A Note to Horsemen

Better Off Without Us?

I realize there is a bit of anger among some who don’t understand the question of slaughter, or who have converted it into an emotional issue.  I wish to thank the horsemen who have sent me such kind words, knowing the difficulties, but also the realities of the issue.  There were also hateful, scornful letters that called me all sorts of ugly things, but one of the common threads among those sorts of emails was the fact that even fewer of them were owners of horses.  They were mostly written by so-called “animal lovers.”   Like most horsemen, I too am an animal lover, but also like most horsemen, I know the difference between loving animals and hating humanity, and I know that the latter is a poor substitute for the former, and yet this is the character of those who wrote me the most scathing but likewise ignorant emails.  One lady actually suggested to me that I should be hung on a hook and bled out onto the slaughterhouse floor.  Her main thrust was that horses shouldn’t be property, and that somehow, they would be better off without us.

Whatever else you might say about that lady, she may claim to love animals, but I think it’s simply a disguise for her hatred of humans.  One of the other things at which she seemed to take great offense was my characterization of horses as property.  Begging the lady’s pardon, but that’s what they are and must be if they are to continue in existence on this planet.  If not for human use and intervention, the only equids that would remain on the planet would be the zebra.  Even that one would fade rapidly if not for human protection.  Horses came into being on the North American continent, but they went extinct here long before mankind populated the Americas.  All horses in the Americas are descended from the horses imported here by settlers.   I hear and read discussions of America’s “wild horses,” but we have no such horses.  The American Mustang is really just feral stock descended from the horses brought to this continent by the Spanish conquistadors. Let us set the myth of the wild American horse aside in favor of the truth, while we’re at it, and recognize they are little different from the feral cats that frequent alleys in large cities, that after generations, lose their domesticated leaning toward humans.

Horses are animals that requires conditions very favorable to its continued existence, because while they can survive temporarily by adapting somewhat to changing conditions, their physiology demands certain requirements be met.  Their digestive tract is far too fragile for significant changes in diet, and there is a very narrow range of foodstuffs they can eat.  They require a great deal of water to keep the plumbing working, and there’s little doubt but that they are fragile in every way.  Their hooves are prone to terrible infections in protracted wet conditions, and getting into some bad feed or forage can cause them to founder, a condition known as laminitis that is frequently lethal, by which the inflamed laminae (the tissue that binds the horn of the hoof to the coffin bone – think of this bone like the tip bone in your finger, and the horn like your nail) begins to pull apart, allowing the hoof wall to pull away, and the coffin bone to rotate down through the bottom of the hoof from the tension of the suspensory tendons that place constant tension that acts a bit like a shock absorber as the horse moves.  All of that, just from eating bad grain or grass, or sometime just too much of too rich a grain or grass.  It is the equivalent of eating a really rich cake, or tainted, moldy bread, and having the flesh on the heels of your feet fall off as a result, but remember, you’ll have to stand basically 24 hours per day.  In fact, anything that causes a protracted inflammation, or fever in the horse can cause the same thing.  Don’t kid yourselves: Horses are much more fragile than most people who spend little time around them would understand.  Every horseman knows this.

They are not really suited to most places in the world any longer.  To survive seasonal variations in climate, they require a huge range, because their only defense against the cold, apart from a somewhat thicker winter coat, is to migrate to warmer regions.  We humans, with our barns, and stables and horse blankets are the best defenders horses have.  There are many more horses due to human activity and breeding of horses than nature would permit to survive alongside us.  Horses also eat grasses down to the ground, effectively killing it, and often uprooting it if the ground is loose or moist.  They are much harder on grasslands than cattle.  Their manure is good fertilizer if you’re growing mushrooms, but it must be composted a long time before it’s good to use for much of anything else.

In short, everything about a horse leverages toward extinction, and this is why actual wild equids, of which there are few remaining on earth, are smallish compared even with the American mustangs, many of which are small enough to be considered ponies.  (Contrary to what some non-horsemen may have been led to believe, ponies are not young horses.  They’re small horses, and usually of particular breeds.  Young horses are known as foals (babies of either sex,) colts(males,) fillies(females,) weanlings(no longer nursing for sustenance, and in human care often removed from the mare’s presence,) and yearlings(those having passed their first winter, in most cases, but not yet their second.)

The point in explaining all of this is to clear something up for those who know little or nothing of substance about horses, their care, their maintenance, their breeding, or much of anything about them, never mind their slaughter.  You see, the lady who thought I should be hung on a hook took offense to the notion of horses as property.  I’ve got some news for that lady, and for anybody else of a similar mind:  Horses do much better as property than they were doing in the wild.  Had mankind not adopted horses for uses other than as food, they would likely be all but extinct by now, except perhaps for the zebra, but even there, the issue is in question.

