They Kill Horses, Don’t They?

A family farm, a drought, and difficult choices

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.

At the sale barn the next morning, my sister and I picked the last of the summer ticks from the necks of our horses and mules, combed burrs from their tails, and spritzed their coats with oil. Over the years, my parents had allowed countless private sales to fall through, worried that a horse and rider wouldn’t match. But this morning, pressed by circumstance, they let go of their quibbles. As buyers walked among the stalls, Mom taped photos of the animals at work, alongside Dad’s penned descriptions peppered with the casual grammar (“loads easy and shoes perfect”) that he thinks boosts credibility.

Since draft horses were selling high, Mom decided we should show our Belgian plowman-style, in a harness and with lines attached to her bridle. Dad with his gimpy leg couldn’t do it, but an Amish man would know how to stand behind the mare, tugging the lines to direct her forward and back, right and left. Dad hobbled off, returning with two men in buttons and beards. The younger man unsmilingly agreed to help. As we cued up, his father-in-law, Chris, helped me hold Darlin’, the 4-year-old, who pawed the ground, upset that she’d been separated from the Belgian. I would lead the untrained horse through her paces. Chris, a father of 12, asked me about our stock and our family, gazing at me with such frank appraisal that I looked away.

Dad walked into the ring, the better to give the rundown on each horse or mule. When Darlin’ and I were up, I tried to work her into a trot, but she broke for the Belgian outside the ring. I spun her around and she stood. I managed to pick up one of her feet to show prospective buyers: she’d shoe perfect. We ran out, and Dusty handed me the quarter horse. He skittered and stomped, landing hard on my foot. My father pretended not to notice.

Then it was over. “Ain’t hardly any good horses here,” Chris, the Amish patriarch, confided. He liked me, though, and wrote his address on a slip of paper—no phone number, of course—so I could send him my writing. I asked why he’d chosen to talk to me, a woman and an outsider. “Honestly? You’re pretty.”

Now that we were all being honest, I tracked down Chester Palmer for more straight talk. Our Belgian had gone high, $800, but the others had sold for much less. Gorgeous as she was, Darlin’ had brought a humiliating $60. All told, my parents cleared $1,300 after commissions. Palmer wasn’t surprised. “You all run out of hay, probably gettin’ out of water. They were thin,” he said. “Some of them brought almost twice what I thought they might. I’m glad they did, because I’m sure your dad could use every penny he could get out of ’em.”

In November, not long after the disheartening sale, Congress unexpectedly reinstated funding for inspections of slaughterhouses that process horse meat, on the recommendation of the Government Accountability Office. As of this writing, none have yet opened, but a couple are slated to do so within the year. Many pet lovers are furious, but PETA actually supports the reversal, arguing that the suffering of unwanted horses increased after the demise of the kill plants.

It’s cruel that industrial slaughter should be an ally to the agrarian holdouts whose lives are tied to the animals they raise. Cruel, too, when fate makes loosening those ties a relief. At the October sale, we were determined to leave with empty trailers, and how lightly they rattled over the highway home. Still, my parents must sell most of their remaining horses. They hope to do so privately, but some may end up at auction. And with the kill plants back, an empty trailer may carry a new, unhappy burden on the drive back to the farm.