While the concept of processing unwanted horses for food is an emotional issue, the dark side of such a policy is on display in Kentucky and other states, the Associated Press reports.

Kentucky, the horse capital of the world, is being overrun with thousands of horses no one wants, as are other parts of the U.S. With the opposition to horse slaughter having led to the closure of horse-processing facilities, auctions are glutted with horses, and many rescue organizations have run out of room.

An Illinois State Legislature bill that would prohibit movement of horses into Illinois for purposes of slaughter for human consumption could be a final nail. Illinois is the only state where continued horse slaughter isn't threatened following a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in mid January that ruled as valid a 1949 Texas law banning horse slaughter for human consumption.

That ruling concerned two of the nation's three horse slaughter plants -- Dallas Crown Inc. at Kaufman, TX, and Beltex Corp. in Fort Worth. Spokesmen for the Texas plants say options are being weighed, including an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The third plant, which is unaffected by that ruling, is Cavel International, Inc., in DeKalb, IL. The three plants, which USDA says harvested 100,000 horses last year, produce horsemeat for the European Union and other countries.

Former U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm of Texas, now an agriculture consultant in Washington, D.C., recently acknowledged the emotionalism of the horse-slaughter issue to attendees of the Texas Ag Forum. But he says 80% of the horse industry supports the practice, and denying horse owners the option of taking unwanted horses to a processing plant restricts property rights.

"The best way to end a horse's life is humanely, with a veterinarian present," Stenholm said. That's mandated in processing plants, he says.

"Any horse owner who does not choose to receive a value for (unwanted) horses don't have to," he said. "But it's a property rights issue similar to water rights."

Providing coverage for BEEF sister publication Southwest Farm Press, Ron Smith says Stenholm believes that if horse owners prefer to consider their animals as pets, they would forfeit the tax deductions they receive for farm animals.

"The Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have a different opinion. But if they care about the welfare of horses, what do they recommend we do with more than 100,000 horses if we don't maintain a market of last resort?" Stenholm asks. Many wild horses end up on feedlots, ranches and care facilities, at taxpayer expense. "Can we afford that?"

He says people don't like to think about what it's like for an animal to die a natural death in the wild, which is "often gruesome." Stenholm says it's important to the horse industry, which counts more than 9 million horses at a value of more than $9 billion, that the Texas law (banning processing) be repealed.

"Horse owners have the best interest of their animals in mind," he said. "We should return the option of selling to a processing plant. This is an emotional issue."

Ann Swinker, Pennsylvania State University professor of equine science, says that, according to the Unwanted Horse Coalition, there are an estimated 120,000 head of unwanted horses in the U.S. today. Of these unwanted horses:

About 30,000 horses are exported to Canada annually for processing.

  • Nearly 65,000 are processed in U.S. annually.
  • Around 4,000 are exported to Mexico for processing.
  • 2,000 unadoptable feral horses are in Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-funded sanctuaries.
  • 6,000 feral horses are in BLM adoption pipelines.
  • Others are abandoned, neglected or abused.

Meanwhile, it's estimated there are 8,000-10,000 spaces available for unwanted horses at horse rescues and retirement farms across the U.S.

-- Joe Roybal