You know the song, Save a horse, ride a cowboy? I sure didn’t—that is, not until I started looking up ringtones for my new iPhone. But I figured that any song with that kind of title deserved a plug on an animal-themed blog, even one whose “family-friendliness” I work hard to maintain. And it works—sort-of—as a workable intro for this post on the unwanted horse legislation currently stalled in Congress (HR 503).

First some personal background:

I used to be a horse person. I dabbled in the Pony Club circuit as a young thing, leasing horses with my weekend and after-school income (I know this might surprise you but I’ve held a steady, paying job ever since I was a ten year-old) and finally owning one I had to let go after her farrier bills ($200 a month in 1982) gave me an all-too-real introduction into the expensive world of problematic-pony ownership.

In vet school, I even considered entering the crazy world of equine medicine (for about thirty seconds in my first year). Since then, I’ve often looked back. No, I don’t wish I’d worked with horses instead of dogs and cats. But I would relish a lifestyle that includes horses—in one way or another.

I guess I never got over my horsey-girl beginnings, despite the knocks I got in my pursuit of the equine dream (broken bones, dislocations, taunts from the “real” horse people, financial hardship, pony-malfeasance and other humiliations in and out of the show ring).

But it’s been a long time since I was that girl. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it would take a lot to get me back in saddle anytime soon (like winning the lottery, which I don’t even play). So it seems I’m as out of touch with the horse world as you can get and still be a vet (maybe not, but I’m feeling hyperbolic today).

And now onto the confession and the quandary:

And so it was that when I wrote a post on equine reproduction and thoroughbred breeding a few months ago, I had no idea it was so difficult to place off-the-track racehorses and other unwanted equines. I didn’t register that the dwindling rurality of the US means fewer homes available to place so many spoiled-rotten, hot-blooded, pricey-to-maintain animals (in addition to a lot of super-sweet ones who are simply long past their prime).

So where do they go? Do they live out their days in foster care where only an estimated 6,000 horses are placed at any one time in the US? Or do they get euthanized and expensively incinerated? Sadly, sometimes neither humane option is available. Many horses simply languish in pastures, poorly fed and only intermittently attended to, if at all.

Did you know it costs $5 per horse per day in Federal funding to keep them in a rescue facility? And, considering what I know it costs to burn a cat to smithereens, I don’t even want to know what it costs to cremate a horse. Problem is, neither do hundreds of thousands of horse owners at their wits end over how to maintain a horse no one wants.

Given the magnitude of the problem (in sheer poundage if nothing else) what’s a developed nation to do with all these unwanted horses? Eat ‘em? Well, no, we don’t do that here (“Heigh-ho Silver,” and all that). But some people somewhere do—don’t they?

And that’s why right now we treat 90,000 of our unwanted horses every year as a protein cash crop—by taking them to slaughter…like cattle.

There’s a bill currently stalled in Congress (HR 503) trying to prevent this option for thousands of horse owners unwilling or unable to care for them. It aims to stop the captive-bolt death we grant cattle from being applied to horses. Horses are more akin to pets, it effectively argues, which is why a slaughterhouse death (instead of clinical lethal injection) is deemed far less humane and, therefore, should be illegal.

The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) and the AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners), however, are two of many opposed groups. They fear the unintended consequences of such legislation. What will horse owners do with these creatures once they hit the field to eat last-grass leftovers for a decade? Nothing? If so, that’s a potentially far less humane option than the alternative: captive bolt device to the head (as for cows) and serving them up as food for those who would consider them an excellent meal.

It’s obviously a tangled web we weave, what with our love of the racing industry, the romance of the horse and the history of our nation as equestrian heaven (since the Conquistadores, I mean). We’re emotionally entwined in this love-reject cycle with respect to the horse that makes for seriously difficult decision-making on the subject of the unwanted ones in our midst.

In some ways, it’s worse than how we deal with our pets. Sure, the pounds of would-be household pets that go to slaughter each year has to be greater than that of our cast-off horses. And you might reasonably argue that no one’s talking about slaughtering them and shipping off their carcasses to other lands in search of mouths to fill. But here’s where I’ll put my two cents in: Horses are much easier to prep and ship for food. And it’s far easier to find appetites well-disposed to a nice hunk of horseflesh than for a sliver of tough feline flank. Otherwise, we might have that issue on the table in some future congressional session.

But here’s the issue as I see it: We’re currently doing our horses a disservice by breeding more of them than our households will willingly take on when they’re well into their later years. To assuage our collective guilt, we want to outlaw a practice the rest of the world deems routine: the slaughter and consumption of Silver, Black Beauty and Secretariat. 

Is there no other way? Do they have to go the way of the evil “glue factory” of lore? Do they have to languish in the gravely pasture of the unwanteds? Maybe we could pay for their upkeep. $5 per day per horse isn’t so hard, is it? Hmmm…by my calculation that comes to almost $1 Billion a year! Yipes! Maybe not. So let’s think…Relaxing suburban rules on equine petdom? Offering tax incentives on feed and tack?

Clearly I jest (only a little), but there’s got to be a better way than a skeleton out in a field, 6,000 spots up for grabs to the lucky ones…or the slaughterhouse. If we’re otherwise unable to face up to what we get when we’re happy to consume an industry with no means to dispose of its surplus, pure protein doesn’t sound like the worst idea anyone ever had.

What’s more, I can’t help thinking our desire for such legislation is hugely hypocritical. After all, it’s acceptable for us to eat our daily ration of cow-meat—slaughtered in a manner deemed inappropriate for Barbaro—but which is A-OK for Bessie…because she’s just a nameless, faceless cow.

Correct me if I’m wrong (and I'm sure some of you will--politely, I hope). After all, I’m far from the girl I used to be when I lived in rural-ish Miami and loved my horse more than life itself. But then, the horse industry is different, too—not to mention the US, itself.