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From Kentucky Derby to dinner plate

The plight of a thoroughbred starts at the breeding farm, stops at the track and ends at the slaughterhouse. Will US legislation overcome the European appetite for horsemeat?

Last year, over 150,000 American horses were shipped across the border to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico. An estimated 10,000 were thoroughbreds. 

From: The Guardian
By: Edward McClelland

Whichever horse wins this Saturday’s Kentucky Derby will never suffer the fate of Ferdinand. The winner of the 1986 race – a long shot at 17-to-1 – Ferdinand was sold as a stud to a Japanese breeder, then sent to a slaughterhouse when he failed to sire speedy offspring. Now, sales of expensive stallions often include a “Ferdinand clause”, ensuring sellers can buy them back after their breeding careers end, so their lives don’t.

For lesser racehorses, though, there are no such protections. Unless you were betting on horse races in Florida in the mid-2000s, you’ve probably never heard of a nine-year-old mare named Proud Mover. A daughter of Proud Citizen, the runner-up in the 2002 Kentucky Derby, Proud Mover raced only five times. She never won. After her retirement from the racetrack, Proud Mover gave birth to three foals. Then she went barren.

A thoroughbred who can’t race and can’t breed isn’t worth much, so on Good Friday this year, Proud Mover’s owner put her up for bid at the Shipshewana Auction. A weekly sale in Indiana’s Amish country, the auction attracts Amish looking for buggy horses, riders looking for trail horses … and slaughterhouse agents, looking for meat.

There are actually two auctions in Shipshewana. There’s the main event, which takes place in an amphitheater where horses are led in on halters and described admiringly as “sound” and “good for riding”. Then there’s the loose horse auction, which takes place behind the barn, in the morning, before most of the crowd shows up. The loose horses, considered unfit for work or riding, are prodded or frightened out of their pens by wranglers, who slam the gates in the snouts of any animals attempting to follow. They sell for as little as $10, mostly to “kill buyers”, who load them into semi-sized trucks for their final journey, to Canadian or Mexican slaughterhouses, where they will be sliced up into steaks for Europeans with a taste for horsemeat.

Proud Mover was put up for bid in the loose horse auction, where a gabbling auctioneer pronounced her sold to a kill buyer, for $550. The old racemare was led away to a dim barn behind the auction hall, where she was penned up with dozens of other horses bound for the knacker’s.

In the United States, horses have not been killed for human consumption since 2007, when Congress withdrew funding for slaughterhouse inspectors. But last year, over 150,000 American horses were shipped across the border to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico. An estimated 10,000 were thoroughbreds.

To end that inhumane practice, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham introduced a bill, the Safeguard American Food Exports (Safe) Act of 2013, which would ban the export of horses for slaughter. The legislation still hasn't made it out of committee, and it's likely to stay there as long as Nevada's Harry Reid is running the Senate. (Last year, more than 300 wild horses were rounded up on federal and tribal grazing lands in his state, and sold to kill buyers.)

"Harry wants to get rid of the mustangs," charges Janine Starykowicz, an anti-slaughter advocate who successfully lobbied for an Illinois law that shut down the state's only horse slaughterhouse. "That's why a lot of cattlemen are pro-slaughter. They want to get rid of the mustangs." 

While Europeans enjoy horsemeat – Belgians, Italians and Dutch eat a kilo per year, on average – its sale for human consumption is banned in the US, and many Americans are appalled by the idea of eating an animal that has played such a large role in the nation's folkways, from the settling of the West to the exploits of Seabiscuit and Secretariat.

The horse racing industry has taken steps to prevent the slaughter of retired thoroughbreds: many tracks now threaten to ban trainers who sell to kill buyers.

That policy didn't help Proud Mover, who passed through several owners before winding up at Shipshewana. The mare's life was saved by Beyond the Roses Equine, a racehorse rescue group whose members walk through the pens at auctions, flipping the lips of horses, in search of the tattoos – a series of letters and number inked on the soft sublabial flesh – applied to all thoroughbreds.


After Proud Mover was identified, she was purchased from the kill buyer, and delivered to the organization's farm in Emmett, Michigan, where she'll remain until she's adopted out to a family who will treat her as a pet, not an investment.

"She's trying to acclimate to being a horse again," said Gail Hirt, who owns and operates the farm. "She's afraid of everything. We had her out in the pasture, and she wouldn't even come to us."

An avid racing fan – her first rescue was Top Bunk, an 11-year-old gelding who was still running – Hirt is an equally avid opponent of slaughter. She believes the horse slaughter pipeline begins on breeding farms, where ambitious horsemen churn out foals, hoping for a Derby winner. Even though the foal crop has been declining, due to a poor economy, fewer than half the thoroughbreds born each year will ever win a race: "They're all trying to get the next Secretariat, and it doesn't matter what happens to the ones that don't work out. They just get rid of them."
The Safe Act would cap the end of the slaughter pipeline, which might force breeders to feed in fewer horses.

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