Should we lead a horse to slaughter?
Opponents argue that slaughtering horses is like killing your pet. Proponents say horses are just like hogs and cattle.

By Rick Maese | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted May 24, 2004

  • SUNDAY: Racehorses past their prime have to be dealt with somehow, and their final days often aren't spent in a grassy meadow or at a farm. They're slaughtered and shipped overseas, where horsemeat is a staple.
  • TODAY: With more than 450 farms across Marion County, Ocala is entrenched in the horse business. While most of the equine community breeds horses and deals with them at the start of life, one rogue dealer there sees them at the end. He took over the "killer buyer" business from his father years ago.
    May 24, 2004
    May 24, 2004
    Model voice.
    Model voice.
    May 24, 2004
    Horse county.
    Horse county. (ORLANDO SENTINEL FILE)
    May 24, 2004
    End of the road.
    May 24, 2004


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    Along a dirt road with no street sign, behind a house with no visible number, the rogue dealer doesn't want people to know his name.

    If they find out what he does, surely, he says, he'll face a backlash. With more than 450 farms across Marion County, Ocala is entrenched in the horse business. While most of the equine community breeds horses and deals with them at the start of life, this horse dealer sees them at the end.

    He rides a golf cart across his property to make sure nearly 100 horses -- some of them thoroughbreds that failed at the track -- are fed. He isn't raising them or training them or enjoying them.

    "I ain't doing nothing wrong," insists the man, the only dealer of his kind in Florida.

    This farm is a rest stop for horses. The dealer will try to sell them to a family or a farmer. But there will be leftovers. He says it's a byproduct of an industry that breeds far more horses than it needs. The leftovers trickle down to him.

    About once a month, he'll lead more than a dozen of them onto a trailer and point it due west. The horses will be unloaded the next day at a plant in Kaufman, Texas. There they'll be slaughtered, the meat shipped overseas where the horses will be consumed by Europeans who regard horsemeat as a dietary staple.

    "If I can do something else with them, I do," says the Ocala horse dealer, who took over the "killer buyer" business from his father years ago. "If I can't, I can't."

    The controversy -- which until recently was a taboo conversation topic in the industry -- has divided horse breeders, trainers and organizations. They all stand behind their principles, either arguing against a horrific act or defending a necessary process.

    "People that are against it, those are the people that haven't thought about it," says the dealer. "I'm not the smartest man, but something has to happen to that horse. It has to go somewhere."

    It's a complicated argument that weaves through cultural, moral and practical tenets. Each side can support its argument. Each side says it knows right from wrong. Yet the controversy persists, and the whispers that have divided the horse industry continue to grow louder.

    No easy answers

    Many groups have become active in their attempts to abolish horse slaughter for human consumption, especially in the past five years. Local governments are trying to stop an Illinois horse slaughter plant from beginning operation this month; two plants in Texas are operating under an injunction while the state Supreme Court decides their fate; and lawmakers in Congress could ban horse slaughter altogether by the end of the year.

    But there's a reason why respected organizations -- from the American Association of Equine Practitioners to the American Horse Council -- don't speak out against a ban. Put simply, they fear the alternative is worse.

    The Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association echoes the stance of the American Horse Council: The federal ban of horse slaughter will not solve the underlying problem of what is done with these unwanted horses. In fact, there is a concern that a federal ban could actually lead to more abuse of horses.

    In the past five years, more than 250,000 horses have been slaughtered. If the two Texas plants were not churning horses into meat, what would have become of those animals?

    "What we need to do is make sure they're well taken care of when they're alive," says Richard Hancock, executive vice president of Florida's thoroughbred association.

    David Broiles is a Dallas attorney who represents the country's two remaining horse slaughterhouses. He has spoken with veterinarians and horse owners alike, and he says that those in the horse industry generally recognize the need for slaughter. It is people from the outside who are pushing for reform.

    "It's all PETA and these animal-rights groups," he says. "OK, so what are you going to do with the horses? It's ludicrous. People will turn them out in fields and let them starve to death. The alternative is less humane, more wasteful and just dumb. These people want to say it's immoral. They think it's like eating a dog or a cat, and it's just not."

