It's a subject many wish would just go away: processing horses for human consumption. Anti-slaughter advocates have been steadfast and vigilant in their efforts to permanently outlaw the practice, but it was the reinstated funding for USDA slaughterhouse inspections that returned the subject to the front pages late last year. That move paved the way for the return of an industry that's been dormant in the U.S. since 2007.
Hard as it is to contemplate, it's clear that the subject of horse processing is not going away. To better understand the perspective of those who support slaughter as a necessary option for horse owners and the horse industry, we turned to a group called United Horsemen. The five-year-old organization is staging its second annual Summit Of The Horse in Oklahoma City April 2-5 and the slaughter discussion is sure to be the gathering's hot button issue.
United Horsemen president Dave Duquette, a reined cow horse trainer in Oregon, estimates he did between 60 and 70 interviews, including a segment on FOX News, after the inspection funding news broke. "There were a lot of people in the horse industry that didn't even know we existed," Dave says. "That USDA news wound up being huge in helping us promote our mission."
"United Horsemen is dedicated to the well being of horses and horse people," states the association's website (www.united-horsemen.org). "We work for the restoration of humane and regulated horse processing in the U.S. to ensure the best possible fate and valuable use of excess, unwanted and unusable horses. We also work for the responsible management and control of wild and feral horses on federal, state, tribal and private lands.
"We seek to preserve the private property rights of all horse owners, our beloved horseback culture, and to ensure the long-term viability of the horse industry to not just survive, but to thrive economically, socially and spiritually."
The recently created International Equine Business Association will stage its first annual meeting during the Summit. Formed with help from UH and the
Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada, the IEBA is a separate entity of which unapologetic pro-slaughter advocate Sue Wallis is a co-chair. Its purpose is "to mutually protect the international horse industry and to promote the use of horses and equine products in commercial enterprises," per its
Last year's Summit was attended by roughly 225 people, and Dave expects more this year, including supporters and some dissenters. The intent is informative and civil discussions of the issues, but with the passionate emotions this subject evokes, that's not always possible. Last year, a woman Dave describes as a "hardcore animal rights activist" made charges that "were total crap" and cost the organization a few thousand dollars in legal fees. She, and others with the intent of disrupting the Summit, will not be welcome this year.
Dave encourages truth-seekers to attend the Summit or listen to the discussions via live webcast available free on www.totalhorsemarketing.com. "You will gain a lot of knowledge about what humane processing is. You'll hear the reality of it, not the phony, trumped-up situations that a lot of these animals rights groups make it out to be." He asserts that most of the allegations against slaughterhouses were untrue and nonsensical. As he says is true at any meat processing plant, regardless of the animal involved, "If the animal is abused, they are stressed out, with too much adrenaline, which ruins the meat. It's called 'dark meat.' I have even seen reports that horses are starved at the processing plants, which makes no sense. Why, when you are paid by the pound, would they starve the horses?"
With the theme of "Building a Better Future for Horses and Horse People," the Summit brings back Dr. Temple Grandin, Ph.D. in animal science, as a key speaker. A celebrity thanks to a biography and an award winning HBO movie, Dr. Grandin will present "Humane Horse Handling," sharing her expertise on how processing plants can be designed in alignment with horse welfare priorities. She has shared similar observations with the beef and pork processing industries and received a "visionary" award from the People For Ethical Treatment of Animals in 2004. But Dave says she's no longer embraced by many of the groups that once endorsed her.
Dr. Mykel Taylor, Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics, Kansas State University will present her research, "The Impacts of Policy and Macroeconomic Conditions on Horse Markets," some of which was incorporated into the GAO Report on "Horse Welfare: Action Needed to Address the Unintended Consequences of Domestic Slaughter Cessation." (California Riding Magazine, Jan. 2011.)
The line-up also features Trent Loos, radio personality and advocate for production animal agriculture; US congressman Charlie Stenholm of Texas, speaking on the Politics of Land and Horses. Managing wild horses on Tribal, State and Private Lands is another subject in an agenda in which the ranching perspective is well represented.
