Tens of thousands of American horses are slaughtered every year due to a loophole in federal policy.
Horses have played a unique role in American history. They have helped us discover new lands, carried soldiers into battles, and plowed farmers’ fields. It’s no accident that so many monuments of Americans throughout history show them seated on a horse.
To this day, horses remain our partners, companions, and therapeutic healers for people with PTSD, physical disabilities, chronic illness, and more. That includes people like me. I had just a 5 percent chance of survival after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Horses played a huge part in my healing. It has since become my mission to save the lives of the majestic animals who helped me get through one of the toughest times of my life.
Many Americans would be repulsed by the idea of eating horse meat given horses’ special place in our culture. Indeed, polling from Lake Research Partners shows that 83 percent of Americans oppose the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Yet tens of thousands of American horses are shipped across our borders for slaughter every year in a brutal display of animal cruelty.
There is a way we can fix this.
A Policy Loophole Enables Horse Slaughter
Congress began prohibiting the use of Department of Agriculture funding for inspections of horse slaughter facilities in 2006, which effectively prevented such facilities from operating in the United States. But that hasn’t entirely stopped the domestic horse-slaughter industry.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, more than 1 million American horses have been slaughtered after being exported to kill facilities in Canada and Mexico, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The horse meat is then shipped to markets in Europe and Asia for human consumption.
“At least 85 percent of horses slaughtered at European Union-approved Canadian horse slaughterhouses originated in the United States, and 50 percent of the horse meat produced from those animals was exported to the EU,” according to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation.
Federal lawmakers can close this loophole with legislation that would formally ban horse slaughter in the United States and any related interstate or foreign export activity.
After years of advocacy efforts by animal welfare groups, members of Congress made significant progress in moving a bill in 2022—titled the Save America’s Forgotten Equines (SAFE) Act—to do just that.
The SAFE Act advanced in a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee by voice vote in June 2022 and had more than 223 cosponsors across both parties. But without a bipartisan agreement between Democratic and Republican leaders to pass the bill in both chambers, lawmakers left the bill to expire with the outgoing session of Congress on January 3, 2023.
Three sticking points that held up this bill need to be worked out for future legislation to move forward. These include clarifying the criminal intent of people who put horses into the slaughter pipeline; working out a compromise with First Nations tribes regarding the number of wild horses on their lands; and developing an effective enforcement system by the Department of Agriculture.
Some tribes say that there are too many wild horses damaging natural resources on their lands. These concerns could be addressed by relocating these horses to private buyers or new homes, supported by the establishment of a hotline for tribes to use to facilitate the process. There is a compromise that can be made to ensure these horses can be saved.
To be clear, it is illegal to sell a federally protected wild horse for slaughter under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Yet some wild horses have ended up in the slaughter pipeline through illegal sales or after they have been adopted by a member of the public.
Both sides know what needs to be resolved. But those with the power to move this bill refused to compromise on these three issues. They did what we must not do: allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
There is now a fresh opportunity to ban horse slaughter by adding an amendment to the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorizing Department of Agriculture programs, which is up for renewal at the end of September.
The last Farm Bill in 2018 included an amendment to ban the slaughter of dogs and cats in America. The amendment also included a ban on exporting them for slaughter.
Equines should be added to this existing amendment. Including horses in this Farm Bill provision is the humane thing to do, since they are companion animals just like dogs and cats.
The Unique Cruelty of Horse Slaughter
Horses that end up in the slaughter pipeline are typically purchased at auctions by “kill buyers” who outbid individuals and organizations who want to give these horses good homes. Frequently, these kill buyers will then shuttle the horses to additional auctions to see if they get more money, all while forcing the horses to stand in trucks for days without rest, food, or water.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the horses eventually shipped to slaughterhouses across the border are again packed into trucks for up to four days without food, water, or rest. The terrified horses’ fight-or-flight response kicks in. But with nowhere to escape, they inadvertently injure themselves.
Many horses don’t survive the harrowing journey. Still, others arrive at the slaughterhouses with injuries so severe that they aren’t even able to stand.
The ones that do make it to their destination are then subjected to a traumatic slaughter process, starting with getting beaten into cramped kill chutes. Since horses instinctively thrash their long necks when frightened, stunning them with a captive bolt frequently requires repeated blows to the head.
As a result, horses are often still conscious during dismemberment. It is hardly a quick, painless death.
The images documenting this abuse are tough to see. But it’s essential for us to know the truth of the horrific conditions faced by these horses sent across our borders for slaughter.
The consumption of horse meat is also dangerous for humans. American horses are routinely given a wide range of medications and chemical substances that are prohibited by the Food and Drug Administration for use in livestock. Since American horses are typically kept as companion animals and not raised for slaughter, their meat is toxic for human consumption.
Most American horses have been exposed to many drugs prohibited for use in animals raised for food, such as the pain reliever phenylbutazone. Many racehorses, meanwhile, are also given illegal drugs to enhance their performance. These drugs can be toxic when ingested by humans.
Given the lack of oversight of the health of horses exported for slaughter across U.S. borders, regulators cannot guarantee that the horse meat is safe for human consumption.
Some of the top markets importing horse meat have recognized this food safety threat. The European Union—a primary importer of horse meat—has instituted more stringent import policies, including a ban on horse meat sourced from Mexico.
What We Can Do to Stop Horse Slaughter
Saving even some of the tens of thousands of horses shipped across our borders each year for slaughter is better than not saving any of them at all.
Concerned citizens can contact their members of Congress and urge them to support legislation that would permanently ban horse slaughter in the United States and prohibit related export activity across borders. The 2023 Farm Bill is the next best chance to save horses from slaughter. Make your voice heard on behalf of horses who need our help.
After all, animal abuse is against the law. We should ensure our policies reflect that. For centuries, Americans have depended on horses, and we still do. Now, America’s horses are depending on us.
Siri Lindley is a co-founder of Horses In Our Hands, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the slaughter of America’s horses. Lindley is also a world-champion triathlete, coach, author, and keynote speaker.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.