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Colorado horses are slaughtered abroad for food. A new bill could shut down the industry.

Wild horses are seen from State Highway 159 near Costilla County on June 6, 2022. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Investigation follows horses from auctions to slaughterhouses, where they are exported for consumption

Colorado and other states are sending an estimated 20,000 horses per year to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, which export them to other countries that eat horse meat, according to an investigation by three animal welfare groups.

The release of the investigation, which followed horses from auctions to holding pens to slaughterhouses across the northern and southern borders, coincides with Colorado legislation that would prohibit the sale of horses if there is reason to believe they could end up being used for human consumption.

Animal welfare advocates support the Colorado bill, but have set their sights on federal legislation that would ban the practice nationwide.

It’s not explicitly illegal in the United States to slaughter horses, but the last three horse slaughter facilities in the country, two in Texas and one in Illinois, shut down in 2007 as a result of state laws and a congressional amendment that removed funding for inspection of live horses at their plants.

“Horse slaughter is ultimately a terrible betrayal of animals who helped us settle America and helped America succeed,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, based in Washington, D.C. “We treat them like disposable commodities and reduce them to a price per pound.”

Colorado lawmakers are scheduled to hear testimony Thursday on the state bill, which would create a new crime of equine slaughter for human consumption. The legislation, from Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Boulder Democrat, and Rep. Lorena Garcia, an Adams County Democrat, proposes punishment by the pound. Every 100 pounds of horse meat is a separate offense, and those convicted could not own a horse for three to five years.

A report from three animal welfare groups followed U.S. horses from auctions to holding facilities to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. (Screenshot of the Horse Slaughter in North America report)

Pacelle and other national groups, though, are pushing Congress to ban the sale of horses for slaughter as part of the Farm Bill, catchall agricultural legislation that expires every five years. The bill’s authorization runs out in September, and much of the work for its reauthorization will fall to the Senate Agriculture Committee, which includes U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat.

“This issue cannot be solved piece by piece,” Pacelle said. “There must be a national solution. We have to stop live exports of horses to Canada and Mexico and just finish off the North American horse slaughter trade.”

The investigation from the animal welfare groups, which includes gruesome details and photos showing horses that are starved and can barely walk by the time they reach slaughterhouses, centered on auctions in Montana, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. From those auctions, the horses were sent to “kill pens,” or holding facilities, where they waited for transport across the international borders.

The investigation was a joint effort of the Center for a Humane Economy, Animals’ Angels and Animal Wellness Action. It was provided to The Sun this week ahead of a national release.

While people do not consume horse meat in the United States, and there are no longer slaughterhouses, the country is still a supplier for the horse slaughter industry, the report found. About 100 years ago, there were dozens of horse slaughter plants in the United States. The industry has declined sharply in the past 25 years.

U.S. horses going into the slaughter pipeline have dropped to 18,000 to 20,000 compared with 350,000 in the 1990s, according to the report.

The numbers were backed up by a study in the American Journal of Veterinary Research published last week, which said that 18,292 U.S. horses were slaughtered in Mexico and 5,193 in Canada in 2021.

“Nearly all of the American horses exported to Mexico and Canada are slaughtered for human consumption, and their meat is either exported around the world or consumed locally,” the paper states.

Part of the reason for the precipitous drop in the equine meat market is that horses exported for slaughter were found to have drugs in their systems that are banned from the food chain. Horse meat from Canadian slaughterhouses was found to contain phenylbutazone, used to treat pain from overuse injuries and sprains, and clenbuterol, used to treat wheezing and coughing.

Previous research by the veterinary journal found that 18 thoroughbred racehorses headed to slaughter had been given phenylbutazone before they were saved by rescue organizations. Horses are prone to musculoskeletal injuries because they are used for riding, jumping and racing, and the most common drug to treat those injuries is phenylbutazone, according to the veterinary journal.

The American Journal of Veterinary Research tracked the number of U.S. horses sold for slaughter in Mexico and Canada. (AJVR graphic)

The journal said that if the United States cannot develop a regulatory program to prevent the sale of horses that have been given drugs, “the exportation of American horses across both borders for the sole purpose of slaughter for human consumption must end.”

The United States has exported horses for slaughter in Mexico and Canada since 1999, according to the journal review. Canada sends most of the meat to Europe, while Mexico has exported the meat and used some “as a filler domestically,” the report said.

The journal’s report did not include the number of horses sold for slaughter from Colorado, but the investigation by animal rights groups alleged that many Colorado horses are sold for auction in Billings, Montana, then later transported to Canada. The animal welfare team also visited a holding facility in Eaton, in Weld County, which they allege is selling horses for slaughter.

Julie Marshall, the Colorado director for Animal Wellness Action, said horses no longer fit for ranch or farm work instead could work as therapy horses for people with disabilities or mental illness.

“It’s crazy to think that Colorado sends its retired horses to slaughter when there is such a need for them to live and help our children thrive,” said Marshall, whose daughter has a rare genetic disorder and rides a horse for therapy. “A large number of these horses found at kill auctions could be therapy horses for mental health.”

The horse slaughter issue is of particular interest in Colorado, where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has rounded up thousands of wild horses in the past few years. Federal law prohibits them from going to slaughter, but mustang advocates say that many end up in Canada and Mexico. Advocates were opposed to a rule change in 2018 that raised the buying limit to 25 wild horses per person from six, saying it would lead to more horses going to kill barns.

During their investigation, the animal welfare groups said they found that foals froze to death, horses were dragged from trailers after they had fallen, and workers withheld help for horses that could not walk for “days, weeks and months while in holding pens” on their way to slaughterhouses.

The report included photos of dead horses, animals with severe and bleeding injuries, and horses with hoofs so long they could not walk.

Read more at The Colorado Sun

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.