The closure of the last U.S. horse slaughter plants in the fall of 2007 has failed to reduce the number of horses shipped to slaughter.

Instead, the federal funding ban had the unintended consequence of forcing horses to be shipped great distances to be slaughtered in Canada or Mexico where they are killed and not necessarily humanely.

That’s one key conclusion from a 62-page report released Wednesday from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The report confirms what many horse owners have been saying for years: Because of a glut in the horse market, prices for all but the most expensive horses are seriously depressed.

After 25 years of breeding horses, Jim Jackson of Billings has stopped breeding his blue-blood American Quarter Horse Association mares and studs.

He recently sold his Billings business, Big Sky Feeds, and then advertised across 10 states this month to sell his remaining 40 to 50 horses. He asked $2,000 to $3,000 for the best mares but had only one buyer offering $500 to $700.

Jackson said he’s selling in part because of his health but also because the closure of domestic slaughterhouses has helped destroy horse prices.

“People don’t have anyplace to go with their horses anymore,” he said.

If his dispersal sale doesn’t work, Jackson will make sure his beloved horses don’t suffer.

“I have no intention of putting these quality horses on a horse-trading merry-go-round, and I will euthanize them rather than let that happen to them,” he wrote in his ad.

Local veterinarians are also feeling the effects of a depressed horse market.

Dr. Vicki Bokum of Shepherd said she used to do a lot of equine reproduction work, including for Jim and Ruth Jackson.

“Now I do none. None of my clients are breeding anymore, and I don’t blame them. Why breed them when they can’t sell them?” she said.

With low prices come fewer sales, further restricting options for horse owners. Horses are being abandoned, turned out to fend for themselves, especially onto tribal lands, or neglected, the GAO concluded.

Billings Livestock Commission co-manager Jann Parker said she shared years of sales numbers with the GAO so the researchers could find out “the God’s honest truth” about what has happened to the horse market.

The GAO report cites the Billings auction, one of the largest in the country, as proof that prices for lower-grade horses, generally sold for slaughter, have dropped significantly. “Canners,” or horses bound for slaughter, used to fetch roughly $700 to $800.

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At Billings Livestock Commission in May 2005, 25 percent of the “loose” horses (not ridden or saddled) sold for less than $200. In May 2010, nearly three years after the slaughterhouse ban, half of the loose horses sold at the Billings Livestock Commission brought $200 or less.

In 2006, the last full year the U.S. plants operated, 105,000 horses were slaughtered domestically. In 2010, at least 138,000 horses were shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, the GAO reported.

Seventeen state veterinarians, including in Montana, told the GAO that equine welfare had declined since the economic crash in 2008, the closure of the slaughterhouses and the drought, among other factors.

Local government and charities don’t have the money to deal with the large number of abandoned horses, the GAO concluded. And animal sanctuaries, now caring for 6,000 horses nationally, are full.

“Clearly the cessation of domestic slaughter has had unintended consequences, most importantly, perhaps, the decline in horse welfare in the United States,” the report stated.

In the 1980s, the U.S. had 16 horse slaughterhouses where the meat was mainly exported for sale in Asia and Europe.

The last three slaughterhouses closed in 2007 after opponents of horse slaughter had federal funding cut for inspecting horse meat. Unless meat is federally inspected, it can’t be shipped across state lines.

The GAO recommends that Congress consider reversing a ban that keeps the U.S. Department of Agriculture from using federal funds to inspect horse shipments. That would help ensure that the horses aren’t injured on the way to slaughter.

“The ban on the use of funds makes it very difficult for the USDA to ensure the horses’ welfare. I think that’s the key concept for the Congress to take into consideration,” said Christian Mackay, executive director of the Montana Department of Livestock.

The GAO also said Congress should consider ending the ban on using federal funds to inspect horse slaughter plants.

But the GAO report also suggested that Congress may consider an outright ban on U.S. horse slaughter plants, rather than just cutting the funding.

Parker said U.S. equine slaughter plants should reopen, be run humanely and be inspected by the USDA again to help eliminate neglect and abandonment.

“It’s just like the drug trade. With an outright ban you can say it’s not out there, but, honey, it is,” she said.

Laurel horse trainer Bruce Thiel said he had to say goodbye to old Rocky, a horse he trained and then rode for 27 years, just shy of the gelding’s 30th birthday.

Moving the horse to slaughter to Canada increased the suffering, he said.

“You load them up and say your goodbyes. Nobody wants to do that, but it’s better than watching them suffer and starve or watch them lay down and bang their head on the ground because they can’t get up again,” he said.

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Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or 406-657-1306.