Straight Talk: Why Horse Slaughter Continues

Late December, for some people, is the perfect time for a carriage horse ride, or even for giving children Christmas ponies

Meanwhile, the unthinkable continues.

Whenever the U.S. agriculture department drops its horse slaughter oversight role, live horses are shipped off to die in Mexico or Canada. Charities suggest that enough donations and clicks and letters could eventually be effective. As though the practice really could be turned off like a faucet by humane and enlightened laws.

The op-ed or donation request frames the argument against horse slaughter as an affront to our equine companions. Horses, the campaigner says, deserve better treatment, given their service to humankind. We’re so used to being served, that the question of whether horses could consent to carrying us isn’t asked. 

I Rode. I Regret It.

As a young person, I rode horses. I even helped to train horses for events. For the most part, I enjoyed these activities. My mother thought I might become a jockey. “See, there’s a reason you’re short!”

I had twinges. I saw horses maltreated. It troubled me deeply; but my own, more caring handling of horses seemed OK. Surely, mine was the norm.

I did witness horses being broken, and it scared me, but I only saw one person do it, and I thought that one person was an aberration, too. Breaking didn’t have to mean bullying, I thought. 

The Week I Became Vegan, I Reassessed Horseback Riding. 

It was a long week. I understood myself in a whole new light. By the week’s end, I’d resolved to never, ever handle horses again.

The transformation of horses into vehicles of war, objects of commerce and sport, playthings and police tools, has made them available for slaughter. A bettor’s excitement leads hundreds of horses to death on the tracks each year. And the racing industry funds research on horses in order to investigate potential speeds…and injury recovery. 

The plight of ex-racing horses, and any owned horses who pass their primes (or the primes of their owners’ attention spans), is all too often a chain of sale, resale or donation, neglect, and the ultimate handover to the killer buyer.

But no one campaigns against riders and trainers. No humane charity wants to trouble the conscience of the donor on horseback. It took a vegan epiphany for me to trouble my own.

What Ever Happened to Those Horses I Rode? 

I doubt any died of old age under the gentle care of a sanctuary. Out of the 9-million-plus horses in the United States, how many do? So, was my conduct any less “barbaric” than that of an Italian diner who orders horseflesh from the menu? 

The young Charles Darwin observed: “Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equal.”* One way we justify enslavement is through the “humane” perspective. Caring and rescue keep us in control.

Don’t get me wrong; I support rescue groups. I appreciate anyone who helps animals with nowhere else to turn. But can we kindly acknowledge the dependent state that we put them in? Only a few, by luck, are scooped up by a decent, sympathetic human who has the means and the will to look after them. 

The point of advocacy can’t be to slather euphemistic language over human dominance. Nor to exclaim how much we love specific animals, ignoring the overall unfairness in training animals to live in our buildings and paddocks — for just as long as we say they may.

Once They Were Free.

Human beings selectively bred horses from free-living communities who lived in their own spaces. The banner image above shows Takh horses (Equus ferus przewalskii). Human hunting, farming, and war wiped the Takh out.

But one small group has been re-established in Mongolia’s Hustai National Park, an area where their ancestors co-evolved with wolves of the steppe. To defend themselves and to thrive, the Takh horses developed complex social patterns, which they have followed and perfected since the dawn of their being, and long before the dawn of ours.

*CHARLES DARWIN, METAPHYSICS, MATERIALISM, AND THE EVOLUTION OF MIND: EARLY WRITINGS OF CHARLES DARWIN 187 (1974, University of Chicago Press; from notes kept in and about 1838, transcribed and annotated by Paul H. Barrett; with a commentary by Howard E. Gruber).

BANNER ART CREDIT: Przewalski-Pferd, c.1920 (public domain), from The Wonderful Paleo Art of Heinrich Harder

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