Horse Rescues, Kill Pens, and Auctions

I’m putting this out there right now, this post is long and deals with a very controversial topic…Horse slaughter.  Granted my following is small, but I felt the need to write it after the outrage a dear friend of mine misdirected at an auction house.  I’d honestly been kicking this post around for quite a while after another friend also threw shade at an auction a few months ago.  It hit me that quite a few horse people have an unrealistic view of how livestock and large animals are moved throughout this country.  They have incomplete knowledge of how the dark side of the horse industry operates. So I’m writing this to educate anyone that follows my blog about the equine industry, the good, the bad, the ugly.

The earliest recorded auctions were taking place around 500 B.C.  Simply put an auction is where goods, in this case horses, are sold in an open forum with the animal going to the highest bidder.  In the United States, the auction house usually gets a commission on the sale.  If the seller is not happy with the highest bid, they can refuse the sale and pay an auctioneer fee, for the services of the auction house.  Sometimes if there are not enough bids on said animal, the auction house will buy and attempt to resell at another auction.  Auctions vary greatly in the quality of animals they receive and dare I say, the quality of the buyers.  For instance every year Keeneland race track in Lexington KY holds a Thoroughbred breeding stock auction in the fall.  Buyers and auction employees are dressed in suits and ties, and horses are brought into a room that looks more like the halls of congress than a venue for livestock.  Then there are the small town auction houses across this country that sell all manner of livestock from sheep, goats, cattle, and yes, horses.  These are humble barn affairs.  The front row seats are usually covered in animal excrement because you are close enough to the action to receive some splatter.

Here’s the basis of how any auction works.  Sellers sign their animal up where it is assigned a lot number.  Some sellers care enough to hang around, maybe even ride/display the animal and shout out things to the audience that they feel will encourage higher enthusiasm/bids.  Others drop the animals off and wish them the best of luck.  Some sellers will pay one of the auction employees or kids hanging around the pens to ride the horse or pony through auction, because ride-able animals always bring more money.

Every auction has a gaggle of auction rats, kids ranging from age 8-18, usually the offspring of auction employees or regulars, that will throw a leg over just about any animal for the bargain price of $10-25 dollars.  Its a lucrative albeit risky way for kids to make some quick money.  One of the kids at an auction I attended last month had made well over $350 dollars only halfway through.  This auction runs weekly, and that kid (who I’m estimating to be 11 or 12 years old) is there every time I have been.  The kid is probably taking home upwards of $800 cash a week for a single night’s work.

Animals run through fast.  Most auctions spend less than 3 minutes per lot number.  Time is money, and they have a lot of animals to sell.  Once you commit your animal to the auction process you lose most of your seller rights.  You are left with two options, allow the animal to go to the highest bidder/collect your check or refuse the sale after the highest bid and pay some fees out of your own pocket.  Generally you will have no idea who purchased the animal unless you are an auction regular and know the usual clientele.  After all the bidder is simply throwing up an auction number and will only be referred to by that number when the last bid is called.  As the seller you will not be given the time to research who the highest bidder was, you will need to make a split second decision, sell/keep in front of the entire auction audience.  We attend one auction regularly enough, that I can now identify some of the meat buyers and horse traders by face.

Meat buyers?  Horse traders?  We’ll start with the more pleasant of the two, Horse Traders, but sometimes they are one in the same.  Horse Traders make their income by purchasing horses at lower-ish prices and attempting to turn them over quick for a profit.  Maybe they have clients looking for a certain animal in a certain price range without the time/knowledge to shop around/locate the animal or attend auctions.  Maybe they realize the audience attendance isn’t enough to drive the prices the animal is worth, so they buy it with the intention of taking it to another auction or selling directly.  Basically, they are speculators.

Meat buyers are doing exactly what their name implies.  They are looking for animals that sell below meat market prices, then they’ll load the animals up on a truck bound for Mexico or Canada for slaughter.  All horse slaughter plants in the United States have shut down, and bills in various states to build or re-open have lost their court battles.  The last three major horse slaughter houses in the United States closed in 2007, but transporting horses across the border is perfectly legal and big business.  An estimated 150,000 horses are sent to Mexico and Canada every year for slaughter.

