This is a post I saw yesterday for an old grey Percheron who has been purchased by a “kill buyer” at an auction in Louisiana and is currently hoping for a chance to be rescued before he ships to a slaughterhouse. His name is Jaxon. I don’t have the resources to save him, but I am haunted by him. Jaxon could be Maven 10 years from now; in fact Maven’s name was “Jax” before I bought him.
Most people are unaware of how vulnerable our horses are to the particularly terrible fate of slaughter. It is estimated that between 140,000 and 160,000 American horses are slaughtered in Mexico or Canada each year. That’s somewhere between 1% and 2% of the population of domestic horses in the US. It’s about eight times the total number of Thoroughbred foals born in the US each year. But it’s certainly not just Thoroughbreds that die in slaughterhouses, it is Saddlebreds, Walking Horses, Quarter Horses, Draft Horses, ponies, mules and any other equid you can think of, all created by and for humans to do our work or provide us with leisure, and then sold for the price of meat when their bodies no longer serve their purpose.
I’m not going to go into the details of what death in a slaughterhouse is like for a horse, but it’s horrible enough that even the slight risk that a horse I have owned and loved could end up there is unacceptable to me. Every horse that is sold is vulnerable. The only way to guarantee that a horse you own will never end up in a slaughterhouse is to personally commit to his care for the duration of his life.
Unfortunately, lifetime commitment is not common in the equestrian community. Dogs live a convenient 10 or so years, they are relatively inexpensive to maintain, and their function in our lives doesn’t depend on them being in peak physical condition. By contrast, horses can long outlive their usefulness, and the cost of their care increases dramatically as their usefulness declines.
What can we do to protect our horses? Choose not to breed. Rescue if you can. Educate yourself and share with others. Do everything you can to keep your horse healthy, sane, and sound so that if circumstances force you to sell, he will be worth more than meat.
If your horse is struggling to remain healthy, sane, and sound, you need to carefully examine the choices that you are making on his behalf. Study a little biology and endeavor to understand this species physiologically and psychologically. Your horse has no choice about where he lives, who he lives with, what he eats, or when and how he is ridden. You make all of these choices for him, and it is your responsibility to make informed decisions. If you fail to do so, not only will he suffer on a daily basis, but he will also be more likely to develop physical or behavioral problems that make him more vulnerable to ending up in a bad situation.
But even a horse whose health and well-being are optimally supported by his owner is vulnerable to injury and old age. What is the value of an aged or injured horse? Hopefully he is still worth more than the price of the meat on his bones, but you will have some difficult choices to make. Do you have a plan in place to honor the years of service that your horse gave to you? Is your plan to unburden yourself of that responsibility by selling him to the first person who shows up with a trailer? Is your plan to unload him at an auction when he can no longer perform, as Jaxon’s previous owner chose to do? How will you feel about that decision after the horse is sold? In addition to these sad posts of kill pen horses in desperate need of a soft place to land, I frequently see heart breaking posts from former horse owners looking for a horse they once sold but could never forget, wondering where he ended up, just wanting confirmation that he is ok. Was there a young girl in Jaxon’s history at some point, who thought he was magical, who braided flowers into his mane and brought him apples and learned to ride as he carried her carefully and safely around the pasture? Maybe her parents sold him when she was 16 and had outgrown her interest in horses. What would she think if she saw him now?
Everyone who owns horses needs to think these things through. I think about it every day, and here are my unsolicited recommendations:
Keep your horse and provide him with optimal care. Period. Find the value in your horse even when he cannot carry you any longer. His capacity to experience suffering as a consequence of your decisions is more important than your riding goals. When your horse can’t be ridden any longer, consider what other lessons he might have to teach you. You will be surprised. When the time comes, help him to pass without fear or pain; show him gratitude for the fear and pain that he helped you to overcome in your time together.
If you can't keep your retired horse at home but you can afford to board him, then find a barn where he will be turned out with a compatible herd of senior horses, where he will have plenty of access to grass, where his feed and forage will be soaked in warm water if needed, where his blanket will be applied on cold nights and he will be given soft bedding to lie on under some form of shelter, a place where the barn manager has good relationships with vets and farriers, a place where someone who cares about him will put eyes on him daily, checking him over for injuries or signs of anything unusual physically or behaviorally.
If you can't keep your retired horse at home and you can't afford to board him some place where his needs and comfort will be looked after, then consider surrendering him to a rescue. Thoroughly evaluate the rescue. Ask about their financial reports. Find out who is on their board of directors. Visit.
If surrender to a rescue is not an option, consider selling your retired horse as a companion animal to someone who can demonstrate that they have the desire, ability, and knowledge to care for this horse. Ask for personal, vet, and farrier references. Do a site visit. Draw up a sales contract awarding you the first right of refusal and have that contract looked over by an attorney to make sure it's enforceable. Connect with the buyer on social media so that you can see updates on how your old horse is doing. Don't sell to anyone who would balk at these terms.
Be prepared for the possibility that you may not be able to find a rescue that has room for him or a buyer who you can trust. Understand that what you are looking for is someone who will relieve you of your responsibility out of their own compassion for horses. These people are rare gifts to our community and are already overburdened by the negligence of others.
If you are unable keep, board, surrender, or sell your horse in a way that protects him from neglect or slaughter, please have him humanely euthanized. Do not give your horse away to a stranger. Do not take your horse to an auction. Do not allow his needs to go unattended. Euthanasia is a more responsible choice for your horse than any of these options.
Unless something drastic happens in my life, my herd will be with me until they die. I wish I could offer that to Jaxon and 150,000 others. I was 36 years old when my pony Caveat was born, the unexpected foal of another traumatized and discarded mare who is quite useless but loved nonetheless. I intend to celebrate my 70th birthday with Caveat in the year 2048. Nova, Maven, Junior, and Caveat’s mother Max Pedro will be gone by then, and she and I will have comforted each other as we said our goodbyes to each of them. Most importantly, she will be a happy old pony who never knew a day when she wasn’t protected and cared for.