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Looking out for horses (but not cows)

Sunday, August 19, 2012
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The Equine Welfare Alliance met the other day in Saratoga, and afterward I caught up with the president, John Holland, to ask him what he thought about horse racing, this being the season and all.

“We’re not anti-racing as a group,” he said. “Our thing is, we think it needs a great deal of reform,” and he mentioned the banning of drugs like Lasix, at least on race day, as an example of the reforms he had in mind.

I told him I was struck by people who identify themselves as animal lovers having a rather callous attitude toward horses — tolerating, for example, not only the whipping of horses to make them run faster but also the drugging of them to allow them to run when they are injured.

“There are more people who love what the animal makes them look like than who love the animals themselves,” he suggested. “They love being in the winner’s circle, they love riding in a big event.” Which I hadn’t thought of except with regard to the owners of pit bulls, who seem to love how those dogs make them look tough.

Also, he said the association vigorously objects to the idea of “disposable horses,” which he said was “just terrible,” referring to horses that are raced or used in rodeos for a few years, till they’re played out, and then sold for slaughter.

This struck me because I remembered back to 2005, when the banning of horse slaughter was on the national agenda, and I wondered then what would happen to the 50,000 to 65,000 horses that were slaughtered each year in this country (for meat that was exported to Europe and Japan) if the practice was suddenly banned.

The Society for Animal Protective Legislation said at the time, rather cavalierly, I thought, “It is anticipated that many of the horses previously slaughtered would instead be kept by their owners or placed at sanctuaries.”

Now I learned that what actually happened was much simpler. The operators of horse-slaughterhouses set up shop in Mexico and Canada. Used-up horses from the United States were simply trucked across one border or the other. Far from decreasing, the slaughter of American horses for food has actually increased since the ban went into effect in 2007.

According to statistics kept on the Equine Welfare Alliance’s website, 104,896 horses were slaughtered in the United States in 2006, the last full year when it was permitted, whereas last year, 133,241 American horses were slaughtered in Mexico and Canada, after being sold at auction here for that purpose.

The average age of such horses was about five years, Holland said, compared to a natural lifespan of 25 to 30 years. They’re raced for a few years and then sent to the glue factory.

Yes, there are a few “sanctuaries” here and there — Holland himself has 13 horses at the moment on his farm in southwest Virginia — but there is nothing remotely close to accommodation for 100,000 additional horses a year. The idea that that many horses would simply be kept by their owners or placed in sanctuaries was clearly a pipe dream.

I don’t want to open a whole emotional debate again, but I couldn’t help asking Holland why it was OK to kill cows for their meat but not OK to kill horses.

He gave one reason I hadn’t heard before — practical, not ethical — that being, “horses routinely get drugs like phenylbutazone which are absolutely banned in meat animals because they are carcinogens or toxins.” Though I’m sure if they didn’t get those drugs, he would still be against killing them for their meat.

That’s because, he said, “Most Americans regard the horse as a companion animal that should be protected from such predation.”

I guess so. It still doesn’t compute for me, and I’d hate to have to explain it to a cow.

Carl Strock is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper's. Reach him at

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August 19, 2012
8:48 a.m.
+0 votes

Strock came up LAME this week

August 19, 2012
3:43 p.m.
+0 votes
twohands says...

No he's dead on, as usual. Human foibles and emotions defy logic. For example, why is it national news when a few people in Dallas succumb to West Nile virus while scores die in drunk-driving accidents during the same time frame?

August 20, 2012
9:22 a.m.
+0 votes
pppppp6 says...

Thank you Carl. I believe if people had any idea of the plight of most race horses, they would never go to the track. 27,000 thoroughbreds are bred every year in the US. About 20,000 thoroughbreds are sent to slaughter from the U.S every year. All the bragging, wonderful farms in NY that bred them have, for the most part, no long term responsibility for them. A number equal to about 70% of those bred are slaughtered in a brutal manner. I'm just giving you USDA stats. As for your cows comment, we do not wish any ill treatment of them either. They are both great animals who feel pain, etc. It's just Mr. Holland can't do everything, so he is on the horse issue. Good for him.

August 20, 2012
9:55 a.m.
+0 votes
Woodrow says...

Just because diners in the U.S. don't like the idea of enjoying horse meat as part of a meal doesn't mean it should be condemned as immoral. In many parts of the world, (not just France,) horse meat is a regular source of protein in the diet.

Myself, I will try just about anything, but horse meat I don't think I would, but I don't condemn other cultures who do. Here's a link to a good article in the NYT


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