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.
During recent months, with anti-slaughter measures gaining support, Lauren Tipton also has seen reason for hope right in her own backyard. "The kill buyers seem to be shifting toward reselling more horses as saddle horses as opposed to just shipping everything to the plants," she says. The buyers are using their contacts all over the country to explore other markets, because they realize that federal legislation seems to be gaining momentum.
Tipton, too, strongly counters the "unwanted horse" theory. In her experience and that of other rescuers, a good potential saddle horse can always find a new home. In fact, horse ownership in the U.S. has climbed dramatically in recent years, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service— up four percent each year, far more than the annual one percent needed to buy up all the "unwanted" horses now heading to slaughter. And owners are willing to pay: Horses from Canadian PMU farms are purchased by families across the country, Tipton says, "and it's not cheap—they don't mind paying $500 to $1,500, plus $500 in shipping, for a middle-aged, barely halter-broke mare."
She thinks a surge in registries of adoptable horses would soon appear on the Internet if the federal slaughter ban were passed (both Tipton and Herrell have their own sites). Breed registries and groups would also step up, like the racing industry, which recently initiated the Ferdinand Fee to fund retirement homes for race horses.
Tipton says educating horse owners to be more responsible will also help. She'd like to see a broad campaign discouraging owners from becoming "backyard breeders"—breeding their mare to their friend's stallion and ending up with a cute foal that eventually becomes a horse that nobody really wants: another slaughterhouse prospect. As a start, she and others are supporting Front Range Equine Rescue in a No More Backyard Breeders program that partially reimburses owners for having their horses gelded.
As she drives her weathered pickup away from the auction grounds, Tipton tries not to watch the horses being loaded into the kill buyers' trucks. Rationally, she tells herself she can only do what she can do, and she is comforted by thinking about the ones she has saved—like the wild mustang she named Leo because of his crazy blond mane. In return for saving his life, the stallion repaid her with wide-eyed distrust, once attacking her in a snorting, rearing rage. For more than a year Tipton coaxed and courted him, teaching him manners and training him under saddle, eventually selling him to a California veterinarian. One day she got an e-mail photo of the vet's five-year-old daughter leading the relaxed and reformed Leo in a local parade, with the bands playing and ribbons in his mane flying. "I feel very lucky to be part of so many stories like that," Tipton says. "That's really what keeps me going." m
Joy Overbeck is a Kiowa-based freelance writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.