Diego James Robles
Tens of thousands of feral horses roam free in the West.

They Eat Horses, Don’t They? Bucking the Slaughterhouse Ban on Horses

Kevin Taylor

You can lead a horse to a slaughter … or can you?

In the United States, the answer is, Not yet.

An federal appellate court in Denver late Monday issued an emergency injunction on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States and other groups opposed to the practice of killing horses for food. The injunction blocks another federal judge’s ruling from Friday that cleared the way for three meatpacking plants to resume horse slaughter for the first time in six years — a move that was both supported and opposed by Native Americans.

“Horse slaughter is a predatory, inhumane business, and we are pleased to win another round in the courts to block killing of these animals on American soil for export to Italy and Japan,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States in a statement. “Meanwhile, we are redoubling our efforts in Congress to secure a permanent ban on the slaughter of our horses throughout North America.”

It seems unusual to say “win another round” when Judge Christina Armijo of the U.S. District Court in New Mexico on Friday dismissed a lawsuit brought last summer by Pacelle’s HSUS, Front Range Equine Rescue and about a dozen more animal welfare groups and several individual Native Americans.

The suit argued that the permits issued to the packing plants required environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. Armijo ruled that NEPA did not apply when an agency’s action, in this case USDA health inspection, was mandatory. She also noted in her ruling that the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which granted the emergency injunction Monday, had reached the same conclusion about NEPA in a different case.

Even as he vowed to join the appeal, make “a full rush with Congress” and lobby states to prohibit horse slaughter, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told USA Today over the weekend, “The odds are not that good about stopping this, but it's not over.”

The injunction prevents horse slaughter until the appeal is heard.

One plant, in Roswell, N.M., has stock waiting in Texas feedlots and was ready to open next week.  “After talking to the USDA today (Monday, Nov. 4), they said they could have inspectors available by the 11th,” said Rick De Los Santos, owner of Valley Meat.

Rick De Los Santos, owner of Valley Meat (AP)


Slaughter affects about 2 percent of the estimated 7 million horses in the United States annually. This is a rough estimate as there has not been a census of horses since 2004, according to Nat Messer, DVM, professor of equine medicine and surgery at University of Missouri. The stereotype that has broke-down racehorses or work horses shipped off to a meat-packing plant or glue factory at the end of their days is outmoded. The racing industry and breed associations have reacted to bad publicity by striving to better control the number of horses bred each year, Messer said. There has also been a rise in retirement farms or therapeutic riding programs as a slaughter alternative for older horses. Unregistered horses, whether they be work horses or riding horses, appear to comprise the majority of horses sent to packing plants.

And slaughter has not stopped since Congress essentially banned it in 2006 by stripping funding for USDA inspectors. It has moved across the borders to Canada and Mexico, where between 140,000 and 160,000 U.S. horses have been shipped every year since the domestic slaughter plants closed, according to information from Stephen MacDonald, Agricultural Economist with the office of USDA Economic Research.

But across the arid and semi-arid West — much of Indian Country, in other words — the question of what to do with too many wild, feral or unwanted horses is still a thorny one where there is far less control over equine population and where the big, charismatic animals find themselves in a complex emotional, historical and cultural landscape.

“One of the dilemmas we have is that the horse plays a very important, traditionally intricate role in our society. If it wasn’t for the horse, we probably wouldn’t be the people that we are,” said Harry Smiskin, chairman of the Yakama Nation in Washington state.

The Yakama, early adopters of the horse among Plateau Culture tribes, is among several tribes that came out this year in support of reopening equine slaughter plants. The tribe estimates the number of wild or feral horses on the reservation has grown to 12,000 since the Congressional ban.

“The dilemma we are facing is that these wild horses, or feral horses, are causing severe degradation to the natural resources of our land. As American Indian people, the native people of the land, we utilize a lot of the plants, the herbs and roots from Mother Earth. When you walk onto the landscape of Yakama Nation rangeland, it becomes a moonscape because the horses come through there and what they don’t eat off, they trample down to bare dirt,” Smiskin said. In central Washington’s semi-arid shrub-steppe habitat, the landscape “is definitely fragile. We have spent a lot of time, effort and money trying to manage this fragile ecosystem that we have to keep it in balance, and with the horse right now it is completely out of balance.”

