How America’s wild horses end up in slaughterhouses abroad

Equine slaughter has been banned in America for over a decade. But the horse meat trade is still thriving.

Last week, ten Utah county commissioners on a lobbying trip walked into the Washington, D.C. office of Democratic New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. They were there to talk about school funding issues, but one of them, Tammy Pearson, had a side agenda: To let Booker’s staff know about the wild horse population, which is out of control.

Pearson, a Beaver County commissioner, ranches on federal land. Every month, she pays the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) $1.35 for each of the 600 cattle that graze the mountainous terrain beyond the small town of Minersville. In theory, both sides benefit. When her cows feed on the grass, they prevent it from becoming fuel for wildfires. And the comparatively low cost of doing business with the government keeps beef costs down for consumers.

“We’re feeding the world, and this is the cheapest way of doing it,” Pearson says.

Last year, more than 80,000 horses were shipped out of the U.S. for slaughter.

But she pays an unexpected price. Pearson’s cattle share the range with wild horses, protected since 1971 by the BLM, which is supposed to set population limits on her herd based on how many horses the land can sustain.

There should be no more than 60 wild horses and burros on the 60,000-acre Frisco Herd Management Area, where Pearson ranches. As of March, there were 173, according to BLM spokesman Jason Lutterman. It’s a national problem. Government lands can support a total of 26,690 animals nationwide, according to Lutterman, but the current population is more than triple that, at 88,090.

Pearson says the horses tromp the mountain riverbeds into mudholes. They follow cows around, gobbling their grass, drinking out of their water troughs, and eating their protein supplements out of tubs.

Between that and the droughts, she says, she’s only been able to ranch half of her herd, paying $30,000 to keep the rest in a feedlot in town. She’d like to round up the horses, but if she so much as touched one, she says, she could land in jail. She’s heard of people shooting the horses, and can appreciate their frustration.

“I would have a problem doing that,” she says. “But at some point in time, it might end up coming to that. It wouldn’t be much different than hunting.”

Booker is sympathetic to ranchers, so Pearson, one of two women in the delegation, mentioned her wild horse problem and invited the Senator’s staff to attend an advisory meeting at the end of October. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” she says, about the challenge of educating politicians like Booker, who aren’t from Western states, and may not be familiar with the issue.

For decades, BLM has rounded up wild horses and burros, aiming to do it every three to five years. Right now, a round-up is underway in Nevada. Last year, the bureau removed 11,472 wild horses and burros nationwide, more than in the three previous years combined. But its taxpayer-funded corrals and pastures, where horses wait to be sold or adopted, are nearing capacity.

The pressing question is where to put this growing population once existing options are full. Slaughtering horses for food is illegal in the U.S., but a market exists beyond our borders, in Europe, Japan and Russia. This is why brokers called “kill buyers” send trailers full of horses, both wild and domestic, into Mexico and Canada, where slaughter is legal. Last year, 81,573 horses made the trip.

Wild horses as viewed through a sight on Tammy Pearson's Utah ranch. Tammy Pearson

Wild horses, viewed through a sight on Tammy Pearson’s Utah ranch, which she leases from the Bureau of Land Management

Wild horses are a minority in the disposable horse population, though they have an impact out of proportion to their numbers: They make it more difficult for ranchers to raise the cattle we eat. Once shipped out of the U.S., they are outnumbered at foreign slaughterhouses by privately-owned riding horses or racehorses sold for an array of reasons—too old, too small for a growing rider, too expensive, not fast enough, or excessive in some way that an owner found intolerable.

Tracking the exact percentage of wild horses in the total slaughterhouse population is impossible , in part because after a year adoptive owners are allowed to sell them without notifying the BLM–and people who buy them outright can sell them immediately.

BLM tries to control herd populations through operations known as gathers. For weeks or months at a time, agents and contractors lure horses to water traps, and chase them with helicopters into temporary pens—six-foot metal fences covered in burlap. The horses are trailered to one of 20 permanent facilities the agency owns around the country. There, the stallions are gelded, and along with the mares, are branded with a freezemark.

If a horse is built right—short-backed, with big hindquarters—he might have a future as a riding horse. A couple might see him on the BLM’s website, adopt him, and pick him up at the corral, or hire someone to trailer him to his new home. Adopters used to pay a $125 fee, but in March the BLM began paying them $1,000 as an incentive. They get half up front, and receive the rest after BLM checks in, at the end of one year, and finds them to be doing a responsible job.

After a year and a day, the adopters can buy the horse, and become his legal owner. They sign a document agreeing to provide humane care, and not to process the horse “into commercial products” or sell it to someone who will. There’s a disclaimer, too, stating that wild horses are ungentle, and due to their age and temperament may never get accustomed to humans, or be useful as a farm animal.

