Part One of this series introduced our readers to the Chincoteague Ponies, a largely free-roaming band of horses on the eastern shore of the United States.1 Every year, local officials round up this group of horses on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, so some 80 foals can be auctioned off. Many are purchased for young children, in the tradition of Misty of Chincoteague.
Horses can live for more than 30 years, but what are the odds those who purchase an untrained foal at a carnival auction have planned for the life of that horse? What happens to ponies when children or their parents move on to other interests?
We assume that there’s “a place” for any horse, once an original owner decides to unload one. But when horses no longer meet the desires of their owners, they are rarely “put out to pasture” in the literal sense. And the first time a horse or pony changes hands may mark the beginning of a downward spiral of neglect, resale, and, finally, death.
People in the United States do not wish to think of horses being killed for human consumption. A priority of U.S. horse protection advocates involves securing legislation to prohibit the slaughter of horses as food. One popular catchphrase urges: “Keep America’s horses in the stable and off of the table.”2 This slogan underscores the prevailing philosophy behind most horse protection advocacy.
It’s a philosophy which the general public, including legislators, usually takes for granted. Horses are not normally bred in the U.S. to become someone’s dinner, but, rather, to serve some other purpose. An estimated 5.3 to 6.9 million equines — horses and ponies, as well as mules, burros, and donkeys — live in the United States at a given time;3 and according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the trade in these animals represents more than $1.75 billion annually.4 And there is much more invested in the many enterprises surrounding these animals. The American Horse Council sees the U.S. horse industry as having a total impact of more than $112 billion.5 The horse protection movement does not question the premise that horses and other equines are usable commodities, serving a variety of purposes both recreational and commercial.
Why owners dispose of their horses — and how
Barbara Clarke directs the Dream Catcher Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary.6 According to Clarke, many horse people get into equine rescue and protection work because they like horses, but few deal with the big picture issues — that is, few challenge the situation that continually causes horses to need help in the first place.7 The real plight of these horses is the danger imposed upon them by a culture that believes in ownership, and that evaluates their worth according to the way they perform for us. Thus, explains Clarke, a “descending ladder of usability” ranks horses on a scale of competency, and those who are aged, unable to be ridden, lame, blind, unmanageable or otherwise unusable are deemed disposable.8 Smaller horses also fall on the low end of the descending ladder of usability.9 They rarely receive the training that goes into a larger horse. As a result these small horses are likely to be seen as unmanageable.
A dissatisfied owner might find a willing buyer, but horses outnumber interested buyers, and the latter have little incentive to buy a horse who is not useful. Horse buyers normally have an ideal picture of a better horse than the one they already own. This tendency, which Clarke calls “buying up,”10 benefits the horse industry in terms of total sales, but it’s clearly no benefit to the animal whose marketability will one day be used up. Horses have to go somewhere, and in 2004, 66,183 of them went to U.S. slaughterhouses.11
Horses that reach the end of that line were purchased by “killer buyers” who collect horses from auctions, private dealers, and various horse markets across the country.12 They’re the leftovers of an industry the bred them in the first place.13 Some were once the offspring of successful racers. In North America, between 30,000 and 35,000 thoroughbreds are born annually, and not every thoroughbred can be a champion.14 Then there are the horses used by pharmaceutical companies and in research. Some are used in vivisection, in order that the racing industry might develop new methods of dealing with bone and joint stress in more valuable racehorses.15 Further experiments are carried out on horses to study their reproduction processes, or to develop new ways of addressing costly diseases such as equine herpes.16 And tens of thousands of unwanted foals are born annually in the process of pregnant mare urine collection for Wyeth’s hormone replacement therapy drug, sold under the name Premarin.17
Rescuers, often at the forefront of initiatives to ban horse slaughter for human consumption, take in some of the unwanted horses. Their properties range from small backyard operations to large ranches holding hundreds of horses. Some rescuers accommodate specific areas of the equine industry; they may be dedicated to thoroughbreds, or foals created in hormone production by the pharmaceutical industry. Rescue groups are doubtless full of well-meaning, hard-working people. But they do provide an outlet for those who wish to unload horses; in this respect, they arguably assist in the perpetuation of the industry whose symptoms they manage but whose root causes they rarely dare to question.18
Professor Robert Laurence has pointed out that horse protection advocates are not necessarily opposed to horses being killed if they are consumed by other animals — as pet food, for example, or as food for zoo animals — or if they are killed in a setting other than the slaughterhouse.19 Horse protectionists have recommended that owners have veterinarians give their unwanted horses a lethal injection and then have the horses rendered, rather than risk them ending up in a slaughterhouse.20 One Pennsylvanian equine protection organization suggests: “In foxhunting country, foxhunting organizations may have a person available to shoot horses. The body may then be fed to the hounds or disposed of in another manner.”21
Born in freedom
Humans have domesticated horses to be used for work and recreation, and the United States has famously developed and prospered as a nation by exploiting horses in industry and wars. Cows, pigs and chickens are raised for food; horses are different. Acknowledging the popular view that slaughter is an undignified death for a horse, equine protection advocates point to these cultural customs as grounds for establishing protections and abolishing horse slaughter.22 But for reasons of sheer logistics, such laws are unlikely to prevail for long periods. Horses slaughtered in North America are, and will continue to be, sold for consumption abroad as long as there is a demand for their meat. Even those born in freedom are routinely turned into objects of sale, and if in the end they are slaughtered, their flesh will continue to serve the interests of the marketplace. If this is an undignified end, it is time for our society to ask and answer with honesty what it thinks about these horses’ lives at the very beginning.
Even sanctuaries connected with Clarke’s DreamCatcher see horses as available for use, going so far as to teach toursists how to use them. The Equus Sanctuary Eco-Tour announces that each tourist will “be given responsibility for two horses, one riding horse and one pack horse, to handle and care for as well as all tack needed. Participants will be instructed on saddling, packing, hobbeling and picketing.”23 In an attempt to mitigate the use, the sanctuaries ask hired guides to sign a contract guaranteeing horses in the guide’s “employ” to “full retirement and disability benefits.”24
Horses at sanctuaries and retirement pastures are no longer ridden or worked, and that is a benefit. Clarke acknowledges, however, that horses are not willing workers, and riding them is strictly a human construct. Verging on self-critique, Clarke added that the general public is unlikely to understand the problems of horse ownership as long as animal advocates continue to view horses as usable. 25
Ironically, riders from the Equus Sanctuary “tour the McCullough Peaks high desert area of Wyoming to observe and photograph wild horses.”26 We cannot know the ultimate fate of each horse that has ever been taken from freedom; but we can begin a dialogue about the importance of freedom.
Like some horses still clinging to freedom in the rugged west, the Chincoteague Ponies begin life with their families, enjoying relative peace on the edges of an increasingly industrialized land. Rather than asking how their lives will end, how many are wondering what it will take to see that these horses are allowed to live on their own terms?
This is the second article in a three-part series. Part Three of this series will feature a special report from Chincoteague Island, covering the round-up and auction of Chincoteague Ponies.