Another tribal leader, President Ben Shelly of the Navajo Nation, also came out in support of the reopening of horse slaughter plants in late summer. His reasoning echoed Smiskin’s.

“The horse is a sacred animal to our people. They have their own songs, they have their own prayers,” he told Indian Country Today in August. “We also believe we need to balance our life, balance our resources. Right now it’s out of balance — there’s too many horses. We can only hold 30,000 and now we’re in the 75,000-plus.”

Shelly, too, described degradation of natural resources and stress on water in drought years. He testified before the Bureau of Land Management’s National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board in Arlington, Va., in September that the growing feral horse population was a financial burden on the tribe (more than $200,000 a year in damage control) and that the federal agencies were not living up to trust responsibilities to help the tribe manage its natural resources.

Wranglers cornered and captured five free-roaming horses in Manuelito, New Mexico. In Navajo territory, parched by years of drought and beset by poverty, one feral horse consumes 5 gallons of water and 18 pounds of forage a day. (Diego James Robles)


Shelly in August authorized roundups of feral horses, even appropriating $1.4 million to the tribal Department of Agriculture for the task. Various communities on the sprawling reservation held roundups that gathered 1,600 horses. The tribe sells to individuals, not packing plants, but it is widely assumed that buyers had most of those horses trucked over the border to meet their fate in a Mexican slaughterhouse.

Many Navajo were outraged by Shelley’s stand. “This is a Shameful Time in Indian Country! And because of your Support of "Valley Meat Company" Horse Slaughtering Plant, I have Lost ALL my Respect for the NCAI & for the Leadership of the Navajo Nation.,” one Navajo tribal member wrote in a Facebook post.

The NCAI, National Congress of American Indians, passed a resolution in late summer supporting domestic horse slaughter and calling for a line item in the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget specific to management of overpopulation of feral horses on reservations.

Shelly was battered by criticism from traditionalists and elders.

“The healing people,” said Leland Grass of Diné for Wild Horses. “We are going to fight this to the very end.”

Grass spoke to Indian Country Today recently by cell phone atop his horse, Blondie, a captured mustang, during a three-day ride to Tuba City with other Nohooka' Diné — Elders and Medicine People of the Diné — to perform a healing ceremony for horses.

After Shelly came out in support of horse slaughter, Grass and other healers denounced the decision in a resolution that called for Shelly to “stop the desecration and destruction of the Dine’ Way of Life and Spiritual Foundation by recklessly promoting and supporting the round-up and mass execution of our spiritual relative the Horse.”

The roundups were controversial as tribal members reported horses injured or exhausted as they were hazed by ATVs and dirt bikes.

Opposition mounted throughout the fall, during election season. Then, a month ago, Shelly did an abrupt about-face, announcing a Memorandum of Understanding to oppose slaughterhouses that he agreed to with former governor Richardson. Richardson last summer co-created The Foundation To Protect New Mexico Wildlife with actor and environmentalist Robert Redford specifically to oppose horse slaughter.

Richardson met Shelly at the Northern Navajo Fair in Shiprock in early October. They spent the weekend hashing out the horse issue in nearby Farmington, just off the reservation, and announced a proposed MOU that would reject slaughter and instead focus on adoption and birth control among tools to control horse population.

The MOU was expected well before the end of October but, as of Monday, Nov. 4, “is still being negotiated,” said Navajo spokesman Erny Zah.

According to some ranchers, to control the overpopulation of feral horses, there are two options: slaughter, or their own slow death by thirst or disease. (Diego James Robles)


“We were not happy to hear about that,” Smiskin of the Yakama said about Shelly’s reversal.

