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  /  NEWS   /  Slaughter is a Dirty Word

Slaughter is a Dirty Word

TFH Barbara LunaBy Barbara Luna, The Blood-Horse |

The American Association of Equine Practitioners was first to call them “unwanted horses” in 2005. Three years later U.S. slaughter plants were closed with no plans or funding in place to deal with the consequences. Rather than cut the number of horses slaughtered annually, the closures forced dealers to move their stock across the borders to either Canada or Mexico, making the final trip for these animals even more grueling and inhumane than before.

The backward order of things has caused well-intentioned or uneducated owners to allow thousands of unwanted horses to languish in fields or be handed around until horse traders score their $100 to pick them up, sell them at auction, and lengthen their sad days on this earth until their trip over the border to eventual slaughter.

Slaughtering horses not only removes the injured, old, or unmanageable but also kills many that are useable, sound, well-schooled, and, yes, “unwanted”. One only has to read the testimonials from rescue organization websites that chronicle the success stories of horses that had been tossed aside when no longer useful or affordable and then rehabilitated or placed into new careers. “Slightly used” is better than unwanted.

To most of those in the racing industry, “slaughter” is a dirty word. On both an emotional level and a business level, there is no place for slaughter in our industry.

While it is hard to stomach viewing the YouTube sneak-videos of slaughter plants and to picture any horse passing through the stocks to meet his end in such an inhumane manner, 7,000 racehorses met their demise under such conditions last year.

Acknowledged as much for their strong work ethic as they are for their hearts and personalities, racehorses are never simply livestock to the people who work with them daily, but are companions, partners, and, at the very least, individuals with their own quirks and attitudes.

Business-wise, the negative publicity surrounding slaughter from animal activists and humanitarians outside of racing has accounted for a drop in interest in what was once truly the Sport of Kings.

The throwaway nature of our society regularly tosses unwanted items into the garbage. Unfortunately, racehorses often fall into the unwanted category when they stop being productive on the track. Reality steps in, and our business sense tells us to cut out losses, even when it means closing our eyes to the fate of an animal with which we once shared a winner’s circle photo or a donut or a bag of peppermints.

In May 2008, the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association of Philadelphia Park – now Parx Racing – came up with a program at the same time it took a stand against slaughter. By issuing a zero-tolerance policy, horsemen were warned that any trainer or owner found to be responsible for a horse ending up in a kill pen, livestock auction, or at slaughter would lose his license. Funded by the PTHA, the horsemen, and the racetrack, “Turning for Home” has established a plan that negates the need for slaughter through rehabilitation and adoption and through humane euthanasia when necessary.

Sadly, with a poor economy and the expense of owning farmland, it is unrealistic to believe that every horse can live out its life as a pasture ornament.

Horses that have been diagnosed by at least two veterinarians as having permanent and severe or degenerative joint damage, with severe fractures that won’t respond to surgery, and with other injuries that will prevent a horse from ever going on to any type of second career, can be candidates for euthanasia.

Unfortunately, euthanasia is much more costly than sending a horse to slaughter. The veterinary call fee, price of euthanasia drugs, and carcass removal can range in price from $350 to $650. Euthanasia “clinics” are now scheduled by some retirement programs and can offer lower prices as well as a respectful death for horses when there is no alternative.

Turning for Home’s business plan has been met with enthusiasm at other tracks that are trying to put similar programs in place. However, the “unwanted horse” problem must also be countered by cutting down on injuries and irresponsible breeding, along with continued research and work on a national level to insure the safety of track surfaces and the safety of the racehorse through better medication rules and trainer licensing. More horses will retire sound and be able to go on to new careers.

Changing society’s outlook toward the old, broken, or unwanted seems an insurmountable task, but, like Turning for Home’s tagline, perhaps the entire racing industry can be encouraged to “take care of its own”, so that the word “slaughter” can be removed from its vocabulary, too.

This article appeared as part of a report on Unwanted Horses by The Blood-Horse in the October 2, 2010 issue. To view the entire report, click here.

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