The hoof stops here


Horse slaughter is back on the table, so to speak. What amounted to a congressional ban against the practice ended when the 2011 Agriculture Appropriations bill reinstated federal funding for inspecting horses before they’re sent to a slaughterhouse.

But it's hard to know what will happen next. The Bureau of Land Management’s advisory board overseeing free-ranging horses and burros has been stacked with pro-slaughter ranching advocates, who are only thinly disguised as neutral citizens. One recently appointed member advocates for commercial slaughter as a management strategy for wild horses. 

The board is pro-slaughter because that is all the BLM has ever been, ever since the days when it helped round up wild horses for Rin Tin Tin's dog bowl in the 1920s. The federal agency has long backed the interests of the ranching, recreation, development and dog-food industries, despite running a few adoption programs in an attempt to pacify people like me and other annoying horsey lovers.

For those who would argue that the BLM is at least trying to help wild horses -- even by sending them to slaughter for their own good -- I ask: Since when have Americans set the bar so low? How can we possibly find it acceptable to house over 34,000 horses, more than half of the wild horse population in America, in BLM holding pens awaiting an uncertain fate that is likely to end in slaughter? And why did it take a lawsuit before Laura Leigh, reporter for Horseback Magazine, could gain access to the BLM's wild horse roundups? When the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor Feb. 12, 2012, it said that “an open government has been the hallmark of our democracy since our nation’s founding.”

The more disappointing aspect of the debate about slaughtering horses is that it evades the real issues. Why don’t we admit that slaughter has never been an effective means to control or manage populations of unwanted, used-up and abandoned horses, whether they’re wild or domestic?

There is just no way to make slaughtering equines humane. A bolt-gun is generally shot into an animal’s brain to render it unconscious, but this method fails to work with horses. The animals resist the restraint and then panic, filled with fear. Given the combination of the large, terrified animals and the typically unskilled and low-paid workers who are hired to process them on the assembly line, the situation is a set-up for extreme animal cruelty. This is well documented in reports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

We should be ashamed of ourselves after all these years for being so ill informed or ignorant; to be as willing as we are to deliberately close our eyes to the facts. What happened to the pride we once had, back when we saw wild horses as living symbols of our national heritage?

Continuing the same old capture-and-removal routine for wild horses has never worked, while slaughter just gives breeders license to abandon horses at will, permits kill-buyers to thrive, allows racehorse owners to dispose of horses that proved disappointing at the track, and enables horse owners who fail to train their animals properly to shirk their responsibility. What’s more, it perpetuates a sad history: Thousands of U.S. warhorses went straight into the can after meritorious service, starting with World War I. And even with what amounted to a ban on slaughtering horses in this country, the Government Accounting Office reported that approximately 138,000 U.S. horses went to slaughter in 2010 alone, shipped to Canada and Mexico, where the equine slaughter industry continues unabated.

What makes this shameful is that here in the United States, we have the world's first and only dedicated wildlife fertility-control facility, the Science and Conservation Center, in Billings, Mont. Led by Jay Kirkpatrick, the world's foremost researcher on fertility control in wild horses, it has used PZP -- Porcine Zona Pellucida -- a reversible, non-hormonal contraceptive with a 24-year history of success, all over the country on urban deer and 85 species of zoo animals, including wild bison, and even on 14 different populations of African elephants in the Republic of South Africa.  Why we haven’t been routinely using PZP here in this country is a mystery.

Contraception works, and it is especially critical for us to implement this approach now that it has finally been approved for use in wild horses by the Environmental Protection Agency. For years, Australia and other countries have cited PZP’s lack of “official” U.S. endorsement, as a reason for selecting a “by any means necessary” approach to the disposal of wild horses.

Unfortunately, those “any means necessary” include aerial shooting, chasing and rounding up animals from horseback, capture and removal, and, of course, slaughtering them for domestic pet food and overseas meat consumption. We have the technology to control overpopulation of wild horses, and it is long past time for us to use it. We should know by now that slaughter is the wrong way to go.