The Yakama and two nearby Oregon tribes, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, have tried slaughter alternatives such as those proposed in the MOU: roundups for adoption and castration of stallions, they considered birth control for mares, all of which they say are costly in time and dollars for little return.

Gordy Schumacher, Natural Resources program manager for the Umatilla, said the reservation in northeastern Oregon has seen increasing numbers of horses simply dumped by owners who could no longer afford them in the recession, and as the price of hay has tripled in recent years.

The tribe launched a roundup for adoption last year. Only 17 horses were captured. Two injured horses were given to a sanctuary, most of the rest were auctioned but interest was so slim that the last six were simply given away to new owners. “Five of those wound up back on the reservation,” Schumacher said.

Eddie Gunnier, a Yakama tribal member, has done horse trapping, said when the domestic slaughterhouses closed in 2007 the greater shipping distances to Mexico or Canada forced buyers to slash prices. The reduced price versus high costs of gasoline essentially ended horse trapping save for tribal population-control experiments. The castration of stallions was an experiment that ended quickly, he said.

Gunnier and Smiskin said the Yakama considered injections of a birth control drug for wild mares, but balked at the cost as mares would have to be repeatedly rounded up and injected as the drug wore off.

Smiskin said even a slaughterhouse in New Mexico may not be economically feasible. He said area tribes may revive a discussion to site a packing plant closer to the interior Northwest. A proposal for such a plant in Hermiston, Ore., was withdrawn last year after much opposition.

Such opposition to slaughter leaves tribes holding the bag, said John Boyd, a New Mexico attorney who represented the Yakama Nation in the federal lawsuit. “People who don’t want to see any horse slaughtered for any reason — you have Robert Redford and Bill Richardson and anti-animal cruelty organizations —  saying you must not slaughter the horses, you must not do this. … In essence, tribes will be forced to support loss of environment, loss of native plants and board a huge population of horses for the emotional benefit of well-meaning horse lovers who are not prepared to fund any sort of solution.”

Smiskin added, “The horse is very important to our culture and traditions. We always want to have a number of those. However, the wild horse was degrading our range areas where a lot of our Indian foods and our medicinal plants grow. You weigh the priority, and right now we think Indian food — those roots that grow in the ground wild up there — are just as important as the wild horses.

“We don’t intend to eliminate our wild herd. We intend to bring it down to a manageable level.”

This April 15, 2013, file photo shows Valley Meat Co., which has  been sitting idle for more than a year, waiting for the Department of Agriculture to approve its plans to slaughter horses. A federal appeals court on Monday, November 4, 2013, temporarily halted plans by companies in two U.S. states to begin slaughtering horses, continuing on-again, off-again efforts to resume domestic equine slaughter two years after Congress lifted a ban on the practice. (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing, File)

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Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Trouble-makers! That is ALL the Humane Society & those organizations like them are! They would have everyone be a Vegan if they had their way. Hold on though! They may change their minds about that as well seeing it may cause pain & suffering to a plant some how. These bleeding heart pacifists are nothing but bullies to those who do not agree with them. They are domestic terrorist if you like to call them that. All they do is cause trouble against any group that eats meat in some form. They are mentally unhinged with not one ounce of common sense. The Creator made the animals & plants to feed & heal us, just like He made the air for us to breath & water to drink. Humans were given dominion over the animals of this world. NOT the other way around! I, for one, intend to continue eating anything the Creator made for us whether it be, land animals, creatures of the water or birds of the air, plants of all kinds, etc. This is how it was when the Great Spirit made it all to begin with.

