They Eat Horses, Don’t They?

By Stewart David

A friend recently called my attention to ESPN’s list of the top 100 athletes in the 20th Century. Leading the list was Michael Jordan, and number 100 was boxer Jack Johnson, who became the “Colored Heavyweight Champion of the World” in 1903. Due to the racist attitudes at the time, it wasn’t until 1908 that he got an opportunity to be World Heavyweight Champion. He succeeded and held his crown until 1915 when he was knocked out in round 26 of a scheduled 45-round fight. That’s back when men were men.

Horse racing has five athletes on the list, and only two of them are jockeys. The other three are Secretariat, Man O’ War, and Citation. The reason this caught my eye is because I recently learned that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner and 1987 Horse of the Year, Ferdinand, was slaughtered for human consumption in Japan. The largest markets for horsemeat are France, Belgium, Holland, Japan, and Italy. I stumbled upon these facts when reading about the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. The act would ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption, as well as the trade and transport of horsemeat and live horses for human consumption. To learn more about this proposed legislation, visit the website of the Doris Day Animal League at

In 2003, over 50,000 horses were slaughtered in the US for human consumption abroad. They were killed at two foreign-owned slaughterhouses in Texas. A third horse slaughterhouse, also foreign-owned, reopened in Illinois this year after burning to the ground in 2002. Thousands more horses were shipped live to Canada for slaughter there. Many came from the racing industry. Others were from summer camps, many sold simply because some camp operators found it cheaper and more convenient to send horses to slaughter in fall and buy new ones the following year. Some were horses once used in rodeos or to pull tourists in carriages who were either injured or no longer able to perform their duties. None had a retirement sanctuary awaiting them, and there are no Social Security checks, disability payments, or 401k plans to cover their expenses when they “retire.” Many horses also end up slaughtered as a result of the production of the hormone replacement drugs Premarin, Prempro, and Premphase. Premarin is an acronym of its source, PREgnant MARes urINe. The foals are considered byproducts and are usually sent to slaughter, along with worn-out mares, exhausted from almost constant confinement and continual reimpregnation.

Wild horses have no immunity from this evil industry, either. At the behest of cattle ranchers, the Bureau of Land Management, an agency designated by Congress to protect wild horses, rounds up horses because they compete with cattle for food. For reasons ranging from mismanagement to corruption and greed, many of these horses end up in slaughterhouses.

Most horses destined for slaughter are bought at livestock auctions, and often the seller is unaware of the animal’s fate. The so-called “killer buyers” travel from one auction to the next collecting young, old, sick and healthy animals until their trucks are full. Some are shipped for more than 24 hours at a time without food, water, or rest. Many are shipped on double-decker trucks designed for shorter animals such as cattle, sheep, and pigs, and thus are forced to travel with their necks bent. Inappropriate floor surfaces in the trucks lead to slips, falls, and trampling, sometimes causing serious injury or death.

When the horses arrive at their final destination, they enter the “kill chute.” Many are already panicking due to the smell of blood, and need to be prodded or forced into the chute. A worker then takes a bolt gun and attempts to drive a bolt into each horse's brain to render the animals unconscious. But horses who are panicking are thrashing about, and the bolts often miss their mark. Even after repeated attempts, many horses are still alert when they are moved out of the chute, hung by a back leg, and have their throats slit.

It’s true that most Kentucky Derby winners don’t end up as dinner. Sea Biscuit wasn’t turned into Sea Brisket, and Seattle Slew never ended up as Seattle Stew. But it could have happened, and unless the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act passes, Smarty Jones could wind up on a plate. The vast majority of Americans support a ban on slaughtering horses to be served as dinner abroad. It’s high time those who represent us in Washington start paying attention to what the public thinks. Let your federal legislators know how you feel.

By the way, Willie Shoemaker rode Ferdinand to victory in the 1986 Kentucky Derby. It was his fourth and final Derby victory. He was one of the two jockeys to appear on the list of the top 100 athletes of the 20th Century. At age 72, Shoemaker died in his sleep of natural causes on October 12, 2003. The other jockey was Eddie Arcaro, who died of liver cancer at the age of 81 on November 14, 1997. Neither was eaten; Shoemaker was cremated and Arcaro was buried. n