Horses are free for the asking.

Sometimes they're even free without asking as unwanted horses turn up in sale barn pens, tied to someone's corral or are simply turned loose in the dead of night.

Prices for horses that are trading have dropped across the spectrum because there's no longer a price floor.

There's still a killer market, close to the borders. But shipping puts more miles on the horses and they end up at facilities in Canada and Mexico where the U.S. has no animal welfare jurisdiction.

That's what animal rights activists and others presumably concerned about the welfare of unwanted horses effectively accomplished by banning horse slaughter in this country.

“This is emotion vs. logic, and we never win those kinds of arguments,” laments Lance Baker, West Texas A&M University associate professor of animal science in the Equine Industry Program. “Most people who own horses don't treat them like livestock; they treat them more like a cross between livestock and a pet… They simply believe horsemeat should never be eaten.”

Keep in mind, this ban was accomplished through the use of state laws. In Texas, where two of the remaining three horse-slaughter plants operated until May, it was a 1949 state law originally placed on the books to prevent packers from mixing horsemeat with beef.

In Illinois, it was a new state law banning the slaughter of horses for human consumption. As of Oct. 1, the courts there apparently drove the final nail into that facility's hopes by refusing its appeal.

Pending bills in Congress could prove more worrisome to other livestock producers, though.

“We're concerned this could set a precedent that would prohibit processing of other livestock species, since the decision is based on emotion rather than on science, animal welfare and animal health,” says Josh Winegarner, Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) director of government relations.

TCFA and other state associations were heavily involved in the debate over the horse-slaughter facilities in Texas. Because the 1949 law mentioned earlier was already on the books, Winegarner explains there was little opportunity to convince slaughter-ban supporters of the unintended consequences.

In basic terms, a pending bill in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 503) seeks to amend the Horse Protection Act to “…prohibit the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donation of horses and other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption, and for other purposes.” A sister bill (S. 311) is pending in the Senate.

According to Brent Gattis, senior policy advisor for Olsson, Frank and Weeda, P.C. in Washington, D.C., the language in these bills is mild compared to what supporters of the slaughter ban have tried to attach via appropriations language. One version would have prohibited federal veterinary inspection of horses for all purposes. No more international trading of race horses, no more competing at international equestrian events. No more circuses with horses.

“It was unclear whether you'd even be able to move horses across state lines,” says Gattis, whose firm has been representing the processing facilities.

A letter to the chairman of the Agricultural Appropriations Committee, from 18 livestock organizations — including the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) and Professional Cowboys Rodeo Association — explained the language would also prohibit inspection of live horses for disease, as well as inspections at quarantine facilities. The General Counsel for USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service also weighed in against the language.

“By passing this legislation, the government would be limiting the way citizens can manage their personal property,” explains Tom Persechino, senior director of marketing for the AQHA, which has fought hard against the legislation. “Horses are personal property protected under the U.S. Constitution. Any law that would result in taking of personal property without just compensation or valid purpose is a violation of an individual's constitutional rights. Furthermore, it's a violation of the Commerce Clause to unreasonably restrict interstate trade of property.”

For the record, Persechino explains AQHA doesn't favor slaughter, but it recognizes that processing is a viable, economical and humane, end-of-life option.

Unwanted horses

Without the federal bills, life is already tougher for horses.

According to a report issued by the Animal Welfare Council (AWC) last year, there are about 9.2 million horses in the U.S. (2005). Of those — previous to the ban on horse slaughter — AWC estimated about 1% (90,000 head) were marketed annually to processing for human consumption.

Looking through a different glass, the total cost of caring for unwanted horses, based upon 2005 statistics, is $220 million/year, according to AWC.

Persechino also shares AAEP statistics that estimate basic sustenance horse care at $1,900/horse/year — feed, water and shelter but no veterinary or farrier expense.

None of the expenses account for the lost processing revenue, either.

“Those in favor of banning horse slaughter say those 90,000 head can be absorbed into current horse-rescue facilities,” Baker says. “First, no federal regulations exist to govern the care of horses in those facilities. Second, there aren't enough rescue facilities to take care of 90,000 unwanted horses this year, let alone another 80,000-90,000 the year after that, and so on.”

“There are very few, and by that I mean less than a handful of, publicly funded, equine facilities/shelters like those in every city for dogs and cats,” Persechino explains. “If the government is going to limit processing as an option, they should first provide economic alternatives for owners. Dog and cat shelters enjoy widespread public support and funding. Shouldn't horses have the same option?”

In a paper entitled “The Unintended Consequences of a Ban on the Humane Slaughter of Horses in the U.S.,” AWC explains, “For all disposal methods, except for onsite burial, transportation of the horse carcass to the disposal site creates issues pertaining to cost, disease transmission and potential exposure to the public of deceased animals. The increasing cost and difficulty of carcass disposal is emerging as a significant issue for horse owners with limited financial capacity to care for an unwanted horse.”

When renderers are available, they charge $75-$250. There's incineration, but it's not necessarily readily available, and it costs $600-$2,000, AWC says. Newer technologies like composting and bio-degradation also come at a cost and have unique environmental or access challenges. Even burial — euthanization by a veterinarian and disposal at a certified landfill still willing to accept horse carcasses — will cost $300-$500.

What's more, Baker points to the sad but well-known cases of dogs and cats abandoned by their owners out in the country, rather than taken to the local animal shelter, many of which charge nothing. He wonders what would possess such people to pay for humane euthanasia and disposal of an unwanted horse.

“Without the option and economic incentive to process horses, the number of animal-neglect cases may double or triple in local communities,” AWC concludes.

That was the basis of a joint response from NCBA and 190 other organizations to the pending federal bills: “…As many as 90,000 horses annually will need care, food and shelter. S. 311, and legislation in the House, H.R. 503, both fail to address the problems of costs for care and the unintended mistreatment of these animals in non-regulated rescue facilities.”

Persechino says, “I think you also can expect taxpayers to foot the bill for horses that become part of the ‘equine welfare’ system, just as we are currently subsidizing wild mustangs and burros.”

Still time to fight

Ironically, Winegarner points out it may become easier to get the public and their elected officials to recognize the problem with unwanted horses in light of the ban on horse slaughter as more horses are abandoned and neglected.

“Continue to educate your representatives in Congress about any impacts you see from the ban on horse slaughter, and about the unintended consequences it could have on other livestock species,” advises Winegarner.

“This is a good example of what animal-rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States are willing to do in their effort to prohibit anyone from owning livestock for any reason,” Gattis says. “It's also a good example of what can happen unless the agricultural industry bands together.”