Caroline Nesbitt's picture
Caroline Nesbitt
Submitted by Caroline Nesbitt on
The wholesale slaughter of feral herds by the numbers without consideration of the soundness & health of the entire herd is a really bad advertisement for the overall genetic health or diversity of the horses that remain. Slaughterhouse conditions for horses are appalling - it is a terrifying, horrible way to die, & the round-up methods & treatment of horses headed for slaughter defy description. All this is well documented. I am not opposed to slaughter as a means of population control - starvation is a nasty end as well & a fragile environment must be protected for all who use it, critters & people included. However, until there are safeguards in place that guarantee the safety & humane treatment of horses throughout the process, I will not back down from a militant anti-slaughter stance. Castration does work as a deterrent to population over growth, you just have to do it. Horse breeders on every scale have used this as a safeguard for quality & population for centuries. It's not rocket science. Adoption works, but you have to advertise & promote beyond your borders. There is a whole lot of documentation about all the various positive ways that feral horses can be mainstreamed into our larger equine society. You just have to study them & then take the time & effort required to get such programs up & running. Time consuming? Yes. Dirty work? Yes. Do we owe it to the animals who have been our survival for generations beyond number to treat them with dignity from birth to death? Absolutely we do. Otherwise we are less than human; we are monsters.

Beatrice's picture
Submitted by Beatrice on
Americans use oil to grease their cars and money to grease their minds. I do not like the proposal of killing horses for exportation of meat meal mash. Animals have feelings. Most human beings do not

Colts Western Shop 's picture
Colts Western Shop
Submitted by Colts Western Shop on
I am sorry but the Yakima Tribe doesn't understand that their socalled economic and environmental issues are not enough impact to the entire US economy and environmental and animal welfare condition to require reopening a plant for their small numbers. We Understand you bred these horses to overpopulation recklessly thinking this would open sooner based on Dave Duquette and Sue Wallis's promises and then it took longer. So the impact you are feeling is your own misjudgment to allow to mismanage these animals and damage your tribal lands. Sorry but facts are facts. Some of the people in the tribe do NOT agree with you Either and they have been talking. The fact is that a handful of animals in one location is an issue where you have to select who to put down and then start over handling their reduction and management. I truly believe this is a simple ploy to reopen slaughter by misleading Government And Private Parties. ITs the blood of the horses that will be on your hands for their mismanagement when its your time to leave this earth. We are protecting and changing the industry to be responsible and then the ones charged with being the MOST responsible, your people are acting like the money is the only thing you care about it. Sorry but when you say you want to go against the American People whose Government supports you and you want to go against the Tax Payers and Oregon and attempt to open a plant there again, your tribe is sending a message loud and clear. We have heard it and again we asks you to change your position or forever be known as the Horse killers. The environment is an issue YOUR tribe neglected with the overpopulation for the Past 6 Years and the American Public is not responsible for your gross negligence in this area and if you were concerned about your resources you have had 6 Years to repair the situation. If nothing else it proves the entire story a fabrication and INTENTIONAL misuse of animals! Other tribes have had the Strength to stop the abusive pro slaughter activities, sorry yours has succumbed to the Pressures of Greed! My grandmother says the sins of a Nation will fall to the sons and daughters and that its not worth the value of the blood spilled of the innocent horses you intend to kill. She said they fought hard to remove the word Savages from man vocabulary but that you are bringing back for all who see you to realize again.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Why is it that America is one of the few countries that does NOT consume horsemeat?? With the way the population is out of control, and the destruction of their environment, it seems that we would be supporting an industry that reduces strain on the ecosystem and provides a high protein lowfat alternative to GMO beef .... I would prefer to buy the horsemeat ...

Direlle Calica's picture
Direlle Calica
Submitted by Direlle Calica on
The animals and resources are out of balance. Please come to our homelands and rescue a feral or abandoned horse, please take one home. Today their populations exceed the availability of resources for them and the other animals, people too. They are overrunning endangered species protected habitat. While many of our tribes incorporated the horse into our cultures and onto our lands, our homelands are now a dumping ground for abandoned horses. Some owners were good people forced to make bad decisions and some otherwise. What is the best alternative for these domesticated livestock overtaking our native species? If everyone would take responsibility for the lives of these horses then the tribes whose homelands are overrun with feral horses wouldn't be in this bind. Each year the number of these feral herds grows. So, go rescue a feral horse from public and tribal lands and then we can talk seriously about solutions. Until then this is all our problem to find a solution.

