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.
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Clyde Barton* paces a wooden catwalk that overlooks the network of pens. From his high vantage point, the lanky, silver-haired rancher marks the horses that stand out because of their size: the beefy quarter horses, the Belgian crosses. They stand quietly, steam rising off their bodies in the cold morning air. Their ears flick back and forth at the noise of metal clanging, trucks with trailers crunching down the dirt drive, the occasional far-off whinny. Sounds that spark memories of rodeos and county fairs, horse shows and pony club meetings, a feeling that something is about to happen. But for most of the horses here, this is the end of a journey, not the beginning. This is the Centennial Livestock Auction in Fort Collins, and bidding is just a few hours away.
Moving down the stairs to the pens, Barton pushes a gate open and steps into a small enclosure with a tall, white mule and a big, chestnut gelding. "Steady boy, steady," he murmurs, running his hand over their flanks and examining the eyes to check for the murky look that betrays beginning blindness. They stand still, nostrils flaring quietly. Underfoot, the packed dirt and fresh manure give off that potent scent that sometimes hooks a memory from Barton's boyhood on the home place in eastern Colorado where he worked cattle on horseback.
The gelding sports a white blaze and a mane done up in show braids ending in little black rubber bands. It's curious to see any fancy grooming in the auction pens—an odd parting gift by some guilty owner maybe. The sleek, well-muscled gelding looks good. The mule, though healthy, is old.
In the next pen, a two-year-old sorrel gelding stands next to a black mare with bony, protruding withers and a long, bushy coat. The friendly little sorrel nuzzles the man's pockets for treats. Barton gently brushes him away as he picks up one of its front feet, checking for hoof problems. Their current health, not their long-term prospects, is all that matters: Barton is what is known as a "kill buyer," a contract supplier for a horse slaughterhouse with the corporate motto of "from the stable to the table in four days." He'll fill his long horse trailer with the biggest, stoutest, most muscular horses he can find because they fetch the best prices per pound, their meat bound for foreign dinner plates.
Beginning with their reintroduction to this country by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, horses have been the engines that fueled the nation's commerce, later becoming romantic icons of a wilder past. They've rarely been considered food; Lewis and Clark turned to their own equines when things grew desperate on their expedition, as did the occasional rural family in times of great poverty. Today, they are considered by most Americans to be companions—working partners, pets, athletes, 4-H projects.
Europeans, despite a long and rich horse culture, have an epicurean tradition of eating horse meat, and in China it's a diet staple. In 2005, according to an Animal Welfare Council report, 4.7 million horses were consumed worldwide. And the demand is on the rise: Global production of horse meat grew by 38 percent from 1990 to 2005.
Of course, other farm animals are killed, mostly for our direct consumption, and we don't seem to agonize over our drive-through burgers. Horses, however, are different: At worst, Americans joke about old, expired animals heading off to the glue factory, a vague, euphemistic, and inaccurate perception of where horses end their days. Most Americans today wouldn't suspect where many of the nation's horses go to die.
According to the USDA, 105,000 horses were butchered in the United States in 2006 for consumption by diners in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and Japan, where horse meat is a delicacy. The three horse slaughter plants in this country are all French- and Belgian-owned: Dallas Crown and Beltex Corporation are located in Texas, while Cavel International has operated in DeKalb, Illinois, for 20 years. Thirty-seven thousand more American horses were exported alive for slaughter elsewhere.
If the notion of horses as food is foreign to us, why is slaughter such big business here? American horses in particular are prized for their top-grade meat. Much like beef cattle, horses are graded after butchering, from the lowest grades that end up as hamburger to the choice premium grades destined to appear on the menus of chic Paris restaurants. And the big quarter horses and draft crosses abundant in Colorado make for particularly prime meat. Slaughter has become big business: In 2006 about 16,000 metric tons of horse meat were shipped from the United States, valued at $60 million.
All week, every week, Clyde Barton travels the auction circuit, gathering horses to ship from his place in Colorado. His business takes him all over Colorado and to auctions in Nebraska, Wyoming, and Kansas. He may buy 40 horses at an auction, or he may come away with nothing. Though his purchases go mostly to the slaughterhouses, he's also a horse trader who buys for dude ranch strings, summer camps, vet hospital experimentation, and sometimes for private owners.
It's a hard business, Barton will tell you, every day dawning with the risk some crazy horse will charge and pin you against a fence, or aim a leg-crunching kick that'll land you in the hospital. And it's getting harder, what with the fines from the feds who are enforcing the humane-treatment laws strictly these days, after years of being pretty lax. You can't ship horses in double-deck trailers, can't ship a blind horse or one that limps or can't put pressure on all four feet. Fines for breaking these laws run in the thousands of dollars. But he sees the positive side of enforcement, too, admitting that, "if we didn't have the Humane Society and the other radical animal lovers there would be some gross mistreatment by some of the radical kill buyers."