Here’s another factoid: Today in the United States, there are roughly seven million horses.  The most there ever had been was in 1915, when the total number of horses in the US was around twenty-one million.  Remember, however, that in 1915, horses were like cars and trucks today. By the 1950s, with the proliferation of the automobile, horses had dwindled in the United States to an estimated three million.   Most horses now in the United States are used for racing, breeding, and some form of recreation or competition.  Roughly one-sixth are farm, ranch, and police horses, that work in some sort of actual labor, apart from racing.

Even these activities are seeing some retraction, as horse-racing is losing favor with the public due to ethical concerns, particularly arising from medications administered to race animals.  With the value of the dollar in steep decline, and the costs of maintaining horses on the rise, steeply in many cases due to droughts, there’s every indication the the horse population may again begin to dwindle.   On the other hand, as  I have pointed out, with the world’s economy on the brink of collapse, with the Euro in trouble, and the dollar so tightly linked to it, we could suddenly arrive in a situation where horses come to be of inestimable value once again.  At the moment, however, we’re a long way from that kind of resurgence.

The real issue comes down to a question of property rights, and it is here that we must draw a line no matter the claims of the so-called “animal-lovers” who use this issue to the property rights of humans.  Cattle are property too.  If we can restrict the rights of horseman to dispose of their livestock by slaughter, why not cattle or sheep or hogs?  All I’m asking for, and I think all most horsemen in favor of slaughter are asking is for a bit of intellectual consistency on the part of those opposed to horse slaughter.  If the property rights of horse owners aren’t permitted to prevail, what will happen when somebody decides a calf is too cute to slaughter for veal?

We horsemen must stand up for our property rights, and one of the characteristics of property is the right of disposal.   Property can be disposed of by sales, or by donation, or by destruction.  What the “animal lovers” suggest is that there is some way in which to make the destruction less destructive.  Most horseman who have been around a while have witnessed euthanasia as practiced on horses, and to pretend it’s anything but horrific is a lie.  To pretend that the method of slaughter that had been routinely practiced in the US was substantially more “cruel” is also a lie.

I received one letter from a lady who waxed poetic on the “culture of the cowboy.”  Her email address was from a provider in New Jersey.  I don’t mean to denigrate New Jersey, but it’s not exactly known for its cowboys or horses, so I was a bit surprised.  What was more surprising to me was her notion that cowboys of the old west never ate horse meat.  In many cases, horses that died under saddle today became tomorrow’s supper.   The real ethos of the horseman is that nothing go to waste.   Horseman don’t make idle use of their animals, and they don’t breed animals they don’t need or don’t have some expectation of being able to sell in the market.

The most laughable thing I’ve read is the accusation that horsemen wish to be able to raise horses specifically for slaughter.  I’ve never, in all my years as a horseman, encountered even one of my fellow horsemen for whom this was true.  I’ve been on large breeding farms, and small family farms, and all sizes in between, but never have I seen even one horseman that goes through the difficulty of breeding just to send the resultant horse to the slaughter pens.  Seriously, for you horsemen, do you know any who do such, or ever have?

Instead, what I have seen is mostly a large number of people engaged in an honest trade, and people who wish their get to be athletic, healthy, and superior in every measure.  I have never known a single person to look at that new foal and think: “Mmmm, mmmm, what a good price he’ll fetch at the slaughter house.”  As I’ve detailed before, it’s a preposterous argument, even on a simple economic basis.

For you non-horsemen, let me tell you what it’s really like:  We spend hours, days, or weeks considering the stock we buy, not only for its immediate fitness and use, but also future potential in the breeding shed.  When we evaluate a mare, we look for those features we know are traits likely to be passed on to her offspring, good or bad, and we go looking for stallions who will compliment the best features of our mares.  We spend a pretty penny breeding, in stallion fees, in shipping mare(thoroughbreds may not use shipped semen) and in caring for the mares throughout their eleven month pregnancies.  When the time is near, we may go on foal watch, and some rely upon camera systems in barns, and some(like us) do it the old-fashioned way.  The number of nights I’ve spent waiting for a mare’s seeming imminent delivery probably adds up to nearly a year.  One year, this paid off as two mares consecutively  delivered their foals in what’s known as a “red bag” delivery, in which the placenta detaches prematurely, and the foal is slowly being asphyxiated as the mare delivers the placenta ahead of or in tandem with the foal.  This is a situation in which human intervention is critical.  One of the two was turning rapidly blue by the time we could grasp the hooves and begin to pull the foal free.  We were in resuscitation mode before that foal was fully free of the mare.  Both survived.  Do you think any horseman on earth goes through all of this simply to pack them off to slaughter as their primary, or secondary, or even tertiary objective?  No.  The costs of raising that foal make any such intentions self-destructive, at the very least in an economic sense.

Slaughter is what is done with unfit horses for which there is no other use, but it is not the first, second, or even third recourse of any horsemen I know.   The attempt by some so-called “animal lovers” to pretend otherwise is absurd, but what is perhaps downright insane is to suggest that by absconding with the property rights of horse owners, they can somehow prevent actual suffering, or “save horses.”   Horses live longer in human ownership than they do in the wild, even with slaughter permitted, so to pretend they’re out to help horses is to carry out a ruse:  You can’t be in favor of horses and stand against the rights of those who own them.

