A Primer on Horse Slaughter (A)

First published in early November of 2011 – I have put this post up front because it has become buried beneath my more recent posts and readers often have to search for it.  Enjoy and don’t forget to check Primer part B, part B+,  part C (The Last Part – Possibly) and appendices, as well as the ‘Slaughter Stats and Facts’ category for updates. I have also created a ‘Featured Articles’ page to display popular blog posts.

Before I set up the Q&A format, let me say that, at no time, does this primer refer to animals traditionally raised for, and used as, food for human consumption.  Horses fall into a unique category, as North American pets such as dogs and cats fit into their own special category, justified by the place horses have always held in the history of civilisation, the building of nations; service, military and sport roles.  Even if (or especially if) you don’t agree with that statement, stay with me anyway and see if your pro-horse slaughter argument still stands in the face of the facts presented.  So, if you’re clear that we are not, at any time, talking about animals purposely bred for food, and that we are only talking about equines (vegetarians, leave the room and go have a smoke), let’s start with a few questions and then some definitions:

List of Questions:


Don’t we slaughter only the old, sick or incorrigible horses?

Isn’t harvesting the meat of horses at the end of their lives a good way to feed poor people in other countries?

Why is horsemeat toxic to humans, and if so, why aren’t people who eat it getting sick from it?

If all this is true, why do most of the major breed associations in North America support horse slaughter?


I heard that when horse slaughter was banned in the US, hundreds of thousands of horses were abandoned to starve and die terrible deaths by the roadsides.  Isn’t that a good reason to keep our abattoirs running?

Doesn’t the Canadian Government oversee slaughterhouses and check for dangerous substances in our food, as well as oversee humane handling of food animals?  If so, the transport of horses and horsemeat must be checked out as well, aren’t they?

What’s so bad about horse slaughter anyway?  Didn’t Dr. Temple Grandin and others state that slaughter is carried out humanely?  And what about transport of live animals to slaughter:  aren’t there regulations ensuring that animals are fed and watered on their way to slaughterhouse facilities?

All right…so if all of this is true, what is the CFIA doing about it?  I have cousins in Europe and they’ve told me that there was a spot in the news that the EC (European Commission) put out a not-so-favourable report on Canada’s handling of food animals, especially pigs and horses:  what’s the story there?

Why do we kill horses for meat, when did we start, and why, for Pete’s sake, are we slaughtering foreign (US) horses?


feedlots:  these are fenced enclosures or holding pens specifically built to contain hundreds of horses on their way to slaughter. One of the reasons it’s so difficult to obtain exact numbers of horses slaughtered is because kill-buyers can tag a horse as one on its way to a feedlot but once it crosses the border, the horse is instead transported straight to the slaughterhouse. There is always a slight difference, for example, between the numbers of slaughter-bound horses cited by Agriculture Canada and those documented by US horse exporters. The “send-receive” numbers are always off by a few thousand.

kill-buyers (KBs):  these are the intermediaries between the owners and suppliers of horses and the slaughterhouse.  Their job is to negotiate the price of buying several horses (which is frequently worked out with auction-house owners either prior to or during an auction) and arranging for their transport to slaughterhouses.  Sometimes the kill-buyer and the transport truckdriver are one and the same person.

Performance-enhancing and horse-specific medications:  Phenylbutazone (aka, bute, PBZ, or “horse’s aspirin”), clenbuterol, winstrol, and other drugs (such as those used by breeders to regulate estrus cycles) given to horses are banned for human consumption.  Since North American horses traditionally have not been, and are still not, bred from birth for human consumption, there is no need to track these equine-specific drugs.  These drugs are forbidden to be administered to cows, for example, because cows are bred from birth to be consumed by humans and therefore must be clear of these particular drugs and medications before slaughter.  (The term “purpose-bred” means “bred from birth for purposes of slaughter for human consumption.”  We are all born to die–mortality being what it is, I suppose, but I hope none of us is born to be eaten:  so with horses, cats and dogs, all of which are favoured  in our culture as non-food and non-food producing animals.)

CFIA:  the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for food safety and food safety practices and protocols throughout Canada, including the humane handling of food animals, before and during slaughter (the rendering process).  The CFIA’s mandate is to ensure that whatever lands on your dinner plate will neither harbour nor contain disease- or death-causing substances, like bute, or viruses, like e-coli, salmonella or trichinella.   The CFIA must also adhere to standards set out by other countries to which we export meat and dairy products.  It is empowered to close down any rendering facility which is found deficient in following, or in gross violation of, its policies or standards, and, along with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) must ensure that live animal transport across borders is carried out humanely, and that any sick, injured, handicapped, blind or pregnant equines are removed from the transport vehicle for appropriate veterinary care.  Chapter 12 of their Manual of Procedure (MOP) specifically requires that incoming animals must be evaluated for signs of distress or suffering and action must be taken to address these situations.

