A horse’s leg was sticking out of a livestock trailer driving in front of Neta Rhyne on a West Texas highway. It was one of the moments that made her take action.

She was accustomed to seeing the trailers pass in front of her house in Toyahvale, Texas, crammed with unwanted horses on their way to a kill pen on the U.S.-Mexico border. She believed it was wrong.

But this time, something in her snapped.

She called a local sheriff about the livestock trailer with the trapped horse, and nothing happened, so Rhyne started researching. What she learned about the experiences of horses shipped to slaughter shocked her.

Her new passion as a horse advocate and a chance meeting with Deborah Lamal, a like-minded woman at the Santa Fe Indian Market, led to the Thundering Hooves event Saturday in the city’s historic Plaza. A handful of horse riders, including Rhyne’s husband, Darrell, rode from Fort Marcy Park to the Plaza. People from The Horse Shelter rescue group in Cerrillos and the animal welfare group Animals’ Angels were on hand to talk about their work.

Rhyne, Lamal and other advocates at the event know the solutions to the problems of overpopulated, neglected, abandoned and unwanted horses aren’t simple. “There’s not one blanket answer to the problem,” Lamal said.

But they firmly believe horse slaughter shouldn’t be among the options.

With a company in Roswell fighting to open a horse slaughter facility, advocates are working to raise public awareness about why that shouldn’t happen.

The equine dilemma

The problem of too many horses is largely caused by humans, advocates say.

Horses bred for the track and for show that aren’t perfect enough are shipped to slaughter facilities if no one buys them at auction for other uses, said Brandi Turner, head of Colorado investigations for Animals’ Angels, an advocacy group based in Maryland.

Thousands of wild horses are rounded up from public lands in the West and shipped to Bureau of Land Management holding pens. Rhyne, Lamal and Turner say this is largely due to livestock ranchers and oil developers wanting the horses off the land, rather than a problem with the herds overgrazing land. Those are charges the BLM has repeatedly denied.

In September, the BLM said 40,605 wild horses and burros currently are roaming rangelands managed by the agency in 10 Western states. The agency says that’s 14,000 more than the range can carry. Another 49,000 horses and burros are in short- and long-term holding facilities.

But the horse herds grow exponentially without predators to thin their ranks and nothing to stop stallions from impregnating mares. The BLM adopts out as many horses as it can, but there’s a finite supply of people with the land, resources and knowledge to care for the animals. Advocates are working on solutions such as birth control for the mares. Those solutions require time, money and commitment from the agencies managing the herds.

Adding to the problem, the economic downturn in 2008, followed by years of drought in the West, caused an upswing in the number of abandoned and neglected horses, overwhelming the space available. The cost of feeding horses drove down their value even at auction. The slaughterhouse became a viable option to many horse owners.

“Once a horse is labeled for slaughter, it loses all rights,” Rhyne said. “It represents cents per pound.”

Rhyne is not a vegetarian. She thinks all animals, even those raised for food, should be treated humanely from birth to death.

But horses have not traditionally been raised for food in America, she said. Moreover, the method used to kill a cow in a slaughter facility doesn’t work the same way on a horse, so the equine isn’t always dead. “They use the same bolt used on cattle, but horses’ brains are in a different location,” Darrel Rhyne said. “Sometimes when they are hung up, they are still alive.”

Advocates say the horses are being hauled from as far away as Montana and Wyoming, even though there is a horse slaughter facility much closer in Canada. “You have to wonder why someone would drive them all the way to Mexico,” Lamal said. “I say, follow the money and you may start to see why.”

The issue isn’t simple, even among horse owners. The New Mexico Horse Council sent out a survey to its members last year asking if they supported “humane horse slaughter” or opposed horse slaughter under any circumstances. The council said 93 percent of those who returned surveys said they supported humane horse slaughter “as an option to deal with the current unwanted equine issue.”

An advocate in the making

Rhyne is a quiet woman with a drawl tinged by her Oklahoma and Texas upbringing. She hardly seems like a rabble rouser.

But when she talks about the horses, her voice takes on a determined edge.

She watched the commercial livestock trailers packed with horses frequently pass 20 feet from her front porch along U.S. 285 on their way to so-called kill pens in Presidio, Texas. Once slaughter facilities in the United States were shut down, horses were unloaded and reloaded at the Texas kill pens to continue their journey to slaughterhouses in Mexico. “I see this almost daily, and I feel helpless knowing there is nothing I can do to save them or even help end the nightmare they are in,” she said.

Rhyne grew up riding horses. She and her husband, a former Texas Parks and Wildlife law-enforcement officer, had raised their children with horses, too.

The more she watched the condition of the horses crammed into the trailers — fear in their eyes, obvious wounds on some — the more she felt she had to act.

