Ok, we need to talk about the slaughter pipeline. No, it is not a pleasant topic and I’d rather not be writing about it, but it is a topic that must be talked about for the horses’ sake. The reality is that the level of awareness around this topic is relatively low, even within the realms of many equestrian circles. I myself only had a vague knowledge of the realities of horse slaughter until somewhat recently. I knew it existed, and I knew the importance of being discerning when selling personal horses, but I had no idea the true horrors that so many equines face, nor how easily a beloved horse could become another “forgotten equine” to the pipeline.
You may or may not have heard the term “slaughter pipeline,” and if you have, you may or may not be fully aware of what it all entails. Many equestrians either have not heard the term or have little knowledge of it due to a quiet suppression of the disturbing realities. But even within the circles of those in the know, there isn’t much discussion or education surrounding the topic. I understand that life presents unique challenges to every individual with which we all must manage and balance as best we can. Consequently, it is at times necessary to tune out certain suffering that is not directly related to oneself for the sake of not being overwhelmed. I believe this is a large part of why the injustices inflicted upon so many equines are so often kept out of the mainstream culture and awareness of the equestrian communities. It is a heavy burden to bear. However, I am here to ask you to please, please, not look away. If you participate in any type of equestrian work or activity, then it is your responsibility to be aware of all aspects of the industry so that you may make informed and kind choices.
In this article I will NOT be sharing disturbing images, and I will try to keep descriptions limited to straightforward information. This article will be focused on providing you with a basic outline of what is being referred to when the term slaughter pipeline is used. I will direct you to the cold hard facts. I will address why you and everyone in the equestrian communities and beyond, needs to know these facts. And how you and I can take actionable steps to help support the equines of this world. Throughout this post I will be using the term horse to refer to all equines, including: mules, donkeys, zebra, etc., as they are all exposed to what I discuss here.
Slaughter Pipeline Breakdown
The slaughter pipeline is a term that refers to the consistent pattern of experiences that thousands of American horses face every year when they transition from companion, performance, and/or work animal, to livestock intended for human consumption. There is an international market for horse meat that fuels this pipeline. While there are currently no equine slaughterhouses in operation in the US, they do operate in Mexico and Canada where American equines are routinely exported and slaughtered.
Here’s how it works. A horse can find itself in the early stages of the pipeline anytime it is put up for sale. This is especially true if the horse is listed on sites like Craigslist, or on social media platforms like Facebook. These horses are oftentimes bought up by “kill buyers,” a.k.a. horse traders/dealers, who commonly pose as your friendly horse lover or respected equine professional. Or the horse may be bought and passed around from barn to barn for a while, but if there isn’t a good fit in any of the new homes they are passed through, they will likely end up at auction where the kill buyers can then bid on them.
The term kill buyers refers to people who frequent livestock auctions, purchasing stock to fill contracts that they have with slaughterhouses outside of the country. From there the horses go to holding facilities and feedlots, a.k.a. kill pens. The horses who end up there who are saleable enough, rideable enough, etc. will then be posted online for sale. The price for these horses is usually marked up well beyond what they just sold for at auction and the sale comes with a “deadline.” The advertisements for these horses will claim that the horse will ship within x number of days or even hours if they don’t sell, and it is implied that they will be shipped to slaughter. However, if the horse doesn’t sell then they will typically be shipped to another kill pen in another county, rinse and repeat. The horses at that auction that were not “enough" however, i.e. the crippled, the elderly, the ones with behavioral issues - they will end up on that truck to Mexico or Canada. They will not be granted a final saving grace of being posted online to be saved just before their ship date.
And the horses that have been moved around from auction to auction, kill pen to kill pen, without being sold and with inadequate husbandry and exposure to disease and injury, are likely to ship too. Transport to slaughter is long and arduous for a healthy horse, let alone a hurt and/or sick horse. And while there are (limited) laws and regulations to this transport, there is inadequate monitoring of procedures or enforcement of repercussions against violations. Not that it even matters in this case, as many of the few laws in place do not apply to horses being shipped internationally.
Once at the slaughter facilities, the process is nowhere near humane. Horses are inherently and biologically programed to survive as a unit; living as heard animals and relying on the awareness and subtle communications of heard mates for survival. The stress of being surrounded by other stressed, tormented, and murdered horses alone is horrendous. And due to their physical and physiological nature, there is no humane way to restrain horses for stunning, often times not fully rendering them unconscious before being slaughtered.
Facts and Statistics
Approximately 20,000+ American horses are exported for slaughter yearly. For more statistics click here.
The abuse, neglect, and inhumane conditions horses are exposed to at auction, feedlots, holding facilities, in transport, and at slaughterhouses is well documented.
There is currently no permanent federal ban on slaughter or export of horses from the US.
H.R.3475/S.2037 – Safe Act of 2023 is a bill, that if passed, will permanently ban the slaughter of and prohibit exportation of American equines for human consumption. (There is debate on the adequacy and efficacy of this bill in relation to equine welfare. More information can be found here and here.)
There is no federal funding for equine slaughter and meat inspection in the US currently, making equine slaughter intended for human consumption and the sale of horse meat illegal. Legality of the consumption of horse meat in the US is dependent on individual state laws.
The last US equine slaughter facility closed in 2007.
Communities and economies of surrounding areas where past equine slaughterhouses have existed were negatively impacted by their presence.
Majority of Americans polled do not support equine slaughter.
Many of the horses shipped to slaughter are healthy and adoptable.
Many formerly wild American Mustangs ship to slaughter.
There are rescue organizations and options available with capacity to house and care for unwanted and neglected horses.
Equine slaughter is not humane euthanasia.
Humane euthanasia and disposal options are available and accessible.
