Final Roundup

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.

February 2008

The horse auction happens in late afternoon, after all the cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs have been sold. The auctioneer sits with his computer, up on a dais overlooking a small indoor dirt arena ringed by tiers of seats where 40 or so buyers wait. The first few horses go for 15 or 20 cents a pound to the kill buyers. Next, three wide-eyed yearlings run in, and shoulder to shoulder they wheel slowly in a clenched wave like they're stuck together. The little palomino brings $135, the others $45 apiece, all of them going to private buyers because they're too small for the kill buyers to bother with.

Then the happy young sorrel horse trots in, looking around in excitement. Bidding is lively, with one of the kill buyers getting him for 17 cents per pound, or about $102. The rescuers look morose until Amber Herrell, who has arrived for the auction, sees that the buyer used a resale number, which tells the auctioneer to pen this horse separately from the kill buyers' other purchases. The kill buyer will resell him to a private owner, and the women are relieved.

Next comes the big, white mule, and Lauren begins to bid. Someone else joins, and she scans the crowd to see the guy bidding against her. He's not a kill buyer, so she drops out and lets him have the mule. The tall, bushy-haired mare is sold to one of the kill buyers for only $90, while a large Belgian cross fetches 40 cents a pound, or nearly $700. At the slaughter plant, the kill buyers are paid anywhere from 25 cents to a dollar a pound, often better than doubling their money.

The metal gate swings open for the big, good-looking chestnut with the swollen face, and Amber starts to bid. When the kill buyers finally drop out, she ends up paying 66 cents a pound for a total of nearly $800. It's the highest price of the afternoon, and very unusual. As in many successful rescues, luck and a small miracle saved the day. It seems that earlier another rescuer had noticed the horse, maybe because of those strange braids, and managed to track down its breeder and the original owner, whose ranch happened to be in the area. The breeder, shocked to learn this fine registered thoroughbred had been dumped at the auction, wanted him back immediately, and contacted Amber to win him. It's been a good day; the rescuers allow themselves a few smiles. Only a little more than half the horses have gone to the slaughterhouses.