Feature

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

Click here to see additional photos of the Ahimsa Ranch.

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."

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.

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.

In the weeks before and after that auction last spring, the three U.S. slaughter plants began to shut down because of court decisions in Texas and Illinois; the Illinois plant was the last to close, in September.

But while this would seem to be good news for horse advocates, the end of slaughter here has only moved it across the border. The animals, including the ones from the Fort Collins auction, are now facing more prolonged periods of mistreatment and cruelty as they're trucked longer distances, often without food or water, to Mexico and Canada to be butchered in slaughterhouses less humane than those here. In the United States, horses are killed "humanely," as approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, by a gunshot or a penetrating captive bolt, both intended (though not always successful) to result in quick deaths. In Mexico, the second-largest producer of horse meat after China, things are different. A plant worker stabs horses in the back with a large blade, often repeatedly, in an attempt to sever the spinal cord. This leaves horses paralyzed but still sensible to pain as they are dragged from the kill box, hoisted up by a chain, and their necks are slit.

Animal welfare groups like the Humane Society, as well as horse rescue operations and their sympathizers, believe that the only way to save America's horses from foreign forks is federal legislation that will ban both domestic slaughter and the transport of horses for slaughter over our borders. The Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which stipulated a total ban on the practice and the sale or transport of American horses for slaughter, passed in the 2006 House session by an overwhelming vote of 263-146, but died without reaching the Senate floor. The 2007 session closed with the bill stalled, and its status looks unertain in 2008.

Interestingly, the forces actively opposing the bill include such horse-loving folks as the American Quarter Horse Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, another big veterinary organization. They argue universally that without horse slaughter to dispose of unwanted animals, the government would be forced to provide horse welfare for every horse not killed. Their second argument contends that slaughtering horses reduces the abuse and neglect they would otherwise suffer from owners who don't want them any more.

But horse welfare advocates refute these arguments as unsupported by facts, just like the myth that lame and elderly horses find their way to slaughter. After all, ban supporters point out, about 10 percent of the total U.S. horse population (of about 9.2 million in 2005) dies every year. Nine percent of them die naturally or are humanely euthanized and disposed of without problems. The other one percent consists of slaughter horses, mostly young and healthy animals.

A detailed study by John Holland, a passionate horse advocate and consultant in the field of intelligent automation, explains that the one percent of "unwanted" slaughter horses would simply be absorbed into the general population by resale, rescue, or euthanasia if slaughter were banned. Holland notes that slaughter numbers have been generally declining, while the total U.S. horse population has actually been rising by three to five percent annually. Yet there's been no corresponding stampede of wandering, unwanted horses on the nation's byways, and no need for government horse welfare.

Legislators like Colorado Democratic Representative John Salazar, a lifelong rancher and horse owner, choose, however, to echo the financial argument. He voted against the anti-slaughter bill twice, citing a pro-slaughter report and arguing it would cost $1,900 per year to house each unwanted and abandoned horse—$127 million in the first year to properly care for the animals if the ban were enacted. But in Colorado, euthanasia for a horse costs a few hundred dollars, and charitable hearts help fund the thousands of animal shelters around the country. Why would horses be any different?

Another possible reason for the slaughter advocacy is the slippery slope theory. The American Quarter Horse Association—which claims a large number of members involved in farming and ranching—seems afraid that outlawing the slaughter of horses for human consumption may lead to bans on the slaughter of other animals. In a letter urging its members to contact their elected representatives, the AQHA says the anti-slaughter measure must be defeated "because it sets a precedent for banning other meats for reasons other than science, safety, or public health." Nearly identical "we're next" language appears in other letters to Congress opposing the anti-slaughter bill, letters authored by the Farm Animal Welfare Coalition, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and the National Pork Producers Council. At an Agriculture Committee hearing in 2006, Representative Salazar revealed similar motivation, commenting "I like meat," and at the end of the hearing saying he'd probably have to turn into a vegetarian if the bill passed.

Despite opposition, horse advocates remain optimistic that the slaughter ban will eventually pass—it has been placed back on the Senate legislative calendar for 2008. But in the meantime the auctions continue.

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 [email protected].