Also on the docket is Olivier Kemseke, general manager and international sales and production, Chevideco, a leader in the European horsemeat industry. Kemseke will provide an overview and a worldwide economic outlook for the horse harvesting industry. Framing the processing discussion to the public and fighting off "animal rights extremists" are additional Summit subjects. The convention closes with comments from Steve Kopperud, coordinator of the Farm Animal Welfare Coalition and the head of the new Washington, D.C. office for the International Equine Business Association.
Not Just Slaughter
Horsemeat processing is the Summit's focal point, but it's not United Horsemen's only priority. Plans include "horse owners assurance" and "rescue and rejuvenation" programs. The idea behind the former is enabling owners to put a "do not slaughter" ID on their horses and get the chance to reclaim them if they wind up at a processing plant. Dave says the rescue and rejuvenation plan is a comprehensive concept that will, among other things, re-home unwanted horses and create horse show classes for rescuees to strut their stuff and draw attention to their cause. The program will not maintain unadoptable horses: it will sell them to slaughter. When rescues maintain horses that are not adoptable, they can't take on more horses that are, thus exacerbating the unwanted horse population, he asserts.
Dave started United Horsemen, first as the United Horsemen's Front, when the remaining U.S. slaughterhouses shut down in 2007. The impact of those closures on the whole equine industry was worse than the bad scenario he expected. He points to a 2005 study in which the horse industry was shown to have a $102 billion impact on the U.S. economy. "It was the highest recreational entity in the U.S." Not having slaughter as an option has reduced that drastically, he says. It has especially impacted what Dave describes as average American horse owners: those who own horses valued between $1,500 and $3,500 and, for the most part, keep them in their backyards.
"When slaughter was available, anybody that had a broke, rideable horse could expect to get between $800 and $1,200 for it," Dave explains. "Any horse worth less would typically go to the canners, where they were worth 70-80 cents a pound, sometimes a dollar. But even then, the canners had cowboys to see if they could make some of those horses rideable, because it was more profitable to sell them as riding horses. Today, you're doing good if you can get 10 to 20 cents a pound."
Slaughterhouse closures spurred the horse industry's current stagnation, Dave says, and the bad economy made it worse. "The person who has two horses but wants to get a new one can't because there's no market to sell one. So even the good horses that shouldn't wind up at the canners, are going there. It's changed the whole situation."
The unwanted horse population is severely compounded, Dave says, by the reality that several Indian tribes can no longer use sale to slaughter as a means of controlling large populations of feral horses on their lands. The wild Mustangs living free or in holding pens on BLM land is another big piece of the unwanted horse puzzle.
Preparations for the Summit are underway just as the ASPCA released results of a poll indicating that 80 percent of the American voting public opposes the slaughter of horses for human consumption. It's part of ongoing efforts to bring about legislation that will permanently ban slaughter in the U.S. and in Mexico and Canada, where an estimated 100,000 American horses now wind up each year. Pro-slaughter groups dispute those findings and criticize the poll as slanted to elicit the desired responses.
Dave describes himself as among many horse professionals whose livelihood has been drastically comprised by the closure of processing plants. By now the former Marine is used to the "foul" names and allegations and several death threats that he says have come with his position. "The animal rights groups think we have millions of dollars, but what we really have is a lot of intelligent, passionate people who are putting their own financial status at risk because they know it's the right thing to do."
United Horsemen represents about 30,000 people, Dave says, as reflected in paid and unpaid memberships and those who've requested e-mail news updates. Close to 14,000 have "joined" the "People for the Re-Opening of Horse Slaughter" cause on www.causes.com.
"There's a big fallacy when people say that (IEBA's) Sue Wallis and I are in it for the money and that we're in the meat processing industry. We're not 'meat industry people;' that's not our deal. We're in it to make sure that, when the industry does come back, that it's done in as humane a way as possible. We are trying to make slaughter not a dirty little secret of the industry, but something that is humane and that horse people have a hand in designing."