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Unwanted Horses Spark a Debate

About those unwanted horses.

As many of you know, horse meat has been found in several prepackaged foods in Europe. They have been pulled from the shelves and stores. People are understandably upset and outraged that this could happen.

A local horse rescue, Project Sage, located in Northport, has accused Nancy Thomas of Thomas School of Horsemanship of sending one of her school horses, “Rex” to auction, perhaps bound for slaughter.  

If you care to read the debate, you can head on over to the Project Sage Facebook page.  There are comments from Cadence Kennedy, Amanda Hunter & Regina Johnson that should be read, to be fair.

I will weigh in to say that my horse came from a NJ auction. I bought him in 1998 from a barn in the Huntington area. This barn went to the auctions specifically to look for resale prospects. If they did not work out in a few weeks to maybe 2 months they went back. Not all the horses that go to auctions wind up at slaughter. There are plenty of diamonds in the rough. If someone has a good eye, there are plenty of bargains to be had. Often with a little time and correct training these horses can become something quite nice. It is a win-win situation.

Looking back now, I am pretty certain that if I had not bought him, he would have wound up back at the same auction with a good chance of being bound for slaughter in the US.  He is an OTTB (Off The Track Thoroughbred). He is smallish, not striking, just a plain brown horse. I fell in love with his personality and his intelligence.   He was not a horse for beginners or the faint of heart as he is spooky, athletic and a nervous type. I retired him over a year ago and he lives in a big field with 8 friends in N.C.  When I bought him, I was committed to owning him for the rest of his life. I was lucky and we had 14 fun years together before he headed to retirement. He is 22 and could very well live another 10 (or more!) years being nothing more than a pasture ornament. I am just fine with that. Not everybody is willing or able to do that. Horses are expensive to keep, especially on L.I. Financially, they are similar to owning a boat. 

My feelings on auctions is that they should not be an easy out for owners looking to get rid of horses. If you can’t sell it or give it to a good home for whatever reason then the humane option is to euthanize it.  I heard this explanation over on the Fugly blog years ago. You know that if you send an unmarketable item to sale the person most likely to buy it is the junk dealer. You can’t blame the dealer. It is not his fault you threw it out. He is just making a business of cleaning up other people’s garbage. I can’t imagine feeling this way about horses. But I have learned the hard way that I can’t change how someone else thinks.  I used to think it was all the “kill buyer’s” fault. It is not. There is a market for horse meat and they fill it. I have learned that if you make the kill buyer or the owner of the auction the target of your anger you will have a really tough time getting another horse out of the kill pen. 

  I personally do not eat horse meat and I have no intention of ever doing so. I also feel the same way about whale meat and broccoli. There are plenty of others who love broccoli and whole cultures that view whale meat as a delicacy. However, logically, horses are large prey animal with a lot of meat on them. In many places, they are a valuable commodity for that alone. Once upon a time fox hunting horses were put down at the end of their life and fed to the hounds.  If I thought for a second there was a way to end their life peacefully and yet not waste all that meat, I think I could be willing to go along with it.  But that is impossible on a commercial scale.

   I am not happy with the way cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs and other mass produced farm animals are treated. I do my part to try to buy organic and free- range, humanely treated when possible. I sign petitions and send letter to various politicians to make my voice heard. I strongly encourage you to do the same.

   The reality is when someone sells a horse, even to that perfect family, there is no guarantee that that horse will remain in that perfect situation for the rest of its life. I have heard of many horror stories that had a once lovely horse winding up at a bottom level auction, sometimes pulled from the kill buyer’s pen. This happens with multi-million dollar Thoroughbreds. Nick Zitto, a world famous racehorse trainer, keeps track of the horses he trains, even after they have left his hands. With his wife, Kim, they have stepped in and saved horses he knew from going to slaughter. Still, some have wound up in the kill pen. It happens with the girl who sent the horse to a breeder. It happened to the great racehorse Ferdinand.  It happens and it is tragic.

   Another hard fact is that there are more horses available than there are homes that want them.  Horses who are well bred and well trained will always have a market, even if they are older. Horses who are poorly bred, injured, or have little or no training are often the ones who wind up at auction. This is true in the majority of cases. This is true because no one else wants them.

