When Jo Deibel adopted her horse Mattie in 2003, the folks at the rescue organization made a remark that struck Deibel as odd: “They said, ‘we’re so glad you’re saving her.’ And I said, ‘Save her from what?’”

Slaughter, apparently.

More than 100,000 horses—pets, show and race horses, carriage horses, and wild horses—end up in slaughterhouses every year. Mattie could’ve been one of them.

Most owners have no idea that the gentle mare they sell because their child has outgrown her or the show horse they trade in for a horse who can jump may end up at a slaughterhouse. They imagine their horse will go to another rider or family, but not to an auction, and certainly not to slaughter. But people who work in horse rescue know better.

Kind owner or kill buyer?

Horse rescue groups go to auctions literally to bid for the life of horses against “kill buyers.” Kill buyers look at horses, some with manes still carefully braided by their last owners, and they don’t see pets or individuals; they see meat. Though reports show horse meat can be dangerous for human consumption because of the drugs horses are given over the course of their lifetimes, the meat is sold in countries like France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan. Horses are not raised as food animals but are raised as companions who are taught to trust humans.

The terrifying road to slaughter

After a horse is bought by a kill buyer, she is shipped to a slaughterhouse in Mexico or Canada. Currently, there are no horse slaughterhouses in the U.S., but the cruel and predatory industry continues to court states in an effort to convince them that slaughter is somehow good for communities and horses.

Former pets, sensitive dressage horses, and draft horses—all are dragged and whipped into trucks that are built for cattle, who are much shorter, meaning the horses are often horrifically injured on their long heads, necks, and legs. Since the slaughter industry sees these horses as nothing but meat, it doesn’t do anything to keep them from being hurt or traumatized.

Workers cram as many horses as possible into the trucks. “They mix stallions in with pregnant mares, foals, and older horses, often leading to fights and injuries,” says Valerie Pringle, Equine Protection Specialist for The Humane Society of the United States.

“And they can be transported in freezing cold or scorching heat, for 24 hours or more with no food or water and no chance to rest or stretch. “Horse slaughter should not exist as a grisly crutch for irresponsible owners and breeders while the majority find humane outcomes for their horses. Sending a horse to an inhumane death at a slaughter plant is not the least expensive way of ending a horse’s life—it is the greediest way.”

The horror of the slaughterhouse

At the slaughterhouse, a horse is killed in a way that is easiest and quickest for the slaughterhouse worker but most agonizing for her. Investigations from Mexican and Canadian slaughter plants report that horses are stabbed many times in the neck with a “puntilla knife” to sever their spinal cords, leaving them paralyzed and unable to breathe. The horse is then hoisted, bled out, and cut apart, often while still conscious and able to feel everything. Horses fared no better when they were slaughtered in the U.S., according to an investigation by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Slaughter simply cannot be made humane.

Fight Horse Slaughter

From the Derby ring to the dinner plate

Pet horses aren’t the only ones in jeopardy. Healthy racehorses end up in the slaughter pipeline when their owners abandon them because they are injured or aren’t turning a big enough profit. Kentucky Derby winner and Eclipse Horse of the Year (the highest award bestowed by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and racing press) Ferdinand was slaughtered in 2002 in Japan. Mattie, who could have met the same fate, is the granddaughter of the great racehorse Secretariat.

Even some of the carriage horses who have spent their lives ferrying tourists through New York City’s traffic and pollution are sold for slaughter. “Many of these horses served their owners for years, and they deserve better,” Pringle says.

Ready for new lives, not death

Pringle points out that “The USDA reports that 92 percent of the horses going to slaughter are good horses in good shape. With new owners, they can live long, healthy lives and even change careers.”

Joey, the lead actor/horse in Steven Spielberg’s movie “War Horse” is a perfect example, she says. “He is an off-the-track thoroughbred. His racing name was Finder’s Key, and he was unplaced in three starts for a $2,500 claiming price. His racing career failed, but his second career was a success.”

Why do owners choose slaughter?

When a horse comes to the end of his or her life, he deserves a humane death, but some owners think slaughter is acceptable. The horse slaughter industry may promote itself as a humane solution, but that’s a lie, says Pringle. “Euthanasia means a gentle, painless death, but with slaughter, there’s terror and pain and suffering.”

Some owners sell their horse to slaughter because they think that euthanasia is too expensive. In fact, it costs approximately $225–roughly one month’s keep for a horse. Or they may not know what to do with the body. But in many states, there are programs to help owners dispose of the remains or cover the cost of euthanasia.

Humanely Euthanize Your Horse

We’re fighting to keep slaughterhouses out of the U.S.

In November, members of the Congressional Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee opened the door to bringing horse slaughter back to the U.S. They approved (and President Barack Obama signed) an agricultural spending bill that authorizes federal funding for horse slaughterhouse inspections by the USDA, for the first time in many years. If federal inspections are funded, slaughterhouses could begin operating again in the U.S.

“It is really unfortunate that Congress authorized spending to support something that the majority of Americans oppose,” Pringle said. “Polls show that 80 percent of Americans oppose horse slaughter."

Fortunately, in June 2012, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment offered by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., to block funding for the slaughterhouse inspection."Industrial slaughter of horses should not be condoned by the United States Government," said Rep. Moran.

Our battle to prevent slaughterhouses from operating in the U.S. ever again continues: The HSUS and other animal welfare groups are working hard to ban horse slaughterhouses in the U.S and forbid anyone from transporting horses to foreign slaughterhouses. This bill has received broad bipartisan support and continues to gain co-sponsors, as the threat of horse slaughter returning to our backyards becomes real.

Horse rescue means happy endings—for both owner and horse

What Deibel learned when she adopted Mattie changed her life. She now advocates to end horse slaughter and started a nonprofit organization, Angel Acres Horse Haven Rescue, in Pennsylvania. Her group has helped save and find loving homes for some 600 horses since Mattie came into her life in 2003. Deibel has even set up a special fund to assist horse owners who need help covering the costs of humanely euthanizing their horses. She hopes that people all over the country will join together and demand an end to horse slaughter altogether.

Mattie’s life has changed, too. Like so many rescued horses, she has much left to give. “Mattie is a babysitter for the new horses who come in,” Deibel reports. “She’ll buddy up with them and introduce them to the other horses in the herd.” You see, like her owner, Mattie has made it her job to look after horses in need of a friend.