about that rotten portion of the image that becomes even worse when horses such as Ferdinand end up on someone’s table?

We can make slaughter plants sound more acceptable by referring to them as “abbatoirs” and we can make the process of bleeding out sound a bit better if we use the term “exsanguination.” In most plants, the captive bolt is used; either the penetrating or non-penetrating form. Use of the penetrating bolt has decreased due to fear of spreading disease. The penetrating bolt is discharged from a gun into the forehead of the horse and then retracted. Since it penetrates, unwanted bacteria/substances is still on the mechanism when it’s used on the next horse, meaning the resulting, tidily shrink-wrapped meat could have contaminants other than drugs. Additionally, a horse’s brain is located towards the back of the skull which means it’s more difficult to penetrate. And, if it is penetrated, it’s nearly impossible to prevent brain matter from clinging to the bolt and contaminating equipment.

The non-penetrating bolt (actually either one) should render the horse unconscious. It is then hoisted by its back leg via a chain and bled out. Unfortunately, the process doesn’t always work as intended and the horse is still very much alive and aware when its throat is slit. A horse is extremely sensitive to its surroundings. It’s aware of death, and terror spreads like wildfire. By the time he reaches the kill chute, his head is likely tossing wildly. Even the best marksman would have a problem. The situation is exacerbated when the non-penetrating bolt is used. A precise aim and hit become imperative. (Information tidbit: the captive bolt pistol was invented in 1903 by Dr. Hugo Heiss, former director of a slaughterhouse in Germany.)

The purpose of the traumatic stunning is to induce unconsciousness before the animal is bled out. The bleeding must be done while the heart is still beating and, hopefully, consciousness does not return prior to the horse drawing its last breath.

The employee turnover in slaughterhouses is, not surprisingly, high. One barely has time to learn his job before he’s gone. The nightmare factor for those employees is, no doubt, intense. Also, all three of the previous plants in the U.S. were owned by foreign entities that made millions of dollars while paying almost nothing in federal taxes to the United States. Not to mention that the properties in the small towns where the plants were located became impossible to develop, resulting in a significant loss of property taxes.

Prevailing conditions are severe.  The overall horse industry is over-breeding, especially the segment engaged in Quarter horse racing. Parts of the country, such as Texas, have been ravaged by wildfires and drought. The monthly cost of feeding a horse is astronomical due to the price of hay. Shelters, animal control facilities and rescue groups say they’re receiving more and more calls.

A few years ago, the world of small animals rallied under a banner that boldly proclaimed “No More Homeless Animals.” I looked at the words and thought, “Who’s spreading that fairy tale.” I am, however, amazed at the strides made toward the realization of that goal. There has been a relentless push for responsible spay and neuter programs. Puppy mills are either being closed or subjected to much stricter oversight.

The situation, however, is decidedly more complex with horses. First, it’ll probably be a very cold day in hell before over-production stops. And, like it or not, slaughter will always be with us. The actual number of horses slaughtered after the plants closed actually did not decrease; they were simply sent elsewhere. And, regardless of what anyone says, slaughter conditions are inhumane; beginning with the holding pens prior to being loaded, to the transport, to the holding pens at the plant ,to the kill chute, to the kill floor. The USDA has provided hundreds of pictures documenting the abuses. So, where we are is changing those conditions from start-to-finish. Consistently humane standards must be initiated, regulated and enforced. No exceptions allowed. One very positive move made by one pro-slaughter group is calling in Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State. I’ve spoken with Dr. Grandin and am familiar with the way she revolutionized many slaughter facilities for the humane benefit of cattle.

We must also plot other solutions and ferret out the possibilities for potential options. For instance:

States might consider funding temporary rescues that include tax revenue-generating jobs and thereby making it easier to find homes for those horses. States might also provide additional funding for sanctuaries and animal control agencies to deal with the problems. One Nevada horsewoman says the county animal control service is responsible for picking up a euthanized horse at no charge.

There could be low-cost euthanasia available, not much different from the low-cost spay/neuter clinics for small animals.

Groups of sanctuaries have voiced solid suggestions, including the creation of state and regional training centers and networks, where young, healthy horses (who make up more than 90-percent of the slaughter population) are trained for productive lives; support for the growing network of sanctuary operators who connect with one another for horse placement; develop and expand existing networks of foster homes.

The Oklahoma Racing Commission has approved a rule to designate $100,000 per year from the breeder’s incentive fund to help care for retired racehorses. Frank Stronach has formed an after-care program to find homes for retired Thoroughbreds.

There’s the possibility of government-funded, strategically located euthanasia facilities. It’s not necessary to staff them with vets. Well-trained techs will suffice. Charge $25 or $50, just enough to defray some of the costs.

Whatever we do….slaughter….other options….or a combination….the focus is on the welfare of the horse. How far back in development would this country be if we’d been unable to do so much of our early building through the willing labor of the horse? We throw disposable razors, diapers and contact lenses into the trash every day. We must stop extending that unthinking process to the horse. We cannot make movies such as Seabiscuit, Secretariat and War Horse that show people the dignity and majesty of the horse and, then, turn around and tell those same people how we inhumanely slaughter 150,000 or more per year. That makes no sense to those people. We can’t flash smiles at them, slap them on their backs and say, “Hey, come to the races tonight” and expect them to understand how one-third of the horses they watch fly down the track will, ultimately, be brutalized.