She founded Thundering Hooves and then worked with Animals’ Angels to launch a public education campaign regarding the ethical, food and health safety issues with horse slaughter.

At Saturday’s event, dozens of people approached the half-dozen horses riders had brought to the Plaza. Among them was Karen Hardy, owner of Santa Fe Stables.

Rhyne said she wanted the event in the Plaza because she wanted to reach tourists and non-horse people. “I don’t want to preach to the choir,” she said.

She wants people to remember the special relationships horses have shared with people back to the early civilizations — plowing fields, fighting in wars, carrying human burdens, befriending their riders. “They deserve more than being reduced to cents per pound,” she said.

Investigating not interfering

Investigators with Animals’ Angels are trained to “represent what we see objectively, not to interfere,” said Amber Taylor, a Virginia investigator with the group.

What the group documented from 2007 to 2013 led to a report called “Savage Passage: Down the horse slaughter gauntlet.” The report is based on the group’s own observations and information in a 906-page document from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that detailed the treatment of horses headed to slaughter. “Accepted are practices that horse owners, humane officers and veterinarians would normally challenge and condemn,” according to the report. “When a kill horse is severely injured, thin, or handled dangerously, there is little or no concern for its well being.”

The organization was founded by attorney Sonja Meadows. Investigators visit auctions, feed lots and slaughterhouses, documenting the treatment of farm animals.

Taylor, who owns four horses, said investigators don’t disturb the auction or feed lot businesses unless a horse severely injured, at which point they call livestock inspectors. “Some auctions are run really well. They keep their horses fed and watered,” Taylor said. “If the auctions are good, we say so. If they aren’t, we say so.”

Investigators have followed horses from the time they are sold at auction and loaded on livestock trucks all the way to the Mexican slaughterhouses, Turner said. She made a living as a long-haul trucker for two decades, including a brief stint hauling pigs. Raised with horses, she knew about the horse slaughter plants, “but like a lot of people, I closed my eyes to it.”

Advocating solutions

Advocates say there are a variety of solutions for the horse dilemma.

One idea is to let more wild horses remain in the wild, while controlling herds with birth control, periodic roundups and predators.

Taxing breeders for every foal that hits the ground might encourage them to be more careful how many they breed in a year, Turner said.

Advocates are lobbying for passage of the Safeguard American Food Exports Act (HR 1094) introduced in March by Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Penn., and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. If approved, the act would prohibit the slaughter of American horses for human food and prohibit their export for slaughter in other counties.

Devoting more public money to horse shelters and to feed banks is another idea. The Equine Protection Fund set up by Animal Protection of New Mexico and the Santa Fe Community Foundation provides emergency feed assistance, help with sterilizing stallions and humane euthanasia.

Rhyne said she would rather see people humanely put down their horses than send them to slaughter.

(12) comments

Valorie Collante

I also want to point out that ALL "unwanted" horses are because PEOPLE over breed them. Breeding is expensive and intentional. So, they are not strays running around on the street and breeding on their own. I am not addressing the wild horses, (which should be left to their native lands and protected), but the ones that people keep overbreeding for the showing and racing industry. People are the problem and they need to be held accountable. The horses don't ask for this. This is just like our "unwanted" dog and cat issue in the sense that killing them (9 million a year) has not stopped the "problem". The breeders need to step up and stop breeding until there are homes for all of them, not just the perfect ones.

Valorie Collante

Neta, if you do some research, you would discover that it is industry standard in the food animal slaughter industry that up to 5% of the animals (let's say cattle) can remain fully alive and awake while being strung up, bled out, skinned or dismembered. At a commercial rate of 400 head per hour, that is a staggering 160 cows PER DAY PER FACILITY. If you think that cattle/pig/chicken slaughter is humane, you have been misled. It is anything but. Please have compassion for all animals and consider the ones you label "food". I have been a long time advocate for animals and a horse lover. I extended my compassion to all animals 3 years ago and became vegan and stopped eating them. Thank you for the work you are doing to save the horses. :)

Puller Lanigan

Doesn't it seem incongruous that the U.S. can't move further ahead than where we were on horse slaughter over 50 years ago? That first line reads like the story of Velma Johnston (aka Wild Horse Annie) who spearheaded and succeeded on passage of the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act.

Horse slaughter was legal in the U.S. until 2007. Even then, it was still cruel and inhumane and horses suffered terribly. See: Observations of a Kill Buyer: This is actual testimony of a former horse killer taken with a lie detector and before a former California District Attorney; http://www.equinewelfarealliance.org/Horse_Slaughter.html. Horse slaughter has NEVER been humane. Not to mention drugs are still given to horses daily that are banned by the European Union to be fed to humans...but the U.S. gov't allows our tainted horses to be sent enmasse to Europe and Asia. There is no enforcement for lying on paperwork and no testing done in the U.S.