   A huge part of the problem is that horses, and other animal like cats and dogs, are bred indiscriminately. It is hard to believe that people can horde horses. Here on Long Island land is at such a premium that the thought of having an indeterminate number of horses in the “back 40” is tough to imagine. However, it is all too common in many parts of the country. These horses are often not registered with a breed registry. No thought has been put into which stallion will breed which mare. The resulting offspring are often barely handled. Rescues step in when the situation reaches a desperate plight. Often horses in these situations are starved. To give you an idea, it takes MONTHS to starve a healthy horse to death. Horses are by nature pretty hardy and can survive in really horrible conditions. Surviving is not thriving.

   The result of all this careless breeding and handling is auctions overflowing with unwanted horses. Rescues and many other worthy organizations that are dedicated to getting horses into better situations monitor these low end auctions and do their best to get them good homes. But they can’t save them all.

   There are some who argue that if horse slaughter was banned the market for these bottom level horses would drop off. There have been no operating horse slaughter plants in the U. S. for several years now but still horses are sent to auction. Those not bought for private or commercial use now go to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. The trip is torturous, crammed into overcrowded trailers with no food or water. Fights between horses unfamiliar with each other are common and horrific injures are often the result. They have to travel for days, sometimes, just to get to the border. Then they are unloaded and loaded into another trailer for shipment to the processing plant.  They are exhausted, confused, hungry and thirsty. They are often wounded from fighting and traveling for hours and hours in a trailer usually designed for cattle. There they can see other horses being slaughtered.  The end is not usually quick and painless. It is brutal and inhumane.

   There are others who say slaughter in the U.S. should be a viable option. It saves the horses from a long, painful journey. The plants are regulated by the government. The meat is used in zoos and pet food as well as selling some overseas. The reality is the processing plants were barely monitored when they were open and had numerous violations on handling the horses from abuse to safety. The plants were modeled on cattle who have a different way of thinking than horses.  Many horses who wind up at auction and ultimately slaughter have drugs in their system.

Although, by law, processing plant cannot use horses with drugs in their system, this was not often the case. Drugs like Phenylbutazone, Ivermectin, Banamine, DMSO, Reg-u-mate, penicillin, fly spray repellents and antibacterials are commonly found.  None of these chemicals are made to be consumed by people or other animals.

   What is the solution? There is no simple answer. I personally don't think slaughter is the solution. One answer is for people to become much more responsible in the breeding and training of their animals.  Good training is critical is getting a horse a good home. Another is to work with the rehoming organizations that look to move on OTTB’s and other performance horses into second careers.  Perhaps if people could understand that animals like horses, dogs and cats are sentient beings with emotions, thoughts and feelings, maybe not as advanced as ours, but definitely intelligent and self-aware they would be less quick to dispose of an animal that is not as easy as they would like. 

     “Rex” is safe now at Project Sage but every week dozens just like him wind up at auctions all across the country. Keeping a 1,200 pound animal around for years after it has outlived his usefulness to a business owner is an option of only a few barns that I know of. Perhaps barn owners could look into selling or giving their lesson horses away sooner, when they still have some riding left in them. I know firsthand how very valuable to lesson or trail barn a really good school or trail horse is.  They are almost as rare as hens teeth.  So I understand the reluctance to part with such a valuable asset to a business. Many people who take lessons fall in love with their favorite lesson horse.  Maybe some would be willing to take “Ol’ Dobbin”. For sure, these old schoolies definitely deserve a better fate than put on the trailer to an uncertain, probably fatal, end. Maybe if a cooperative could be formed by several barns. They could each invest in a single property, have it run by a proven responsible, caring person and send their unwanted horses there.

   I also will state that the "throw away" mentality that exists is just as much to blame. If this horse (or dog) is not working out, instead of investing time and, of course, money into figuring out what the problem is and fixing it, many people would rather get rid of the animal and try again with another.  Plenty of perfectly healthy, sound horses in the auction wind up there due to a training issue. Many of them are fixable with the right training. 

