Whether doodled with rainbows on girls’ school notebooks or depicted as a national symbol of freedom with mane flapping in the wind, the horse stands out as an animal loved among animals.
“A horse is something unearthly,” says 14-year-old Brianna Gonzalez, pausing from shoveling manure that is beginning to freeze to the ground at Phoenix Equestrian Center in New Richmond. “That is why people love horses.”
Brianna and her mother, Linda Gonzalez, are the sole proprietors of the equestrian center, located about 25 miles east of Cincinnati along the Ohio River, where they board, train, teach riding and do some limited breeding.
The love of horse makes the idea of turning them into meat unthinkable to many, which led to the 2006 prohibition against use of federal funds for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to inspect horses slaughtered in this nation for consumption.
Ending horse slaughter domestically, however, didn’t end the practice — it merely shifted it to Mexico and Canada, says Thomas Lenz, a veterinarian, past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) and current senior director of the Equine Veterinary Group for Pfizer. He refers to a June 2011 General Accounting Office report that shows 138,000 horses after the ban are sent out of the nation each year, around the same number slaughtered domestically before the ban.
Export of horses for slaughter created a new problem: The suffering associated with long-distance transport. Laura Osborn-Coffey owns horses and has worked in training and barn management in facilities across the Midwest. She saw this problem first-hand on the highway: Three trailers crammed with horses, heading north.
“You couldn’t even get an arm between them, they were so packed,” she says.
“They said there was nothing they could do. There was nothing illegal about what they were doing,” she adds.
Transport isn’t only crowded and long, but horses may go without water, get kicked and endure painful conditions for hours or days before arriving at the final destination. Some die en route. Those that live, once outside of the nation, are also outside the purview of any USDA regulations pertaining to humane slaughter.
Economic conditions have created additional challenges for horses and those that love them. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports it costs $1,825 per year to care for one horse, and this number doesn’t include veterinary treatment or farrier services for hooves.
“It has become a question of how we maintain the quality of an animal’s life on a smaller budget,” says Scott Strosnider of the Lebanon Equine Clinic, referring to the difficulties some people are having due to rising grain, hay and fuel costs.
Julie Radgowski of Cincinnati agrees. “They are expensive and you never know what is going to happen.” Radgowski currently cares for seven horses, all off-the-track thoroughbreds that she retrains and sells for careers in showing and competition.
Both Strosnider and Radgowski report seeing increased numbers of horses undernourished and neglected relative to economic conditions. “I pass by horses out in the field with no blanket, no shelter and too skinny,” Radgowski says.
In November, H.R. 2112 passed, which allocates funding for several government agencies, including the USDA, and removed the 2006 ban and open the door for horse slaughter to resume domestically.
“Better to be here and regulated,” Radgowski says. “I’m not a person that wants to see horses slaughtered, but if it’s going to happen, I’d rather see it happen here. No loading on a trailer, no suffering like that for days.”
Katheryn Bullock agrees. “I do support horse slaughter, which surprises most people, especially since horses are my love, my life, my job and what I went to school for.” Bullock works on a thoroughbred farm and is a recent Equine Science graduate. It is better to have humane slaughter than to see horses starve, she says.
Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently supported the resumption of slaughter in the United States as compared to the export alternative. PETA also advocates for passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, however, that would end domestic slaughter as well as outlaw any transport for slaughter, closing the 2006 loophole.
According to Lenz, this bill doesn’t provide alternatives for unwanted horses, and misses a larger reality: Demand for horse meat (primarily consumed in Europe and Asia) doesn’t drive slaughter; what drives horse slaughter in this nation “is the availability of cheap horses.” Backyard trainers and poor breeding are contributors, Radgowski adds.
“The key is responsible ownership. Instead of breeding, buy one; instead of buying, adopt one,” Lenz says. “This whole issue has really caused the horse industry to take a hard look at itself. There are a lot of efforts to improve things.”
And it is in the horse industry where horse lovers are found most of all. Riding, competing or training, they are universal admirers of what makes the equine unique.
Brianna Gonzalez also reminds, in a sentiment attributed to her mother, “The horse’s two greatest enemies are human ignorance and flies.” ©