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.