We horsemen shouldn’t be afraid to say this.

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  • Ray

    The commentary was a bit long Mark, but right on the money. I've had livestock all my life. Peoples ignorance about livestock leads them to believe that somehow horses are somehow less domesticated then cows or whatever. For the most part I think the people who don't understand your commentary have good intentions but like the saying goes, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions".

  • Lorena M. Taft

    Realit check: A stun boldt to a hroses head does not do the same thing as it would to a cows or pigs head. Slaughter methods are inhumane….and go ahead and eat bute or ace or wormer…I prefer to eat something a bit more healthy. Unwanted animals shoud not be slaughtered simply because there are too many of them,,, whats next? There are too many human beings on the planet, so lets just "thin out the human herd a little"????? The issue is deeper than just finding a mrarket for surplus goods.

    • http://www.markamerica.com MarkAmerica

      Thank you for proving my point. You could not run the distance of a paragraph without equating horses to humans. You could not make it the length of one comment without venting the real source of your anger: People… Humanity.

    • Ray

      Mark wont say it but I will. To be frank, the "human herd" as you call it could use a thinning out about now. All the tree huggers and eco-freaks would be a good start. Does that sound monstrous to you? To bad, Mother nature does it all the time. Oh, but it's okay if it's Mother nature, right. I suppose you think the Humane Society should just let all the animals they put to death everyday run free. Everything you say contradicts what you think you believe. I know, how about they just let all them horses go free out on the desert somewhere so they can die long tormented deaths. Would that be more HUMANE?

    • Andrea Bennett

      Can we bring them all to your house and you can feed and care for them.

  • hey_sherm

    The Lady in your story has crossed the line as a pet owner. She's replaced the lack of human love for the love of a horses. Its ok to love your pets and all of nature its a wonderful attribute. But when your pet becomes more important than your fellow human then we have a problem. Do pets go to Heaven? Of course they do .

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1649923542 Thomas Dixon

    As usual, Mark, well written commentary. As a pet owner respectful of life, I often feel resentment when reading stories of hoarders or 'puppy mill' owners. But the deep rooted anger is aimed at those humans who seem to be without conscience or consciousness of suffering.

    I learned alot from your piece as I've never been a horse owner. Thanks for opening your heart for a look inside to appreciate the many facets of personal responsibility when considering both animal ownership and government (or society's) oversight.

  • S.

    I have no problem with someone eating any kind of animal they wish "livestock" or "pet" as long as they have the legal right (meaning it is theirs to do with as they please, also known as their property) to do so. If someone wants to raise dogs, cats, rabbits or goldfish to eat thats their business. I do think that you should do your best to properly care for any animal that belongs to you or you are responsible for caring for. But if it is yours you should also be able to eat it if you want to (I will say at this point I do not think you should be able to eat your children or any other human, everyone has to draw a line and thats where I draw mine!).
    Why should any group of people decide for others what is "ok" to eat Hindus worship cows so should they be able to tell us no more burgers? Muslims think eating pig is a horrible offense of some sort so does that mean I can no longer eat bacon or ham? Most of the world eats goat so does that mean I should only be allowed to eat goat (even though if I remember correctly the only meat healthier to eat than goat is horse)? No I think people should be allowed to eat whatever animal is legally theirs to eat and if they want to sell an animal for someone else to eat more power to them, even if that means spending $4000.+ to raise a horse so they can plan to sell it for $600. so someone else can eat it (now that sounds like breeders lining their pockets to me).
    Don't get me wrong I love the horses in my barn very much and take the bast care I can of them, but if given the chance to try horse I might find they are just as good as cows when it comes to setting the table.
    ( As a small disclaimer I have to say I do not think it is right to lie to someone about giving an animal a good home so you can haul it to slaughter and turn a profit, only because there is never an excuse for lying it is wrong no matter the circumstances.)

  • Andrea Bennett

    Could not have been said better. I applaud you. If only everyone had common sense. I to love horses I have many and I have had to send one to slaughter, she had a terrible fungus infection in her sinus cavity that caused her to bleed out her nose. I spent thousands of dollars trying to save her. Ended up have to send her to slaughter for the good of my other horses can get in the soil. Did I want to no but it was the most logical thing to do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dbarjranch Julie Schram

    very well written! thank you for doing this. it is reality as simple as that. it is all about choices. what ever that choice may be, is my choice to make. i put down my 35 yr old mule and 28 yr old mare this year. hard to do, knowing it had to be done. and i sold one at auction and she went to the feed lot on her way to Canada. it was my choice for this one. and i feel it was really the best for all. she was not safe to be around or trust wrothy. never knew what her attitude would be day by day. i was thankful i had that choice!