Mae Lee Sun is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is the editor of the Wild Horse Journal.


Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
May 02, 2012 05:59 AM
There are no wild horses, they are feral.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
May 03, 2012 04:10 PM
With all due respect to the author, her position makes no sense unless she has adopted a strict no-kill attitude towards all animals. The argument that horses are somehow special, or more special than any other animal, simply doesn't hold water regardless of whether you consider them wild or feral.

I think the concept of horses as worthy of special consideration is a symptom of the romanticism that infects most 'wild' horse advocates. And frankly, while the idea of horse contraception is appealing, the truth is that it will be expensive and will still rely on round-ups (and the associated trauma) to ensure enough are treated every year to reduce they're inherent 20% rate of population increase.

Personally, I'm an old-school advocate -- I'd be willing to accept horses roaming free in North America when we've reintroduced saber-toothed cats and dire wolves to predate upon them and not before. Or at least open up a hunting season on them. Until then though, they require significant population management and slaughterhouses are one component of that process.
Carl Roberts
Carl Roberts Subscriber
May 03, 2012 04:14 PM
Mae Lee, I respect your opinion and appriciate your work on this article. However there are so many things that have been overlooked in this debate. As Americans we have a number of reasons to feel shame. I will refrain from labeling those who disagree with me as ill informed or ignorant. Even though I may think it. Rob Cadwell is correct. There are no wild horses. The ones we think of as wild were escapees from the early Spanish explorers whose primary mission here was to extract resources while using the native people as slaves. The horse helped them to do that. You may not want to believe this but, horses are livestock. As such they still deserve to be treated humanely.One of the most inhumane elements of the BLM capture program is the long term confinement of these animals. Have you been to a confinement facility. The horses are fed and watered and have some vet. care. However, to keep them penned up for years at a time, is in my opinion worse than using them as a food source. Most of the country currently inhabited by "wild horses" is very arid and drought prone. Without removal the grazing resources quickly dissapear. I don't think anyone would rather watch them starve while destroying the habitat for the native species that share that habitat.
     In a world that still has human suffering and starvation do you really think that wasting the nutrients that a 1,000 pound animal can provide squares up with conservation of resources? The BLM advisory board appears to be made up of folks that still view horse as livestock. Having range experience needs to be a requirement to be on the board. You will never find a more ardent horse lover than a cowboy. Let's save the cows on the range debate for a different day. Yes there are overlaps that cannot be overlooked and there are range conditions that require the removal of cattle as well.
     Certainly there are more humane ways to process horses. That problem can be solved, as it should be. The closing of horse processing facilties has led to many other problems as well. The rise in forage prices particularly in drought stricken areas has led to untold suffering of horses. Many horse owners have been misled to believe that turning them out to make it on there own has led to increases in wild horse numbers when those turn outs actually do survive.With our current drought here in Colorado we will no doubt see more horses turned out to fragile range grounds already past their carrying capacity. Colorado has produced a tremendous amount of hay that has helped countless horses and cattle to survive in Texas and other drought states. That will end this year as we are now dealing with our own drought. I am trying to plan for only raising half the amount of hay that I normally can. Burying something as large as a horse also is problematic.
     I am more than willing to continue this debate with other thoughtful readers. My sentiments and observations on this issue come from a life long love of these animals and a life dedicated to the care of horses on an everyday basis. Shoeing horses for over 30 years as my primary occupation has given me an opportunity to see humans giving the best of care and sometimes the worst. I have observed the wild horses in many areas and furthered my own understanding of foot care based on some of these observations. I hope that I have helped you to understand more of this issue with my comments . Carl Roberts CJF Hotchkiss, Co.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
May 03, 2012 04:15 PM
Blech! It's '....the inherent', not '...they're inherent' (last sentence of second paragraph). Sorry about that, I changed that sentence and didn't catch that mistake.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
May 03, 2012 06:19 PM
A few weeks ago I put the question to Jack Landers who writes that blog Lacavore Hunter, as he is crazy about eating all kinds of invasives from nutria to snake heads, and he replied something along the lines of the idea that hunting and eating horses would be a betrayal of the human - horse deal. Kind of like how we don't eat dogs and cats. I hope I've paraphrased him correctly. Made sense to me.

