There's a number I can't get out of my head: 100,000. That's approximately how many U.S. horses were slaughtered last year. Of course, many folks aren't the least bit sentimental about horse slaughter. Horses are livestock, so why not meet the overseas demand for horse meat? Why let all that nutritious protein go to waste?
I've had many discussions with people on both sides of the horse slaughter issue. It's surprising, really, how many horse advocacy groups are opposed to ending horse slaughter. The contention is that a quick death is preferable to the suffering, neglect and starvation unwanted horses will endure if the horse slaughter option is eliminated.
What bothers those of us who think of horses as more than just livestock is not what happens to the carcass once a horse is dead. Ironically, no one in this country is breeding and raising horses specifically for human consumption. The horse meat market is simply what gives horses value once their owners no longer want them. It's a quick and easy solution.
But if idealists hope to eliminate the "need" for slaughter, we are going to have to work together to solve the dilemma. Exactly why are we producing so many horses whose ultimate fate is a one-way trip through a slaughter chute? What's our plan? How committed are we?
Sadly, horses of all shapes, breeds and varieties go to slaughter-young, old, and prime-of-lifers-most in good health. They end up at the killer's for a variety of reasons, but I'd wager behavioral problems rank right at the top of the list.
For example, I have a friend who bought a cute gelding at a Saturday-night sale for next to nothing. After he reared with her several times to the "tipping point," he went right back to the auction. I don't blame her. She has a young son to raise, and trying to salvage a dangerous horse isn't in her repertoire. She reported that bidding on the gelding stopped at $250 after the horse flung the sales handler into a rail. We can guess his fate.
So first, I can't emphasize enough how important it is for anyone who intends to raise a foal to think it all the way through-from conception to death. Are both parents extraordinary individuals-with disposition (followed closely by sound conformation), being top criteria? Even more important, are you prepared to invest in the training that will make that horse well-mannered and useful his entire life?
Remember, every horse should be valuable, not just to you, but to other people as well. It's a horse's only insurance policy-in case you're ever struck by lightning, or your life alters in some way that you can no longer keep him.
And don't be misled into thinking that only grade horses are unwanted. I know of several commercial breeding operations that began salvaging healthy young mares at killer sales to use as embryo transfer recipients. Many come with registration papers. But their lives as surrogate moms are short-lived. Once beyond their ideal foal-bearing years (typically ages 4-10), it's back to the sale for most of them.
As many of you may recall, last fall the U.S. Senate tabled anti-horse slaughter legislation that the House of Representatives passed. Many groups that oppose the bill heaved a huge sigh of relief. They're hoping it dies in committee.
The AQHA, for one, has taken a stand against this bill. But what else is the world's largest breed registry doing to discourage horse overpopulation?
Consider these statistics: AQHA members registered 165,057 horses in 2005, 164,444 horses in 2004, and 136,638 horses in 2003. That's nearly half a million horses swelling the ranks in just three years from just one breed. Consider, too, that the fee to register a foal is $25-an absolute bargain. Yet those 466,129 new additions represent more than $11.6 million in revenue to the AQHA.
What would happen if the AQHA doubled the registration fee and put that money into a Quarter Horse rescue, retirement or euthanasia fund? Would higher registration costs discourage people from breeding so many horses? Would registered horses ultimately be more valuable to their owners? If so, would that be a bad thing? And what impact would it have on the unwanted horse population if everyone who breeds a horse shares up-front in a long-term plan?