Wild horses in gov't holding now number ~50,000 and a more accurate estimate of horses in the wild is around 25,000 animals. BLM uses PZP haphazardly. It would certainly work better if it was used more broadly. Removal is not the answer, ask any scientist what happens when you create a vacuum. And before you think it is a good idea to unload the nation's Wild Horses to slaughter, they too have received the same banned drugs that the domestic horses are given.

Steve Salazar

Horses born in the wild were given banned drugs?

Wendy Kowal

PLEASE NOTE: the website link to Animals' Angels is incorrect in the article. It should be www.animalsangels.org. The S in Animals is missing. To learn more about horse slaughter, please visit this site. Their investigations are quite extensive. www.animalsangels.org.

Steve Salazar

Go the the auctions, outbid everybody, take the horses home and care for them. Simple.

Janna Lukens

I wish that these articles would stop referring to horses as "unwanted". The ARE wanted. They are very much wanted, not only by horse-lovers, but by Kill Buyers (price per pound), horse slaughterhouses (price per pound), horsemeat distributors (price per pound), cattlemen's associations (price per pound as filler for "100% beef" - prices per pound), and many greedy politicians (campaign fund bribery - price per vote). So, yes. These horses are WANTED, and thus any solutions to the "overpopulation of horses" are not going to be effective until the inhumane horsemeat industry is permanently shut down. As long as there's a market for these WANTED horses, people will continue their unethical and irresponsible practices in breeding, transporting, killing, bribing, forging papers, and infiltrating our food supply with drug-laden adulterated horsemeat. As long as horse slaughter remains profitable to those few private individuals in this greedy, unconscienced, predatory horsemeat industry, horse owners can expect their beloved pets to be stolen; slaughterhouse towns can expect stench, a rise in crime, lower property values, loss of tourism, etc.; and we can all mourn the impact on our environment. It seems that few humans are humane these days. "Humane Slaughter", an oxymoran, does not exist. All aspects of slaughter are inhumane. But as long as "Profits Over People" remains the new mantra, horses will indeed be all too WANTED. I dream of the day when horses are no longer wanted - except by those who offer them a SAFE lasting, loving home.

Point taken Janna. But I believe readers in general know "unwanted" is the journalist's shorthand way of referring to horses no longer WANTED as companions, service animals, show horses, racers or for anything but for slaughter.

mauryb brooks

Janna, could you please elaborate on this oxymoron.

" as filler for "100% beef" "

Steven Stapp

Photographers, videographers, and other civilian observers suspect the actual number of wild horses remaining on the open range is closer to 20,000 NOT 40,000.

They are systematically being removed (and sent to slaughter out the BLM's backdoor) so oil and gas fracking leases can be sold.

In other words the Federal Government would rather chance poisoning our aquifers rather than protect out wild horses and burros as they are required to do by law.

Steven Stapp

Again the BLM's number of wild horses and burros on the open range has magically and dramatically increased. The recent NAS report stated that they have no true accounting and haven't had for years. By law (The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971) the Secretary of the Interior is to have on hand a 'current' census. The BLM has fallen for a mathematicians ruse that a magical equation can give them accurate numbers based on past history. Unfortunately drought, blizzards and natural death do no figure into this equation. If a foal is born it counts...whether is ever gets off the ground or not.

The BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program is a big waste of our tax money. We end up footing the bill for them to remain in short and long term holding which costs us millions and millions of dollars rather than letting nature take it's course.

If the range can't sustain them then nature kicks in and breeding slows. When the horrid helicopters come and stampede them to concentration camps the ones remaining on the range begin to breed again to sustain nature's appropriate number. Sometime many years ago the BLM dreamed up numbers they call AML's (appropriate management level's) far below nature's number which leads to inbreeding and the degeneration of the blood lines traced back to the Spaniards and beyond.

Kelly Blevins

Finally the truth comes out. Its nice to not hear the lies fueled out of greed from pro slaughter supporters. I hope more people come to realize that Wyoming Rep. Sue Wallis and her cohorts only see dollar signs. Her lies of concern for the welfare of horses is just sickening. She would get financial gain if she could get a plant open for Chevideco who was the owner of the Dallas Crown plant that left owing a huge amount of money to the community. The horse slaughter industry is nothing more than organized crime. Disgusting on every level. Most people cannot stomach to hear and see the reality of what happens to the horses, America has enough problems without bringing something so horrific back to its soil. There needs to be a major news network series of reports to show the public just how corrupt and cruel the industry really is. Congrats to all who made it to the event. We can never give in until America's horses are no longer shipped across the borders nor has the threat of slaughter houses in the shadows.

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