Laurel Hutch's picture
Laurel Hutch
Submitted by Laurel Hutch on
It is well known in the community that Shelly's goons STOLE people's horses from their pens, as well as rounded-up 'Feral' horses. Even those people who had permits for more than the two 'allowed' horses per household had their animals stolen from their pens. The vast majority of Navajo people did not want this action, it was forced on them. Even those people who had permits for more than the two 'allowed' horses per household had their animals stolen. People were not allowed to view the horses that were rounded up, to reclaim their horses. AND there were many injuries to the rounded-up horses due to the nature of the helicopter round-up. "This is not how we Elders of Dine' live. It is the way the U.S. Congress treated us long ago and now it is the way how our own Navajo Nation government is treating us." "The disrespect of this way of life will be learned, courtesy of the Navajo Nation Government and its President Ben Shelly. They mismanage our money at the end. The $1.3 million approved for round up of our horses and slaughter is somewhat doing the same thing, running it to dry, mismanaging and stealing our horses. I can see where this stealing is coming from," said Leland Grass.

GLLG's picture
Submitted by GLLG on
I love horses and have had my own for years. Horses are livestock and as such slaughter is an option. BUT! There need to be trailers for HORSES, NOT cattle trailers. There also need to be rules regarding humane treatment such as water since traveling is many days, the kill plants are such long distances. If no kill here in the US then no transport across borders. Further, why not take the money the government is tossing to "mustang managers" and put it toward gelding? Just an idea with obvious limitations.

GLLG's picture
Submitted by GLLG on
I love horses and have had my own for years. Horses are livestock and as such slaughter is an option. BUT! There need to be trailers for HORSES, NOT cattle trailers. There also need to be rules regarding humane treatment such as water since traveling is many days, the kill plants are such long distances. If no kill here in the US then no transport across borders. Further, why not take the money the government is tossing to "mustang managers" and put it toward gelding? Just an idea with obvious limitations.

Janelle Ghiorso's picture
Janelle Ghiorso
Submitted by Janelle Ghiorso on
The destruction of ecosystems caused by humans to mother earth will always outweigh any destruction caused by horses! People eat cows, pigs, chickens, sheep and the list goes on and on. People do not eat horses and if they do, its time to control the human population. We are the ones who condone destruction of this planet and we need to draw a line when it comes to slaughter of horses! When we cross that line, we are doomed!

nick karpis's picture
nick karpis
Submitted by nick karpis on
I think all lionsw must be stopped from kiiling zebra it not humane they choke them to death last month I had acougar kill a1000 lb horse and 8 calves I need help from the humane society thank you

Heidi Rucki's picture
Heidi Rucki
Submitted by Heidi Rucki on
Response to Two Bears Growling: We are certainly entitled to our opinions. But I must defend Humane Societies and animal welfare groups. We are a world that is rampant in animal abuse and senseless neglect, torture, abuse, starvation and cruelty. Thank the Creator for having organizations that can and do look out for the creatures that cannot defend themselves against humans. Being a pacifist is not entirely a bad thing. Someone has to champion peace! I do not agree with some of the overt actions taken by activists - on any side of any issue. I believe strongly in negotiation, compromise and legality. Anything other than that, can never work anyway. The Creator did give us power and dominion over animals, plants and even our children when they need guidance and nurturing. However, the Creator never gave us the right to abuse, torture or make other creatures suffer. All animals ask from humans is kindness. We do not in a great majority of cases give our farm animals kindness, quality of life. They are born, in too many cases, into abuse, and they go out with abuse. Therein lies the problem. I call it humanity. I do not believe nor condone any inhumane treatment. Have your observed factory farms - do you care? Does your steak taste good knowing that an animal was slaughtered brutally after it was abused to grow its meat? Slitting throats, cutting off legs, hanging up heavy animals on one leg while still conscious, skinning alive, gutting and butchering while conscious - that is torture, would you not agree? To me, meat is not the problem, it's how we go about it. A swift bullet in the brain is kinder than most any other ways is my guess. But we don't do it that way. And besides everything is hurry up and butcher. So many cows/horses/etc every hour. You end up with abuse and torture. This is what many want to avoid especially with horses. The older I get, the more aware I become of humans and their dominion over all. People over people too - Everybody is "lording it over others" and I don't like how it's going, not a bit.