    Others scoff at the idea that horse neglect would increase. They point out that 15 years ago, more than 300,000 horses were slaughtered annually. That number has dropped by 85 percent (largely because horsemeat is no longer a staple in pet food), yet reports of neglect and abuse haven't skyrocketed.

    "They were saying years ago that we'd have horses starving to death on the street," says Chris Heyde, executive director of the National Horse Protection Coalition. "Well, that hasn't happened. I've never heard of a horse left on the road to fend for himself."

    More than just livestock

    Inherent in the debate is a simple question: Why should horses be spared? Horses are classified as livestock in the U.S., which for slaughtering purposes means they're no different than a pig or a cow.

    But a horse in America has historically been much more than a piece of livestock.

    They have fought in our battles, they have taken us to unexplored lands and they have worked on ranches. They were given icon status in Western films, they're fixtures in art and on television. We've named cars and guns after them. Horses graduated from transportation to recreation and entertainment.

    "If we're going to use them for our own self-aggrandizement, if we're going to play polo, have Kentucky Derbys, paint pictures of them, then I don't think they're the same as cattle," says John Fort, who runs Palm Beach-based Peachtree Stables and has had horses in two of the past three Kentucky Derbys. "We've moved them to a different realm. People are the great beneficiaries. If we're going to do all of this, they deserve a humane and dignified end."

    To some, horses are a pet; to others, a living piece of farm equipment. To the horse-racing industry, though, the thoroughbred is a lottery ticket. The racing industry breeds thousands of losing tickets while looking for its next champion.

    The number of thoroughbreds has nearly quadrupled in the past 50 years. More than 350,000 were foaled in the 1990s, and according to the Jockey Club, the breed registry for thoroughbreds in North America, between 30,000 and 35,000 thoroughbreds were foaled annually during the past decade. Florida breeds about 4,300 thoroughbreds each year, a 20 percent increase from the early 1990s.

    "Everybody's wanting to hit a home run," says Bonnie Heath III, who runs Bonnie Heath Farm in Ocala and whose father owned the 1956 Kentucky Derby champion Needles, the first Florida-bred winner. "They hear about a guy winning the Derby with a horse and that fuels their interest. I shouldn't say it's all greed and money -- a lot of people raise horses because they love the business -- but nobody seems to want to look at the other end."

    The other end is Texas. If horses start in Florida (which foals more thoroughbreds than anywhere but Kentucky), many meet their end in Texas, home of Bel Tex and Dallas Crown, the only remaining horse processing plants in the country.

    Different opinions

    Kaufman, Texas, is a sleepy town of 6,500 people, located about 30 miles fromDallas. On a hot day, when the wind is blowing west, Mary North can't go in her backyard.

    "It gets to be just awful," she says. "I can't even describe to you what it's like. That odor can just permeate everything."

    When North was just a young child 50 years ago, a cattle slaughterhouse was built on the property next to her family's 46-acre farm.

    She grew up and moved to Dallas and gave little thought to the farm's neighbors until she returned in 1987. By this time, Dallas Crown was slaughtering horses, not cattle.

    It wasn't a secret around town, but locals accepted that "they only slaughter old, sick and crippled horses," says North, 56. "That's what they told everybody."

    North started looking across the property line and saw young, healthy animals waiting in pens -- horses that made her think about Scat and Stormy, her childhood companions.

    "The real tragedy is that most people in town have always believed these people were providing a service -- 'If we didn't slaughter them, what would happen?' Well, they're liars," says North. "These are good, healthy horses."

    Not everyone agrees. Arlo Kiehl shipped horses to slaughter for more than 30 years. He stopped two years ago when the Canadian plant he'd taken hundreds of horses to closed down.

    He said a quality horse would never sell for $300 or $400, and a killer buyer can't afford to pay more than that for a horse that's headed to slaughter. Killer buyers typically earn 32-35 cents per pound.

    "A good horse doesn't go to slaughter," says Kiehl, 69. "A killer buyer can't afford a good horse. The horses that go are $300 horses; they all have problems. They don't ride good. They aren't sound. They have physical problems, and they have mental problems."

