i’ve attended livestock auctions with my father since I was a kid. We’d load a couple of horses, donkeys, or mules into a trailer, jury-rig its brake lights, and drive from our northwest-Arkansas farm to Missouri or Oklahoma, or somewhere farther south. At the sale barn, buyers and sellers walked among the stalls: mule skinners, old-timers, girls with project ponies, a trader bitterly lamenting a horse’s flaws—he would bid on it later—and groups of Amish men who fell silent as we passed. Dad always asked around about which men there bought stock for slaughter, and when he rode one of our horses through the auction ring, he announced that he would not sell it to a “kill buyer.”
Last October, I went with my parents to another horse auction—my first in years—in Carthage, Missouri. This time, the kill buyers we used to duck would likely not be a problem. Five years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped funding inspections of the three U.S. slaughterhouses that processed horse meat, effectively closing them. Though most of the meat landed on dining tables in Europe or Asia, activists including the Humane Society, the oilman T. Boone Pickens, and the actor Robert Redford had pressed to shut them down. Even for Americans who eat beef, pork, and lamb, there was something unsavory about feeding an animal so central to American mythology—companion to sheriffs and outlaws, cowboys and Indians—to foreigners.
But the shrunken kill market had an unhappy consequence for small-time farmers and traders. Chester Palmer, the horseman who produced the Carthage sale, held his first auction 14 years ago. Back then, a harnessed team of horses pulled in $6,000; now it’s lucky to draw half that. “When they took the killer market away from us, that took the wholesale out of the deal,” Palmer, who’s spent his entire life around horses, told me. “A horse is worth $500 to kill. If you wanted to take one home, you had to outbid the killers.”
It’s not only the sellers who suffered. In states across the country, reported cases of equine abuse, neglect, and abandonment skyrocketed. And the kill buyers of yesteryear aggregated into rarer but still more haunting boogeymen, purchasing for the abattoirs of Canada or, worse, Mexico, where horses at some slaughterhouses are reportedly subject to torturous conditions. In hard economic times, Palmer believes, horses are better off with the domestic slaughterhouses operating: “They’ll take a ride to the killer plant and in two days, they’re gone. It takes six months for a horse to starve to death.”
Last year’s drought raised the specter of that extreme choice. After record-dry months that turned the South various shades of yellow on weather maps and underfoot, quality hay couldn’t be begged or bought. Even my parents did the unthinkable and began rationing hay. Visiting home in the fall, I was startled to see ribs on some of their small herd of 20 horses and mules. At 78, Dad had broken a leg, again, under a team of spooked runaways, and now propped himself up on a crutch. Only the belt buckle he’d won riding broncs 60 years ago seemed to fasten him together. Mom had dropped her own work to take over chores. So, at the Missouri sale, they would try to unload seven head: a huge Belgian workhorse, two mules, two old registered American saddlebred mares, a bucking quarter horse someone had given Dad, and Darlin’, an elegant 4-year-old with one blue eye.
My older sister Jacqueline flew in from Michigan to help, and Dusty, a part-time cowboy full of tobacco juice and devotion to our father, borrowed a trailer and lent a hand. That night in Carthage, we led the horses into stalls, and headed for a motel where incense burned under a Hindu effigy at the front desk. Crowded into a room, we drank beers among wafts of sandalwood while Dusty spun yarns about his rodeo high jinks with a Watusi bull whose yea-long horns had hurt like hell.