Abraham Lincoln said, “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”

Don’t care for Lincoln?

How about Albert Enstein who said, “If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinance is from injury to animals.”

Have a bone to pick with Enstein?

Then try Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, “Not to hurt our humble brethren (the animals) is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission – to be of service to them whenever they require it…If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

Well said, Francis. Whatever we do….slaughter….other options….or a combination, we’ll hopefully remember that we have a higher mission.


Lights at the End of the Tunnel

I didn’t spend the money for tickets when the film Secretariat was in theaters. There was little motivation to open my wallet, since most of the reviews panned the movie; some, of course, more critical than others but all thudding somewhere on the bottom rungs of the popularity ladder. The general drift coming from the critics included descriptions such as “inaccurate” and overly Disney-fied. There was none of the glowing, adjective-driven praise that surrounded the pre-release of Seabiscuit.

The negative commentaries were so firmly lodged in my brain that I even hesitated when, while flipping through the television channels, I saw the film scheduled for 8:00 p.m.

“Should I watch it?” I thought. “Why not?” I answered. My outrageously expensive cable bill would arrive whether I tuned in or not. I clicked the appropriate button.

The first 30-minutes corroborated the critics. The story line was sprinkled liberally with inaccuracies embedded in a romanticized, rosy hue. I could almost see a dusky pink, maybe mauve, background.

Fortunately, I ignored the remote cradled in my hand and stuck with it. I plowed through owner Penny Tweedy’s (Chenery) perfect June Cleaver image of a stay-at-home wife and mother, who fretted over dinner or clothes needing to be pulled from the dryer before they wrinkled. Seldom did she wear pants, sporting a wardrobe of dresses and aprons.

Penny was painfully conflicted over her family duties and her growing involvement with a young colt who, although no one knew it at the time, was destined to become a racetrack legend. Her husband, of course, felt she was neglecting her home responsibilities to follow some ridiculous dream until…..

Penny was away at the races and, even though this was long, long before TVG (Television Games Network), Secretariat’s race was broadcast on national television. Her family tuned in, watching the first strides with  ho-hum expressions. Then, the beautiful red colt shifted into cruising gear and powered to the front. Husband and children popped out of their chairs like exuberant Jacks-In-The-Box. They were screaming, urging Secretariat to run even faster. Arms were in the air, fists pumping.

I leaned back and smiled, thinking about my own personal and professional association with racing, “This is what people need to see. Stand them next to the rail and let them feel the ground shake as the field passes them.” It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Thoroughbreds, such as Secretariat, or Quarter Horses. The power generated by the horses when they blast out of the starting gate must be experienced before it can be described.

The movie continued to the 1973 Kentucky Derby and Secretariat’s new track record victory. Then to the Preakness and another NTR. Then to the Belmont, where Secretariat treated tens of thousands of people to an unforgettable, magic carpet ride.

I have no idea how many horse races I’ve seen but, like many others engaged for decades in the racing sport/industry, I wondered if I’d gone a bit sour….jaded….ho-hum, like Penny Tweedy’s family. Maybe even numb. My answer came while watching that critic-panned, inaccurate, romanticized film.

It was the Belmont, the longest and most grueling competition on the Thoroughbred Triple Crown menu. The gorgeous, red horse wasn’t satisfied with simply winning this third and final leg. He went to the front, focused not on the finish line but, instead, on some distant horizon that only he could see.

The announcer’s voice quivered as he yelled into his microphone, “It’s Secretariat by four-lengths, by nine-lengths, by 14-lengths.” He continued, shouting out his last call, when he told people watching at the track, as well as those stuck like pieces of Velcro to televisions and radios, that Secretariat won by an incredible 31-lengths in a New World Record time.

I couldn’t sit calmly. It was just too much. I perched on the edge of my seat, grinning, staring at the screen. I felt the hair on my arms stand at attention and a wave of shivers roll down my back. At that moment, I was convinced I could relate to the overwhelming emotions of the resurrected Lazarus. I had just watched a thing of indescribable beauty in a mistake-ridden, Disney-produced film. I was alive! The fact that the Belmont placed the Triple Crown squarely on Secretariat’s regal head was almost incidental.

It’s true that horse racing is as multi-faceted as an intricately cut diamond. The outside of the sport/industry is gilded with a certain pomp and circumstance that reflects off the sheer wonder of the equine athletes. Underneath, however, are the hidden fractures that shave the worth from imperfect diamonds.

Racing has traveled a long road from the shabby rooms housing seedy-looking bookies, with cigarettes and cigars dangling between thin lips that fold back on yellow teeth. Yes, there are serious problems lurking beneath the surface but nothing, no one, no sin we may commit, has the power to strip away the brilliant beauty of these horses. Yes, we have a desperate need for enormous changes; those changes are happening, albeit, slowly.

What do we do in the meantime? We wait. We wait for the sustaining glory of another Secretariat in the Thoroughbred world and another Special Effort in the Quarter Horse kingdom because they are the lights at the end of our tunnel.

*American Pharoah won in 2015 and Justify in 2018. It was 37 years between Affirmed’s Triple Crown victory in 1978 and American Pharoah in 2015.