Horse Slaughter: Fact Sheet - International Fund for Horses



There is a silent spectre that haunts our horses, and one that many Americans are still unaware of. Every week our young, healthy horses are sent across our borders to be slaughtered for human consumption overseas.

The largest number are Quarter Horses, although Thoroughbred race horses, and even some of our wild Mustangs are routinely slaughtered. Their meat is processed, freeze packed and shipped to countries like Belgium, France, Italy and Japan, where horse meat is considered a delicacy.

Why does this industry still exist?

Short Answer: There is a demand for it.

Horse slaughter exists for one reason and one reason only — for the sole purpose of providing horse meat for human consumption to those who eat it.

Although the number of horses slaughtered declined sharply for a period of years, there has been a recent resurgence in demand.

Horse meat is viewed as "clean meat" and a good alternative to beef and other traditional meats because of BSE and other contamination scares.

Europeans and Asians who consume horse flesh are willing to pay a high price for American horse meat, which is described by butchers and purveyors of horse meat as the very best on the market.

"I only buy American meat, which is red and firm. In butchering terms we call it 'well-structured', the best you can get. Out of a thousand animals, only the American ones are really worth buying. But they don’t eat horse meat in America. They raise horses for foreigners."

~ Quote from a Butcher in France

How many horses are slaughtered from the United States?

Initially, fewer U.S. horses were killed for their meat with the closure of three U.S. horse-slaughter plants in Illinois and Texas for violating state laws in 2007.

According to the USDA, however, nearly 100,000 equines were exported from U.S. to Mexico and Canada to be butchered in 2008. 2009 will see a further increase in that number.

Those are the ones who are counted.

Our wild horses and being slaughtered, but because the BLM fails to brand and accurately track them, the number cannot be reliably known.

Where do the horses come from?

Horses are not raised for slaughter as they are not traditional food animals, so they must be bought. Licensed horse dealers, known as "killer buyers," act as middlemen for the slaughterhouses and frequent the auctions where horses are sold.

Mass quantities of horses are bought by these dealers at unbelievably cheap prices, who then transport the horses and resell them to the slaughterhouses for profit.

Many times an auction house and the dealer will not turn away an unfit animal, because as long as it can live till it gets to a slaughterhouse, they can be killed for their hides. These horses are called "skinners." Slaughterhouses typically have a tannery either on site or nearby for this reason.

A number of the horses who end up at slaughterhouses are stolen, and can disappear without a trace.

However, statistics from one of the largest groups that assist owners in the recovery of their stolen horses, Stolen Horse International (netposse.org) show that approximately 60% of stolen horses are killed at slaughter plants.

What type of horses are slaughtered?

Horses of virtually all ages and breeds are slaughtered, from draft types to miniatures.

Horses commonly slaughtered include unsuccessful race horses, horses who are lame or ill, surplus riding school and camp horses, mares whose foals are not economically valuable, and foals cast off by the Pregnant Mare Urine (PMU) industry, which produces the estrogen-replacement drug Premarin®.

Ponies, mules, and donkeys are slaughtered as well.

A vast majority purchased for slaughter are in good health and bought for only a few hundred dollars.

How do horses get to the slaughterhouses?

Horses are transported, often thousand of miles, from all over the country for export in double-decker trailers designed for cattle in all types of weather with no food or water.

Often there is not enough clearance for the horses to hold their heads in a fully upright position.

No consideration is given to the gender or the condition of the horses as they are crammed into these trucks.

Horses are often injured and some even arrive at the slaughterhouse dead.

How are the horses killed?

United States

The ones who survive the ordeal of transportation are held in pens until it is their turn to be butchered. The horses stand in the killing line smelling the blood, sensing the terror ahead. They are electrocuted or speared into the "kill box" where they shake violently, falling, unable to stand from fear.

Under federal law, horses are required to be rendered unconscious prior to slaughter, usually with a device called a captive bolt gun, which shoots a metal rod into the horse's brain. Prior to the closure of the U.S. horse slaughter plants, it was not uncommon for horses to be improperly
Photo of a captive bolt pistol / bolt gunCaptive-bolt gun Image via Wikipedia

stunned and therefore conscious when they were hoisted by a rear leg to have their throats cut.
A major misconception is that animals being readied for slaughter are stunned with a captive bolt in order to make the process more humane. The fact is, the captive bolt stunning mechanism was designed to protect slaughterhouse workers from the flailing limbs of terrified animals and increase the speed of the production line.

Mexico and Canada

With the export of horses to slaughter increasing more than 300 percent, undercover footage shows live horses being dragged, whipped, and crammed into trucks in 110 degrees on their way to a horrific form of slaughter in Mexico and Canada.

These horses are stabbed multiple times in the neck with a "puntilla knife" to sever their spinal cords. This procedure does not render the horse unconscious, and it is not a stunning method.

Rather, it paralyzes the horse, leaving him/her twitching on the ground, unable to move or breathe, and then the animal dies from suffocation (because their lungs stop working) or from blood loss and dismemberment.

Conditions in the slaughterhouse—inside and outside of our borders—are stressful and extremely frightening for horses.

If horse slaughter is banned, where will all the horses go?

The number of horses slaughtered in 1990 was a staggering 350,000, a number that dropped to an all time low of 42,000 in 2002. Between 1992 and 1993 alone, the number of horses slaughtered dropped 79,000. These decreases did not create a glut of "unwanted horses." Society absorbed these horses, and the market remained stable, just as it will when horse slaughter is eliminated altogether.

The phrase "unwanted horses" is a myth created by horse slaughter supporters. The number of horses slaughtered each year is the one used by them to arrive at the number of so-called "unwanted horses" for the same time period. In actuality, the number of horses slaughtered each year is the number of horses the horse slaughter plants have the capacity to butcher and process.

There are many alternatives to horse slaughter. Horses can be given another chance at life through retraining and adoption programs as pleasure horses, with rescues, retirement homes, and sanctuaries. Horses can also enjoy second careers as Mounted Police horses, at riding schools and as therapy horses.

If a horse becomes old, infirm or mortally ill, then the horse should be euthanized by a qualified veterinarian. There are a wide variety of options for disposing of their bodies that range from the costly to economical. These include burial (where permitted), cremation, rendering, composting and landfills.

Texas A&M, in response to this question, released a special report on composting as a viable alternative that would be both environmentally and politically beneficial, predicting that this could become a big market when horse slaughter is banned.

If horse slaughter or export for slaughter is banned, won't abuse and neglect increase?

California banned horse slaughter in 1998. California has experienced no increase in abuse case, and even noted a decrease 3 years following the ban.

During the 4 years that Cavel was closed, Illinois saw a noticeable decrease in abuse and/or neglect cases. Texas, which had the only two slaughter plants in 2003, had among the nation's highest rates of cruelty and theft.

The conclusion is clear – horse slaughter does not decrease abuse and neglect but actually encourages it.

What Can I Do To Help?

Support organizations like ours working to put an end to horse slaughter and export for slaughter.

Be a responsible horse owner.

Sponsor the care of a horse in a horse rescue or sanctuary.

Think carefully before breeding a mare and consider adopting your next horse from an equine rescue organization.

Plan for your horse's eventual death by setting aside funds for humane euthanasia by a veterinarian, in case it becomes necessary.

Menopausal women on hormone replacement therapy should ask their doctors to prescribe one of the many safe and effective, FDA-approved alternatives to Premarin®.

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"From my earliest memories, I have loved horses with a longing beyond words." ~ Robert Vavra