    Then, there is the euthanasia option, which I discussed earlier.  I know that I will get flamed by some for saying that but if they have a better solution I would love to hear it.  Before you flame away, please understand horses are considered livestock. They have special needs, including space to wander freely, like a paddock. Horses need hay and ften grain which costs about $300 per month and that is a conservative amount. Their prodigious waste is expensive to dispose of. They need to live in groups as they are a herd animal. They need their feet trimmed every 6-8 weeks. Having a farrier put on horse shoes on cost, on L.I. about $160+. This is all vital to their well being. This is just the very basics of horse care. A horse can live 30+ years. Anyone who gets involved with horses learns all this in a short amount of time. A business owner involved with horses knows it is a risky business. It is also heart breaking at times. Many do keep the” special ones” even after they are no longer useful. But a business owner can only keep a limited number of horses who bring in no income. Even if you get lucky and get a good horse into your program, he could be permanently lame in 6 months through an accident.

What do you do with a horse whose chances for being sound for riding are slim to none? You can’t sell it. You can’t make money from it. Keeping it prevents another horse who will earn income from taking that stall. The rescues are usually over full and don’t want it. If you are very lucky, someone will come forward to promise to care for that horse for the rest of its life, you hope. I will state, again, putting a broken horse up for sale at a low end auction is just asking it to be sent to slaughter and inexcusable. It doesn't matter if you a commercial barn owner, a trainer or a single horse owner.  Other than that…. Again, if you have a good solution, every commercial barn and trainer on Long Island and across the country would love to hear it. 

Flame suit on…..

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Tania Lawson February 27, 2013 at 04:20 PM
This article was well thought out and written. I just want to weigh in with euthanasia. It's not as humane as we would like. Horses suffer between the 2 injections and sometimes take too long to die. There has to be a better way. Please someone come up with a faster acting injection so the horses don't suffer. Many people believe that a gun shot to the brain is more humane and faster. They do that at the track when a horse is suffering. Many vets do that too.
20+ Year Resident of Huntington February 27, 2013 at 06:15 PM
Ctabacco, Thank you for your well written and thought out argument. I have a horse, now retired in NC also. I got him used at 17 years old, had him for 2 years and then had to retired him due to foot issues. I now pay to have him run around and be happy. I wouldn't have it any other way. I knew getting him was a chance and he served me very well if for a shorter period then I wanted but I knew this and was willing to risk that. My horse gave me something that I can never repay to him for and I could never imagine doing anything but sending him to a retirement farm or if I really had to euthanasia. They are beautiful creatures that truly want to please. Some have attitudes and some are just mean.....but hey so are people. So again, thank you for this article. I could not have said it better and your true love of the animals and true responsible nature shine thru this article. Thank you!
ctabacco February 27, 2013 at 08:22 PM
Thanks for the feedback! I appreciate it! Yes euthanasia by needle can be less than perfect. However, given the other options, it is still the kindest. A bullet can miss the brain, easily, especially if the horse moves his head at the last second. The captive bolt method used in slaughter houses is essentially a bolt to the brain. They often miss as the horse is moving around. You can Google horse slaughter and captive bolt. Not a peaceful way to go at all. Yes, some vets carry guns but most elect to do it by injection.
fran sherwood February 27, 2013 at 10:45 PM
While slaughter in the US is a better option than those in Mexico, lef's not forget why they closedhere in the first place. Why does anyone think that it will be different the second time around?
ANN. February 28, 2013 at 12:28 AM
horses are supposed to be knocked out as in tranq'd then given the 2 shots.
ANN. February 28, 2013 at 12:29 AM
the tranq is heavy, it makes they're hind end go down, the vet guides them down safely, once comfortable and goodbyes are said they are then given the two doses. no horse or animal should EVER be put to sleep without being knocked out .
Tom G. February 28, 2013 at 05:32 AM
Chris, Thanks for being the voice if readon on this. Tom G.
Tom G. February 28, 2013 at 05:33 AM
*voice of reason*
sadeto March 01, 2013 at 01:36 AM
Reading this made me hungry. Think I'll head over to Ikea.

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