American horses are routinely treated with drugs throughout their lifetime that are not regulated by the FDA or intended for human consumption.
Who are the Horses that Meet This Fate?
No horse is safe from the pipeline. As you read above, all it takes is for a horse to fall into the wrong hands. Some horses are seen merely as tools/equipment from the beginning and are bred just to be used as work animals on farms until they physically can’t work anymore. At that point they are dumped at auction. And some horses are bred to be used in other ways; to be fancy high level show horses, earning big dollar winnings and prestige. However, a career ending injury can mark the fate of these horses just as easily. While typically not as directly as intentional as it is with the many work horses, it is not uncommon for former show horses to end up at auction. It is also not uncommon for a loving horse owner to sell their horse to someone who was misleading or dishonest about how they would care for the horse, which can result in the horse being lost to this dark side of the industry. Ex racehorses, beloved school horses, horses inherited by well-meaning, but unprepared family members, etc. They are all susceptible as long as people remain unaware of the facts and as long as there remains no legislation against the current workings of the slaughter industry in the US.
Who is Affected by The Slaughter Pipeline?
Well, obviously the horses, but people are negatively impacted by the current state of the equine slaughter industry as well. As noted above, there are little to no regulations surrounding the proceedings of this industry. Horses are also routinely and regularly treated with drugs not regulated or approved for human consumption. And if you know the horse world, then you know horses get treated and medicated with drugs…a lot! Not only is the meat contaminated, but runoff from the slaughterhouses can also contaminate water, soil, and crops in surrounding areas, which are then distributed locally and internationally.
Why it is Important that You Know What is Happening
Whether you are a trainer, a riding instructor, an equestrian student, the parent of an equestrian student, a horse owner, a horse packer, a wrangler, a guest at a dude ranch etc., whatever your position in the equine industry, you need to know what is happening. You need to know because you have an impact, but you can only make an intentional and informed impact when you are in fact, informed.
Of course, if you buy and sell, and/or train horses it should be straightforward why you need to take that responsibility seriously. I know horses are a livelihood for many people in these positions, and I respect that, but horses are also individuals; sentient and deeply feeling beings, whose lives are in your hands. This is a weight that should not be taken lightly. Even if the horses are given the highest quality treatment while in your care, please be informed and diligent so that you only pass them on to places where they will be equally well cared for.
Even if you feel like you do not have a strong influence within the industry, being informed can still be way more beneficial than you might think. If you teach lessons, educate your students so that they can make kind and informed decisions as they move forward. If you take lessons or have children who take lessons, educate yourself so that you can be discerning when choosing what barns to support. Same goes if you work for barns, or work for outfits that guide or pack horses. Be informed so that you can ask your instructors, trainers, and employers the hard questions.
Ways to Help
Stay informed and spread the word – As I just talked about in the previous section, being informed is a simple way to help horses stay safe in this man-made world. By being knowledgeable you can make better choices and you can help keep others in the know as well.
Consider your perspective on horse ownership – Owning a horse for only a period of their life, rather than for the full span of their life, is considered normal and readily accepted within the realms of the horse world. I would like to encourage you to consider a different perspective. Horses are highly social beings and can form deep bonds with other horses and humans. If you can, please consider giving your horse a forever home, so that they may form lasting social relationships that they require to remain emotionally healthy, and to help keep them safe from the pipeline.
Buy and sell with care – When making the decision to buy a horse, please consider all aspects of horse ownership. Are you aware of the significant financial and energetic investment that comes along with owning horses? Are you able to give this being a forever home? If you buy a horse with the intention to use them for a specific purpose, are you willing to keep them if they become injured or otherwise cannot perform intended purpose? If you cannot provide a permanent home for your horse/s, are you willing and able to care for them until a suitable (and well vetted) new home is found? When/if you do find yourself selling a horse, be aware that not everyone is honest about who they are. Consider making a contract that includes clauses such as how the horse is cared for and if and to whom they can be sold to.
Give your horse a good education – A safe and well behaved horse will always have more opportunities to find a good home, and so if you are responsible for the training of a horse, please be sure to give them the tools they will need to succeed in the world.
Become informed on current legislation and motions – Knowing and understanding what laws are currently in place to protect horses, and how or if they are enforced, can help to inform your decision making when it comes to how you participate in the equine industry. Currently, the “Save the Forgotten Equines,” or SAFE Act (H.R. 3475/S. 2037) is a federal bill introduced as an amendment to the 2023 Farm bill. If the act passes it would make horse slaughter and the export of horses intended for human consumption illegal in the United States. There is debate on if this would have a positive impact on the welfare of American equines, and so I encourage you to read about the act and consider all sides. I recommend visiting https://www.equineadvocates.org/the-issues/horse-slaughter/ as well as safe-act.org .
Rescue and Adopt Responsibly – When considering rescuing a horse, be sure to be informed and research the rescue organization you would like to adopt from. If you consider it rescue to buy a horse from kill pens, be sure to understand how kill pens actually work. Consider buying a horse directly from auction rather than from a kill pen. I will share an upcoming article to offer more information on kill pens and bail scams.
When confronted with the realities of the slaughter pipeline, the issues can seem daunting and overwhelming. However, simply by reading this article and acknowledging these unfortunate realities, you are taking a step in the direction of helping horses in need. Every single act of kindness, no matter how large or small, makes a difference. It all starts with gaining and sharing knowledge, creating compassionate perspectives on how we relate to and interact with these amazing animals, and proceeding to reshape the dynamic between the human and equine species to one of symbiosis and harmony. Please continue to stay informed and to participate in the wonderful world of horses responsibly. I will update this post as needed so that the information stays current and accurate. So please, save this article and check back periodically.