Questions & Answers:

Don’t we slaughter only the old, sick or incorrigible horses?

No. Of the over 60 per cent of US horses we import for slaughter in Canada’s four abattoirs, most are young and/or healthy; many are Thoroughbreds who can’t make the cut at the racetrack, or horses belonging to loving US owners who, for whatever reason become financially or physically unable to continue caring for them and innocently send their horses for sale at auctions, hoping some equally loving owner will buy them. Kill-buyers are present at all auction sales and outbid everyone (including the serious, responsible horse buyers), especially for a horse in good condition whose plump, healthy flesh will make him more money per pound at the slaughterhouse.  All breeds are sent to slaughter.  Quebec tends to favour Quarter Horses and Standardbreds, even its own heritage breed, le Canadien (see post Canadien stallion saved from Slaughter), and the two abattoirs in Alberta receive for slaughter a great number of Belgians sent by the Amish and Mennonite communities in the US.  Draught horses, like Belgians, are particularly sought after by kill-buyers because these are much heavier horses than non-draught breeds; even if they’ve been starved or abused, they still carry at least one-third more flesh than the average breed–and more flesh means more meat-money.

Isn’t harvesting the meat of horses at the end of their lives a good way to feed poor people in other countries?

Unless you have a Gold Visa card, you can’t afford horsemeat.  It’s considered a delicacy, served only in five-star restaurants, and currently costs about $7 to $11 per pound in foreign countries. Sixteen percent of the world’s population consumes horsemeat.  Considering the vast numbers of poor and/or starving people worldwide, I think that low number speaks for itself.  We’ll get to the human health dangers of eating horsemeat next.

Why is horsemeat toxic to humans, and if so, why aren’t people who eat it getting sick from it?

Second answer first:  The type of disease that toxic horsemeat causes is idiosyncratic, meaning only those with certain predispositions or vulnerabilities (like compromised livers) are susceptible.  A parallel would be the drug, Vioxx, which I myself took for two years to alleviate symptoms of arthritis.  It never hurt me, never even gave me a stomach-ache–in fact, worked very well as a palliative pain-killer in my case.  As soon as it was discovered that Vioxx had caused death in a few consumers, it was taken off the market.  Thus certain substances which are marketed as medications safe for the general public may prove to be fatal or harmful to some members of the public, or to a particular demographic of the general public, like the elderly or the very young.  Such is the case with phenylbutazone, known as “bute.”  Since horsemeat is rarely eaten in the US and Canada, it’s almost impossible to track illnesses or fatalities from ingesting horsemeat with the same accuracy that we can track, say, e-coli in contaminated beef or other food products eaten daily by vast numbers of North Americans. (There was a case a few years ago, however, in which a Canadian woman bought horsemeat accidentally, thinking it was a beef product, and died soon thereafter.  Her family sued the producer, as well as the supermarket for poor labelling, and the case was settled out of court. This is anecdotal, however, so I can’t substantiate this story further. If any of you can, please let me know.)

First answer second:  Horsemeat is toxic for human consumption because it contains substances horses are administered throughout their lives, which are neither tracked nor documented (except in a slapdash fashion at racetracks, sometimes, maybe) for the simple reason that horses are not animals bred and raised to be eaten by humans; ergo, no need to track drugs or meds given to them.  Phenylbutazone, in particular, has been banned since the 1950s for human consumption (as medication for rheumatoid arthritis and gout) because it was found to cause aplastic anaemia in some consumers, and as a veterinary report in Ireland recently stated, is particularly pernicious to children.  “The difficulty with phenylbutazone is that it, or its metabolite, can cause aplastic anaemia in children.  If a child were to consume an animal-based product containing even the minutest amount of bute or its metabolite then the child may develop aplastic anaemia.” (Irish Veterinary Journal, vol. 63, no. 12).  Now I don’t really know what “metabolite” means but judging from my high-school Latin (two years), I think it means something that changes into something else…and apparently both the original and the meta-morph are dangerous.

Even those few who claim to raise whole herds for human consumption must then admit that that herd never receives veterinary care in the event that any of the herd falls ill, is injured, wounded or develops highly contagious equine diseases such as strangles or equine herpes.  Such a breeder would be violating several food safety regulations as well as animal health and humane handling laws, and, worst of all, laws against the wilful spread of pandemic disease.  What a headache.

One last point:  horsemeat was banned as a dog food ingredient some time in the early 80’s when it was found to have been the cause of deaths in certain large breeds, like collies.  Yet dogs are the only animals, apart from horses, to whom bute can be administered as a medication (and, for the same reason:  dogs don’t get eaten by people). This is evidence that bute administration is a roulette wheel in which the idiosyncratic effects of the drug are random, but, as in the case of Vioxx, much too dangerous to allow onto our dinner plates or the dinner plates of foreigners. Clarification pending:  I have read that it is the horse de-wormer, Ivermectin, which precluded horsemeat being added to dog food.  I’ll get back to you on that.