Care is expensive; if a horse can’t be broken an owner might decide to get rid of him. There are few options. Owners can pay to have a horse euthanized, or they can sell the horse to someone who wants to give him a new home. Once they transfer the title at a local barn, the contract the owners had with BLM is no longer in effect; it holds only for the initial owner. That’s where a pipeline to slaughter can start, whether that adoptive owner knows it or not.

Wild horses being gathered by helicopter in Oregon's Paisley DesertBureau of Land Management Oregon / Flickr

Wild horses being gathered by helicopter in Oregon’s Paisley Desert

It’s hard to kill a horse, because they are prey animals—come at them and their instinct is to bolt. They thrash around in squeeze-chutes used for slaughter, twisting their long necks to elude shots from bolt guns aimed between their eyes and ears to render them unconscious. Advocates cite instances in which repeated, failed blows result in gory injuries, and horses that are awake for their own slaughter.

“Think about putting a cantaloupe on a stick, and swinging it around, and having someone try to position something onto that cantaloupe steadily,” says Katie Kraska, who manages federal legislation about horses for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). “Other animals are completely immobilized when they go to squeeze-chute. But horses’ instinctual flight response makes them ill-suited for stunning.”

Activists focused on the plight of wild horses beginning in the 1950s, largely due to the crusading efforts of Velma Johnston, better known as Wild Horse Annie. Johnston convinced Americans that mustangs, which had been set loose on range land as they were replaced by cars and tractors, were national treasures, and that roundups were ruthless and excessive. Congress agreed, and in 1971 passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which declared the animals to be “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

The act also protected them from slaughter, and choked off a crucial supply for processors, effectively shutting down the American horse meat market. Even pet food companies stopped using horse meat, turning to beef as a cheaper alternative.

And while wild horses on the range were safe, the act didn’t protect domestic horses. Except in a few individual states, slaughtering those horses wasn’t outlawed for decades, until an appropriations bill blocked the use of federal funds for horse meat inspection in 2006. After that de facto ban, the country’s few remaining abattoirs closed—and despite a short-lived move to restore funding, have stayed that way since a second ban in 2014.

“We’re feeding the world, and this is the cheapest way of doing it.”

Some kill buyers say they would prefer to see animals find homes, but others say that slaughter is a humane end for old, unwanted horses.

“There are horses that do need to go to slaughter, because they do not serve a purpose. If you get a horse that’s eight, nine, or ten years old that’s never been handled, you’re never going to get them gentle, and you’re never going to get them to do anything,” says Jason Fabrizius, an Eaton, Colorado, buyer. “They might as well get something out of them. They might as well feed somebody.”

Fabrizius says he posts every horse he buys online, with a sell-by deadline of one week. He used to sell horses on his Facebook page until it was shut down earlier this year, after rescue buyers reported it; he now sells horses on his website, and on MeWe, a social network that promotes itself as a Facebook alternative. If the horses go unsold, they’ll end up across the Mexican border.

He says he “rehomes” about 75 horses a month, and sends about 200 to the border, where another trader transfers them to a trailer bound for a slaughterhouse. Right now, he’s trying to sell a nine-year-old mare, which once belonged to BLM, for $800. He also sells geldings, some as young as three years old, for similar prices, earning “a little bit of profit.”

When Fabrizius sells an old racehorse, he says, he doesn’t have to screen the horse for drugs or hormones, despite the prevalence of their use. “They don’t worry about it,” he says, of Mexican slaughterhouses.

He also ships freeze-marked wild horses legally, because as the second owner—or third, or fourth—he didn’t sign a contract with BLM, and isn’t obligated to obey its rules.

Brokers called “kill buyers” send trailers full of horses into Mexico and Canada, where slaughter is legal.

Fabrizius buys 90 percent of his horses at auctions. Sometimes, he says, he buys from individuals, including dude ranchers who need to get rid of an elderly horse. He always tells people where the horses will end up.

“They know what I do. I’ve been in the same place my whole entire life, and I’ve done the same business my whole entire life,” he says. “They know I’m going to send them to slaughter. That’s why they bring them to me.”

Not everyone is as transparent, and animal rights groups complain that the BLM does not do enough to protect its wild horse population. In 2015, the Department of the Interior’s internal watchdog found that one of the BLM’s largest buyers, Tom Davis, bought horses from the agency at rock-bottom prices and sold nearly 1,700 into slaughter for $100 each, although he had signed a contract agreeing not to sell horses for that purpose. It was not an isolated incident. In 1997, after the Associated Press found that BLM’s own employees were selling horses to slaughter, the director of the Wild Horse and Burro Program admitted that 90 percent of the wild horses met that fate.