I'm not real sentimental, I eat other large grazers, like hunting them, and horses have that same sort of big eyes rolling around always lookin at ya appearance as elk and moose. I sure don't think I'd hunt them until we got a lot poorer.

A slaughter house might be the most humane alternative, and to give the meat to those who will eat it. World certainly has plenty of protein starved people. What doesn't make sense is to spend millions to feed them so we don't have to kill them.

It's going to be a bad year for grazers down low here, never seen it so hot and dry so early, dirt is dusty dry when you kick it, and it's barely May.

Carl Roberts
Carl Roberts Subscriber
May 03, 2012 07:30 PM
Tim, When you can only see two lines of what you have written it is difficult to proof read. You are forgiven. Had I seen that I had written a novel instead of a simple comment I would have cut it shorter. While out irrigating, where one has lots of time to reflect, I stumbled on my own honesty. In 1973 in Catron county N.M. while trying to make a living as a longhaired cowboy horseshoer we consumed two of the creatures over a two year period as an attempt to avoid killing elk or deer. Just something a 21 yr. old was going through. Both were young, healthy, well fed and crippled from poor breeding and a cattle guard. Being ranch raised, I saw no conflict and still don't. You simply do what you have to at the time. Taste wise- OK not great, but lean and filling. I prefer beef or elk.It was a shock to the community when word got around, but the mostly Mormon population of Luna N.M. seemed to accept the idea after a while. Several even confided that they had commited a similar act. So there, it is out, it is OK to eat your livestock. Why am I explaining this? See how far we are from reality? Kinda like Newt G. thinking he was presidential material.
May 04, 2012 03:28 PM
I agree with all of the above. It's a monumental waste of money to keep these horses indefinitely in facilities in the east. Slaughter is more humane and the meat will not be wasted. I'd rather we rounded the horses up for slaughter than injected them with drugs that will have god knows what effect 20 or 30 years from now. The potential for unforeseen consequences is just too high in my opinion.
The Taylors
The Taylors Subscriber
May 08, 2012 10:22 PM
with due respect to the author i would not categorize the arizona blm as just backing the "ranching, recreation, development and dog food industries". i have been a volunteer with the arizona blm wild horse and burro program for 17 years and have attended many adoption events in arizona working alongside the blm staff. perhaps they are being prudent not to mention slaughter, but will respond to the public if asked about slaughter. their typical response is we are trying with all our effort to get these equines adopted. that is their main focus and adoption just may be the most humane way to get the overpopulation off the public rangelands. but then that is where the problem is concentrated. not enough americans adopt them, the economy is slowing down the adoptions, on and on. i take my adopted burro to these adoption events, nature festivals, public schools, scout jamborees, etc trying to encourage other american citizens to consider adopting a wild horse or burro. birth control doesn't seem a practical alternative as these animals range over an xtensive territory. how would you identify the ones already vaccinated, and when vaccinated, let alone the ones unvaccinated? beside adoption i'm an advocate of requiring any gov agency, municipal, county, state, federal, that has a need for an equine for any gov business purpose be required to adopt a blm horse or burro. an incentive would be some form of tax reduction or other incentive to make this happen. wilderness rangers, border patrol, police, military (some limited use of equines in mountainous afghanistan), should all utilize blm equine stock. blm has a handful of departments of correction (canon city colorado, etc) that utilize trusted inmates to tame and train horses into riding stock. it is reputed to be a win-win situation, the horse gets trained the inmate feels selfworth.....