If all this is true, why do many of the major horse breed associations in North America support horse slaughter?

The slaughterhouses (in Canada and Mexico, and up to 2007, in the US) provide convenient disposal outlets for breeders who carelessly, or calculatingly, overbreed in their infinite quest to find another Secretariat or Northern Dancer or even just another horse whose qualities will be lucrative for the owner. Even though a more viable option would be to sell these horses to other horse-owners so they could continue contributing to the economic network which supports the live horse industry, and given the versatility of horses generally, find a new life and purpose in service to another owner.  Another option is retirement but we’ll get to that a little later.  To be fair to individual members of these associations, many do not support horse slaughter yet like members of so many other institutionalized groups don’t speak out, or at least not often or loud enough.  What baffles me is that some veterinary associations (like the one here in Quebec) support it–yet veterinarians are the ones administering these drugs to horses.  Again, to be fair, not all member vets agree, and vets cannot be held accountable for the irresponsible use of these drugs by owners, trainers, handlers, grooms et al nor for the continuum of deceit which begins with the either ignorant or innocent or careless owner and moves along to the auctioneers, kill-buyers, transport drivers and ends at the abattoir and the abattoir owners, and the horsemeat vendors and distributors.  That’s an awful lot of people when you think about it.  Keeping up horse slaughter helps those people keep their jobs just like cocaine trafficking keeps people busy.  Still, the fact is, the live horse industry provides millions of jobs…more on that later when we speak of MAPAQ, Quebec’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Production. Here’s something that’s for sure and certain:  we put our lives in the care of agencies like the CFIA and its veterinarian food inspectors and mandate them to worry about our health so that we don’t have to.  No ‘maybe’ about it:  we need to start worrying. [Part B forthcoming]



  1. Suzanne Moore
    Nov 20, 2011

    You are absolutely right on all counts. I’m an American, horse owner for over 30 years. I can honestly say that I’ve never owned or even heard of a horse that didn’t get a dose of bute at least once in his/her lifetime.

    Since our Federal Drug Administration doesn’t consider horses to be food animals, they don’t require manufacturers of horse products to run the drug clearance tests that are required for food animals. Therefore, a great many of our common horse products have the label warning, “not for use in horses intended for food purposes.”

    It is truly amazing how horse slaughter proponents sluff all this off and ignore it in their propaganda. Even worse, our elected officials seem to do the same. I cannot for the life of me understand why this isn’t a “no-brainer.” Well, yes, I DO know. Powerful and well funded special interests who just don’t care about anything but $$$ have a hammerlock on enough Congress persons that they can block anti-horse slaughter bills and pass pro-slaughter bills such as the recent budget reinstating inspections for horse slaughter plants.

    All it took for this to pass were THREE members of ONE committee. Frightening, isn’t it?

    • Cynthia
      Nov 20, 2011

      Hi Suzanne, and thanks very much for sharing your experience and expertise. I wish more American horse-owners like you would speak to fellow Canadian horse owners and breeders, as well as to our government. The Canadian (and certainly, the Quebec) governments are led just as much by big money interests as is the US. Yes, it is frightening that because of a pathological greed, it only takes three stooges to hit the re-set button on a clearly wrong-headed legal provision. And, apart from the obvious humane issues, selling tainted meat abroad should never be part of a civilized country’s economy. Slaughtering horses for meat is wrong in so many, many ways I’ve lost count. Sincere thanks to you again, Suzanne. Cynthia

    • KWebers
      Nov 23, 2011

      Cynthia, thank you for this very practically-based, useful, and well-written primer. I will gladly get this around so that advocates can benefit from it here in the US.
      Suzanne M., thank you too, for all your efforts these many years. You are a great warrior for horses.
      I’m cynical enough that I see no payback in forcing the issue with the US government that horses are an unfit food source, yet with this recent USDA funding of inspectors, horse meat is quite clearly now to be a human food source.
      So many hearts are breaking (for our horses) and to know that something stinks in Washington only adds to that pain.
      We must break thru that wall and expose this far and wide, even if our only resource is via grass-roots efforts, and local media. By sheer numbers alone, we must try.
      We must.

      • Cynthia
        Nov 23, 2011

        The horrid deaths of our horses have permanently scarred my heart, and all your hearts, too. We must remember that there are as many of us as there are of the horse-killers, and, in the end, though we lose so many equines during our fight, each one great and glorious, we will vanquish once and forever these blood-embedded chambers of carnage. I refuse to lose faith. In working together, we will banish horse slaughter from our continent. “Nobody’s Horse” belongs to us and we will speak always for him and in his name. Cynthia


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