Despite increasing public pressure to ban the practice, thousands of Colorado's horses will end their lives not out to pasture but on foreign dinner plates. Unless some determined rescuers—and their unlikely allies—can save them.
The common belief that slaughter is a necessary but humane end of the trail for old, decrepit, and sick horses has been disproved by the USDA, which inspects horses at the plants and judges more than 92 percent of them to be in good condition. They come from a variety of backgrounds: retired racing thoroughbreds, mustangs, extra horses culled from a rancher's herd, or mares and foals from PMU (pregnant mare urine) farms used for production of estrogen for the estrogen replacement drug Premarin. A good number of them have papers and quality bloodlines. Owners bring them to auction for all kinds of reasons: Maybe they stopped riding because of health problems; perhaps their horse-loving daughter went away to college, or the horse and owner have developed irreconcilable differences. Most think they'll find another good home for them, unaware they may instead be bound for slaughter.
Reflecting on why 70 to 80 percent of Americans (depending on the poll) are opposed to slaughter, Barton shrugs and says it's all about emotion. Little girls grow up wanting a horse, and people in the suburbs and the big cities see these horses that are heroes on TV and the movies, he says. "They're not farm animals to these people; they're something special from childhood." He points to the media stories a few years ago about 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand being slaughtered and shipped to Japan, where his steaks were advertised as an opportunity to "Eat an American Champion." "There was a big commotion," he says. "But my God, who's taking care of that horse—who let it get there?"
Barton finishes his tour of the pens, closing the gates carefully behind him. As he walks past the mule and the horse with the braided mane, he sees a familiar lone figure leaning on the fence. He's not the only one interested in them today.
Lauren Tipton rose this morning in the freezing dawn, climbing into two layers of long underwear and a pair of quilted Carhartt coveralls. She banged out the screen door just as the sky turned pink, bringing breakfast to her milling orphanage of horses, goats, dogs, donkeys, potbellied pigs, and a Himalayan yak.
She and her husband, Tyson, live northwest of Fort Collins in a neat, white modular home on a slice of land tucked between piñon- and juniper-studded ridges. A gang of recently planted cottonwoods struggles in the yard. The cluster of barns and corrals houses her private rescue, Ahimsa Ranch. ("Ahimsa" refers to the Hindu principle of doing no harm.) They moved here a few years ago so Lauren could attend vet tech school, buying a little 35-acre homestead where they could keep a few horses, a prospect that had been financially impossible in their native California. Tipton, a horse trainer specializing in dressage, reining, and colt starting, went to school until she and good friend Amber Herrell found something that derailed their studies—the Fort Collins auction.
Tipton and Herrell, a vet tech classmate, would drop in on auction days and fall for the sad faces. They quickly found themselves bidding to ransom horses from kill buyers' trucks. Sometimes they'd get animals for $75 or less; sometimes they'd cost a few hundred. Tipton says at the beginning there was no real plan, just their desire to save the horses from their fate. But soon, both young women had each quit school and started her own rescue operation. Tipton keeps around 40 horses on her spread, and Herrell usually has 35 at her Shiloh Acres Horse Rescue.
Tipton and her husband, a phone field technician, spend about $80,000 a year on the rescue, mostly on the horses, nearly all of it their own money. They're also funded by fees from adoptions and by Lauren's training business, though she has little time to work with outside horses these days. About $12,000 came from adoption donations, and another donor gave them a stock trailer to haul to auctions, where Tipton and Herrell have become regulars.
Tipton tucks wind-lashed bits of her hair into the twist at the back of her neck, climbs down from the rail, and approaches the big, white mule. She opens his mouth, and peers at his teeth. She grabs her cell phone and calls Front Range Equine Rescue in Larkspur, which has been known to take older horses. "Yeah, he's a sweet older guy," she says, stroking his neck. Lauren acts as a kind of equine social-services placement director for a number of rescue operations too distant to attend the auction. Along with Front Range, she places horses with the Epona Project in Castle Rock, Shiloh Acres when Herrell isn't there, and with occasional private buyers in California.
"This country was built on the backs of horses," she says quietly. "We're trying to prevent suffering. I want to give horses a second chance, work with their minds and training to make them more adoptable. If a horse has a shot, a gleam in the eye, if I can help him, that's what I want to do."
The rescuers and the kill buyers may be foes on the ethical front, but on the ground they cooperate in an unlikely relationship that saves many animals. The kill buyers allow Tipton out on their private feedlots to look over the animals they bring in from other states, as well as the horses she couldn't cobble funds together to save at the Centennial Auction. She is grateful but puzzled.
"These are big players in the game, making big money, shipping millions of dollars in horses," Tipton says. "They don't have a financial incentive to sell to us; we pay about the same as what they get at the slaughterhouses." She estimates that about a fifth of the horses slaughtered in the United States are provided by the four kill buyers who frequent the Fort Collins auction.
The kill buyers make easy scapegoats, but most justify their business by saying they're providing a service for horses that have nowhere else to go. And Tipton has realized if she treats the buyers well, they'll help her out with rescue work. Kill buyers are not immune to the emotional spell of their stock; one buyer even pulled a horse off his truck and saved it for no other reason than it locked eyes with him. Another transported and held a sick stallion, at his own expense, and kept it at his ranch until Tipton could afford it. Clyde Barton bought nine pregnant mares at a regional sale and gave her time to adopt them out to private buyers or place them at various rescues. And seeing the horses placed with private buyers increases their value in the kill buyers' eyes, making them willing to make sales other than to slaughter.
Tipton enters the pen with the little sorrel to see if he's a good candidate. The friendly youngster rests his head on her shoulder. She dials Hilary Wood at Front Range and tells her there's a well-bred quarter horse that will be a nice big-boned boy when he grows up, and has the disposition ideal for a pleasure horse. Wood says no, they just don't have the room or the funds right now, but she gives the OK for the white mule.
Even though both Tipton's and Herrell's rescue operations are full, she moves on to inspect the braided-mane chestnut gelding with the white blaze. Glossy-coated, larger than most, he's got an outstanding build and an expensive set of shoes. But Lauren's vet background tells her there's something wrong; she sees he's swollen in the cheeks and under his chin. He tosses his head, refusing to let her open his mouth to check for tooth problems. "Maybe it's cancer, maybe a thyroid problem—or maybe somebody really yanked on his mouth with a bit," Lauren says. But no rescue facility can afford to pay the whopping vet bills that can arise from unknown health issues. This handsome horse will go to the kill buyers.