Kill pens are a pause button between auction and slaughter for many horses.  Horse traders and meat buyers alike are always looking for a way to maximize their profits.  Kill pens vary in how they work, but through the assistance of social media, kill pens are making a killing, figuratively and literally.  Basically cheap horses purchased by horse traders and meat buyers are placed in holding areas.  They advertise the animals in holding, and appeal to bleeding hearts by listing the slaughter shipment date in the add.  Some kill pens take good care of the animals prior to shipment or purchase feeding/watering the animals.  Some do the bare minimum to keep that animal alive until shipment date.  This equates to many animals starving and getting sick while in holding.

Many people not fully understanding the underpinnings of the horse industry say that if people stop buying from kill pens no horses would go to slaughter.  They say you are not rescuing a horse, but contributing to the problem.  That is utter horse $hit.  Yes buying from a kill pen is lining the pockets of the kill buyer generating a larger profit than they may make from the meat market price, but it doesn’t change the fact that at the time of purchase no one wanted that animal.  Any animal in a kill pen is walking around with a death sentence until purchased.  Either a concerned citizen/rescue will step in to save the animal by purchasing or it will go on a truck to slaughter.  The kill pen profits either way, but they usually make more by selling to the public/rescue than they would slaughter.

Finally we have the last group, horse rescues.  These non-profit organizations step in to buy or take unwanted horses, foster them, and attempt to find them forever homes.  Many of these do great work and save animals from the horrible fate that awaits them, should they fall into the hands of meat buyers.  Due to donations of money, time, often land from people that love horses, but are not capable of caring for them, horse rescues can be a welcome reprieve for many horses.  Many subsidize the purchase of horses from kill pens, making up the difference in purchase price an individual may not be able to come up with on short notice.

The reality of the horse industry is the same reality that faces millions of animals in the United States.  There are simply not enough homes for every animal.  Irresponsible breeding combined with exponentially larger expense of housing/feeding a horse compared to a dogs/cats, yields 150,000 unwanted animals every year that will go to slaughter.  It costs conservatively between $3000 and $6000 annually to own a single horse.  A sudden change in lifestyle (divorce, pregnancy, loss of job) can make this cost impossible to maintain for many people.  When they can’t afford to feed the animal, they need a way to get out from under the financial burden quickly.  When faced with these challenges people often attempt to sell privately first, but boarding/feed costs often make the wait for the perfect buyer impossible.  There are also people that just don’t have an emotional investment in horses.  They purchase them for a specific function, and when they no longer need the animal or the animal is unable to perform at required levels the animal is sent to auction.

The consumption of horse meat is considered perfectly acceptable in most countries.  Just like dogs/cats in many Asian countries, many European countries do not have an emotional aversion to  consuming horse meat know as chevaline.  If you follow my blog or social media, you know I have a huge emotional and financial investment in my animals.  All the same, I have mixed feelings about the lack of U.S. horse slaughter houses.  No country on earth could humanely slaughter animals like the United States.  Our horses would suffer far less dying on American soil under strict regulatory scrutiny than travelling in a stock truck across the border to Mexico where the handling of the animals is far from humane and minimally regulated if at all.  In an ideal world there would be peaceful humane death for all horses, but that is extremely expensive and often cost prohibitive for owners to provide.  So horses end up in the auction, kill pen, slaughter pipe line.  U.S. horse slaughter would be the lesser of two evils.

Auctions are not inherently bad.  I’ve purchased several animals from auction, and know many avid equestrians/trainers/riders that follow auctions religiously looking for that special horse to fit their program/lifestyle.  Not all auction sellers are horrible people, but many are people that view horses as more financial investment than emotional investment.  That’s perfectly fine, too.  Without the businessmen producing the animals the rest of us bleeding hearts purchase, horse ownership would be cost prohibitive to all but the wealthiest.

If you love horses and currently own them, the best thing you can do for that animal is train it, and train it to the extent of your abilities or budget.  A trained animal that rides or drives is far less likely to end up as the low bid at auction if for some reason you are separated from it.  If you find yourself in the situation where you can no longer afford to keep your animal, then immediately start reaching out to rescues for assistance.  If your animal is old, unsound, or no longer ride-able it’s time to consider humane euthanasia rather than allowing that animal to enter the slaughterhouse pipeline.  A horse that has served you well does not deserve for it’s final weeks of life to be spent in miserable painful, starvation conditions only to be terrified as it takes it’s dying breath.

Just a few before/after pictures of the animals we saved from the slaughter pipeline, living out their days as fat, happy, productive members of the Gardner Hard Luck Horse Farm.

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