Horse Slaughter

photo by Erin Dolson

In the United States, horses have never been raised for human consumption, yet for decades, American horses have been bought and slaughtered by a predatory, foreign-owned industry for sale at high-end restaurants in Europe and Asia.

In 2007, courts upheld state level prohibitions on horse slaughter in Texas and Illinois—the last two states with operational horse slaughter plants. To date, only Texas, Illinois, California, and New Jersey have enacted state bans on horse slaughter, meaning the slaughter of horses for human consumption could resume elsewhere.

Federal action in recent years, however, has blocked the slaughter of horses on US soil. Beginning with fiscal year 2006, Congress has been including directives in annual appropriations legislation that deny funding for federal inspection in horse slaughter plants. Without such inspection, horse slaughter plants cannot legally operate.1 

But this provision only applies to the given fiscal year, and must be renewed annually for the prohibition to stay in effect. The provision, in fact, was allowed to lapse in November 2011 for the upcoming fiscal year 2012. Subsequently, facilities in New Mexico, Iowa, and Missouri sought and received permits from the USDA to begin slaughtering horses. Court battles prevented the companies from following through, however, before the appropriations provision was renewed in November 2014 for fiscal year 2015. It has been renewed every year since.

While this stopgap, year-to-year appropriations language blocks the slaughter of horses in the United States, it does not prevent the slaughter of American horses elsewhere. Each year, tens of thousands of American horses are shipped to Mexico and Canada, where they are killed under barbaric conditions so their meat can continue to satisfy the palates of diners in countries such as Italy, France, Belgium, and Japan.

This business mostly operates under the radar. While a handful of horses are purposely sold into slaughter by irresponsible owners, most arrive at the slaughterhouse via livestock auctions, where unsuspecting owners sell the animals to slaughterhouse middlemen known as “kill buyers.” Such buyers keep a low profile as they purchase as many horses as they can from auctions around the country and haul them to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.

The suffering of these horses begins long before they even reach the slaughterhouse. Transport conditions are appalling, with horses regularly packed into overcrowded trailers and deprived of food, water, or rest during journeys that can last more than 24 hours. Upon arrival at the slaughterhouse, the suffering continues unabated. Horses might be left for long periods in tightly packed trailers, subjected to further extremes of heat and cold. In hot weather, their thirst is acute. Downed animals are unable to rise, and horses are offloaded using excessive force.

When the horses are herded through the plant to slaughter, callous workers use fiberglass rods to poke and beat their faces, necks, backs, and legs as the animals are shoved through the facility and into the kill box. Subjected to overcrowding, deafening sounds, and the smell of blood, the horses become more and more desperate, exhibiting fearful “flight” behavior—pacing in prance-like movements with their ears pinned back against their heads and eyes wide open.

An investigation by the San Antonio News-Express chronicled the use of the puntilla knife on horses prior to slaughter in Mexican slaughter plants. Footage obtained by the paper showed horses being stabbed repeatedly in the neck with these knives. Such a barbaric practice simply paralyzes the animal. Horses may be fully conscious at the start of the slaughter process, during which they are hung by a hind leg, their throat slit, and body butchered. Death, the final betrayal of these noble animals, is protracted and excruciating.

Wild horses are also at risk of being slaughtered, particularly since a 2004 backdoor congressional rider engineered by Senator Conrad Burns (R–MT) gutted a number of the protections afforded by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Now, the Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for protecting wild horses, sells off “excess” horses (those 10 years of age or older, or not adopted after three tries), putting these animals in danger of entering into the slaughter pipeline. A 2015 Office of Inspector General investigation found that the BLM had sold almost 1,800 wild horses to a single kill buyer.

Until Congress passes legislation banning horse slaughter, show horses, racehorses, foals born as “byproducts” of the Premarin industry (a female hormone replacement drug that is made from the urine of pregnant mares), wild horses, burros, and family horses will all continue to fall prey to this detestable industry.

AWI has answered the most common questions about horse slaughter in the Horse Slaughter Facts and FAQs. You can also click here for a list of horse organizations, rescues, and industry leaders that oppose horse slaughter and support efforts to ban the practice. Learn more about the claim that horse slaughter solves the problem of an “unwanted horse” population in the United States and how some horses are illegally acquired for the horsemeat trade.

1. The USDA initially issued a regulation (CFR 352.19) that allowed the remaining slaughterhouses in Texas and Illinois to circumvent the inspection-funding ban by paying for their own inspections. In 2007, however, the US District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that it was illegal for horse slaughterhouses to pay the USDA for their own horse meat inspections, closing this loophole.