    Decorated racers like Ferdinand, a Kentucky Derby winner, and Exceller, who won more than $1 million in purse money, were retired to stud. But after they failed to produce champion offspring, they were slaughtered.

    Kiehl, a Watertown, N.Y. resident, promises that "ain't nobody loves horses more than this old boy." Over the years, he has been entrenched in every phase of the horse slaughter issue. He has bought horses, shipped them and toured slaughterhouses. He's been convicted and paid fines several times for animal abuse. (He used to transport horses in double-decker trailers, which are designed for short-necked livestock and illegal for the transport of horses.)

    Kiehl says the animal-rights factions don't realize the wide-reaching consequences of ending horse slaughter.

    "It'd be absolutely destructive to the industry to not kill them," says Kiehl, who still travels the country as a horse dealer, often selling to killer buyers. "This is what's happening: too many bad horses would keep circulating. They should be put down. They ruin the business for the good horses."

    Legislation in the works

    Rep. John Sweeney (R-New York) represents a district that includes Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He has spent the past couple of years slowly building support for House Bill 857, which would outlaw the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

    He doesn't want to pass judgment on other cultures that think it's acceptable to eat horsemeat, but he sees no reason for the U.S. to contribute.

    "The huge majority of the American people and most states have made the decision that the horse has a special place and should not be slaughtered for human consumption," he says. "The legislation is a reflection of the times and where society stands in its belief.

    "Is a horse like any other animal? We're saying no. You can't slaughter dogs for human consumption, either."

    Sweeney's legislation would force those who don't own horses as pets to treat them even when they're unable to work -- which carries a cost that many don't want to pick up.

    Some horse owners say they can't afford to care for a horse that is no longer viable. Feeding and maintaining a horse can cost about $1,000 per month, and the medical costs generally only rise as a horse ages.

    Right now, if an owner isn't willing to care for a horse into old age, the options are to spend up to $300 for euthanasia and disposal or earn $300-$500 by selling the horse at auction or directly to a killer buyer.

    For most, it's an easy decision, says the Ocala killer buyer. Though business has slowed a bit in recent years, the dealer says numerous breeders and horse owners throughout Florida have sold him horses for cheap.

    And he says that horses are often treated better under his care than they were before. Federal law dictates how horses need to be fed and watered and exercised when they're transported long distances. The dealer says too often he receives thoroughbreds long after abuse and neglect have already taken place.

    "I got these horses and at least I'm feeding them," he says.

    Coming to the rescue

    The anti-slaughter factions in the thoroughbred industry have become more active in recent years to provide another alternative. Dozens of small horse rescue organizations have popped up, and retirement farms have become common in communities reliant on the horse industry.

    In Florida, the state helps fund a farm for old race horses at the Marion County Correctional Facility near Ocala. It is managed by the non-profit Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association.

    Under the cooperative agreement, prisoners care for the old horses, which keeps operation costs low. A similar deal is in the works that would open a second retirement farm at the nearby women's prison facility. It only lacks state funding.

    "Some horses come off the track but that doesn't mean they don't have a life ahead of them," says Diana Pikulski, executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. "We don't want to just feed them forever. We try to find a situation where they'd be of benefit to somebody. There are people who look for riding horses, some want companion horses or a baby-sitter horse. They can have another career as a jumper or polo.

    "Even if they were injured in their racing career, they can still be useful as a petting horse and many can walk with somebody on their back."

    The rescue organizations and the retirement farms typically care for aging horses while actively seeking people interested in adoption. For funding, the non-profits typically lean on the owners and trainers in the thoroughbred industry.

    Perhaps the core of the controversy is about responsibility. Many say that if thoroughbred breeders are going to foal a horse, they need to make sure it receives proper care until it dies a natural death.

    "We feel like we live in a disposable society nowadays," says Heath, the Ocala farm owner. "When you don't like something or it can't help you, you get rid of it. Everything in our lives we do like that nowadays. People don't seem to have commitment. I think that's kind of the attitude of society, whether it's a car, marriage, pet -- there's no permanence.

    "If you breed animals, you have an obligation to them. But the way most people are, you use a horse for a while, it runs out of its usefulness, so you get rid of it."

    Rick Maese can be reached at