Horses can't be slaughtered in the U.S. But that doesn't meant they can't be corralled at facilities like this one in Hines, Oregon, and shipped abroad to be processed into meat Bureau of Land Management Oregon / Flickr

Horses can’t be slaughtered in the U.S. But that doesn’t meant they can’t be corralled at facilities like this one in Hines, Oregon, and shipped abroad to be processed into meat

Since the last American horse slaughterhouses closed in 2007, the wild horse and burro population has tripled in size. The search for a management strategy has led to some unlikely alliances. Those endorsing slaughter include the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which says that many unwanted horses have “nowhere to go and no one to care for them,” and that stunning is humane when administered by two people using “well-maintained equipment.” Ranchers and their elected officials, who don’t want horses interfering with cattle, agree for different reasons, citing a report by the Government Accountability Office that says the ban may have increased animal suffering, due to the greater distances traveled by trailer and the inhumane conditions in Mexican slaughterhouses. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) agreed at one point, saying that slaughter in America would be preferable. The animal rights group later walked that back.

Other animal rights groups, including ASPCA, the Humane Society, and Return to Freedom, back the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, which would add a ban on live-animal exports to the slaughterhouse ban. The bill has languished in Congress for years, though, lacking support from politicians.

Those three advocacy groups, among others, have recently joined up with ranchers represented by the Farm Bureau and National Cattleman’s Beef Association to launch a new proposal with a radically different approach. In April, they asked the government to invest more heavily in contracting private pastures, and to make a more concerted effort to place only the most adoptable horses in corrals.

Wild horse herds expand by 15 to 20 percent per year. Above, a corral in Hines, Oregon

“The most important thing that needs to happen is a shift away from the current paradigm of rounding horses up, removing them from public lands, and warehousing them off-range,” says ASPCA’s Kraska. “We’ve been going down that one, not-so-great path for a long time. At some point, there has to be a humane path forward.”

The groups behind the new plan want BLM agents to focus on birth control. They envision a large-scale application of contraceptive vaccines, including a hormone marketed as Gonacon, and another formulation called PZP-22, so named for the number of months it renders a mare infertile. Treating the horses and releasing them back to the range could alter a daunting population curve. Herds expand by 15 to 20 percent per year, Kraska says, but the goal is something approaching a flatline.

But Barry Ball, who studies reproduction at the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky, points out that vaccines aren’t permanent. The agency spends around $1,800 to hold an animal in a corral for a year, and even less to hold them in pasture. By comparison, it costs around $3,000 to gather, treat and release a mare, which would have to be done every two years to be successful. Even with an unlimited budget, he says, it could be many years before vaccines are a cost-effective way to control populations.

Ball was funded by BLM to study surgical spaying, in a trial involving five mares, but inflammations and post-operative complications kept it from being adopted.

Lutterman, the BLM spokesman, doesn’t think such a program can succeed. Last year, the agency proposed a similar procedure on 100 wild mares at a herd management area in southeast Oregon. The surgeries were blocked in court by the Animal Welfare Institute, a backer of the SAFE Act, and other groups that said they were inhumane.

“At some point, there has to be a humane path forward.”

Darting wild horses with vaccines—the least invasive approach—wouldn’t work, he says, because agents can’t get near most of them.

“Every year the mare is alive on the range, they learn how to avoid the helicopter,” Lutterman says. “The horses get wise to the gather.”

Nevertheless, Pearson is optimistic about the “path forward,” as the ranchers and animal rights groups call their proposal. She says Congressman Chris Stewart, a Republican, who helped convene the groups two years earlier to find common ground, is drafting legislation. For the first time, she says, “we’ve got people talking about it instead of shaking their heads and throwing their hands in the air.”

Five years from now, she hopes to see more horses held in larger, private pastures. It’s not ideal, but it’s good enough, given the alternatives.

“For the majority of Congress, those guys don’t really care what they spend,” she says. “If we have to put horses in long-term pasture and feed them forever, that’s better than having natural resource damage that’s irreparable. That’s not the best-case scenario. It’s just the closest thing to it. The political attitude towards any actual use of the horses, other than adoption, is just not palatable.”

In other words, it’s better to spend money than to turn horses into food—as they were during the world wars, and briefly, during a beef shortage in the 1970s.

Then again, says Pearson, anything is better than the status quo.

“Just to feed thousands and thousands of horses forever until they die, and still have to dispose of them or euthanize them, just seems like not a fiscally responsible thing to do,” she says. “There should be a purpose and a reason to those horses. I don’t see a problem with anybody eating them.”

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Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.