Earthling's picture
Submitted by Earthling on
@Two Bears Growling. Since when is the conservation and balance of ecosystem - the original native mandate before North America was taken over by the conquering foreigners - relegated to that of "trouble-maker?" Some of the most prolific and prosperous tribes’ mainstay of food was from that of crops. Even the animals that were eaten were not farmed or slaughtered in groups but only as needed in present time. The irony of you calling pacifists bullies is obviously beyond your own comprehension as the bullies are those who seek to dominate other beings who have as much right to be here as the human animal who spreads indiscriminately like a virus using up resources and habitat in the entitled fashion of a narcissist. Before the domestication of the Aurochs 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, a different sort of human graced the planet - one that did not consider itself above any creature and thus had communion with all earthlings. Tribes tracked animals and had communication with them. It was not that they didn't eat meat - but they didn't corral any animal and instead hunted only when required thus not taking advantage of any being and instead fully appreciating it. Within this, there was the understanding and appreciation of environment which was valued greatly. Their communication extended beyond animals as they also "spoke" regularly with plant life - which is how they knew which plants were medicinal, which plants were good to eat and which ones and what parts of them were poison to the human animal. Another irony is your labeling people who don't agree with you as being mentally unhinged. If the "common sense" you lacked were grains of rice, one could feed an entire city. Your “common” sense is merely a parroted idea resembling no real sense at all to anyone who is actually awake and thinking. The idea that "the creator made" the world for one specific animal to dominate over the rest comes from post domestication of animals - which was the beginning of our loss of ability to communicate with all life and the loss of balance. This dominion concept is merely a convenient way that humans have rationalized their treatment of our fellow earthlings - and guess what - several humans - not God - wrote the bible. Naturally their stories passed down through a period of a few thousand years before it was written (a task that took around 300 years A.D.) condoned their own behaviors which were not only steeped in superstition, but reeked of the dominator model which is responsible for the later conquest of America in the first place and the stealing of land and genocides of many indigenous peoples. It is ignorant and entitled for anyone to claim that the Creator made the earth for the human animal specifically – that idea in itself lacks logic. The earth is the birthright of all who reside here – plant, animal, crustacean etc. The Great Spirit was not lopsided in her favor toward one animal in creation and that is demonstrated everyday by the toxicity of the human animal’s dominance which bears the fruit of today’s massive destruction. The world belongs to all earthlings and if this were maintained, we wouldn’t be in the state we’re in. If anything, the purpose of the human animal's intellect is to steward the earth rather than dominate it. Just because the true appreciation and fascination we are all born with is brainwashed out of most by self-serving industries and their group anesthetizing and desensitizing advertising, does not mean that they are right or true in doing so or that their desensitized practices are ethical. Your entire response is that of a non-thinking pawn. If you were to be honest with yourself, you'd realize that the ways of the dominating white man who enslaved the tribes and then brought more slaves from other lands, are not the values at all of the original native peoples. Where is your reverence for nature and the planet you reside? If you cannot see things except in terms of what you can take for yourself, then you are no more than a parasite on this planet and are an active participant of its destruction.

Earthling's picture
Submitted by Earthling on
nick karpis - English is obviously not your first language and if it is... well... Maybe you should go back to school... Here's another newsflash - Lions and cougars are actual carnivores biologically. This means they have the jaws, claws and physical strength to rip apart their prey without tools. Their bodies are designed with short intestines made to pass meat through quickly so that they don't get sick from it. Humans, who are biologically not even close to being real carnivores, have long intestines to digest plant matter. This is the reason so many people become ill from eating too much meat. The human animal's biology is that of frugivore and herbivore variety.