GAO on Horse Abuse

» August 14th, 2013

A version of this piece ran a couple of days ago at Pacific Standard. It was picked up by Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish, last night. This story deserves to work its way up the journalistic food chain because it’s a vivid reminder about the corruption at the core of our political system, one that has little regard for animals but lot of love in its heart for unfettered corporate greed. I would like to thank Vickery Eckhoff and John Holland for their invaluable help on this issue. 

The vast majority of Americans—over 80 percent—oppose the idea of slaughtering horses in the United States. Not surprisingly, there was minimal public oppositionwhen, in 2007, Congress, citing rampant welfare abuse and safety violations, cut off funding for the USDA inspection of U.S. horse slaughterhouses. This decision effectively ended the business of slaughtering horses domestically.

In November 2011, however, an agriculture appropriations bill signed by Congress reinstated funding for inspection. The legislative path for states to reopen horse slaughterhouses is now clear. Today, with the domestic cattle market in a drought-induced tailspin, New Mexico, Missouri, Wyoming, Tennessee, Iowa, and Oklahoma are on the verge of sending horses it once sent to Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses into the clutches of domestic abattoirs. Other states, seeking a way to capitalize on horses that have lost their value or can be bought cheaply at meat prices, are eager to follow. A New Mexico meat processing plant has even made arrangements with the Navajo Nation to corral wild horses in anticipation of the impending slaughter fest. All that’s holding this off for right now is a lawsuit from the Humane Society of the United States.

The pivotal piece of evidence that convinced Congress to change its mind on the matter of domestic horse slaughter was a GAO analysis published in June 2011(PDF). Senators Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin) and Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) and Representative Jack Kingston (R-Georgia) commissioned it. Titled, “Actions Needed to Address Unintended Consequences From Cessation of Domestic Slaughter,” the report found “a rise in investigations for horse neglect and more abandoned horses since 2007”—the year the plants were closed. The “unintended consequence” of closing horse slaughterhouses, the report explained, was an increase in the abuse of horses. Reinstating domestic slaughterhouses, it suggested, would diminish this rising problem of neglect among owners who neither wanted to keep their horses nor were willing to send them abroad for slaughter. This argument was one that the slaughter lobby has been making since slaughterhouse closings in 2007. Pro-slaughter advocates were more than pleased to hear the news.

Something about this report, however, seemed suspicious before it was even published. Charlie Stenholm, former Texas Congressman and now policy advisor to the D.C.-based law firm Olsson, Frank, and Weeda (which specializes in helping agribusiness negotiate federal red tape and recently hired an attorney who specializes in agricultural deals with Native Americans), told a conference of pro-slaughter interests in Las Vegas that the GAO report—which would not come out for another six months—contained very good news. Wyoming state rep. Sue Wallis, slaughter advocate extraordinaire, was evidently doing the same.

When the report officially dropped in June 2011, Stenholm and Wallace were proven correct. The Senate quickly wrote an appropriations bill removing the provision that defunded inspection. Because the House had an amendment preserving the language, the bill went to committee, where the vote was three to one in favor of restoring funding for domestic horse slaughterhouses. Those three votes came, alas, from Senators Kohl and Blunt and Representative Kingston.

All very fishy. But what really stinks about the GAO report is the math. Because national data is not available on reported horse abuse, the GAO went to six states and found—in the only case of hard numbers that it provides in the entire report—that “Colorado data showed that investigations for horse neglect and abuse increased more than 60 percent from 975 in 2005 to 1,588 in 2009.” Sounds pretty dramatic—until you recall that the slaughter ban passed in 2007. Not 2005. This matters.

As it turns out, horse abuse in Colorado did rise rapidly from 2005 through the end of 2007 (before the ban). But, starting in 2008, it declined precipitously through 2010 (a year for which numbers are available but the GAO tellingly admitted). The report thus made it seem as if abuse spiked after the closing of slaughterhouses. In fact, it continued for less than a year after the ban was instated and then declined rapidly.


Figure 1: Colorado Department of Agriculture data

It is further worth noting that the GAO had access to similar figures on horse abuse investigations from five other states—Illinois, Idaho, Georgia, Maine, and Oregon. The GAO’s decision not to include this information makes little sense unless it was deliberately trying to skew the picture of horse abuse in favor of pro-slaughter interests. To wit: Four states for which there are data show a dramatic decline in horse abuse after 2007 while one—Idaho—shows no movement one way or the other. Ignoring these figures, the GAO decided instead to focus on Colorado, evidently hoping nobody wouldnotice its creative presentation of the numbers.


Figure 2: Data from the agriculture departments of six states

Despite the report’s suggestion that the need for local slaughterhouses is an urgent matter, the GAO fails to note something quite extraordinary about the situation: Only about one percent of existing domestic horses are slaughtered every year. Ninety-two percent of that one percent, according to Temple Grandin, are healthy and devoid of behavioral problems. They’re bucking horses that won’t buck and racehorses that won’t win and quarter horses that nobody is buying from breeders because hay prices are too high. The only thing that’s urgent in this entire scenario is the desire to profit from sending these healthy horses to slaughter.

Horse abuse and neglect is a small problem that got smaller with the closure of slaughterhouses. The GAO—and the slaughter lobby it seems to represent—falsely presents it as a large problem getting larger. It wants us to envision a situation in which a recession and drought are overwhelming horse owners to the point that they’re neglecting sick and ailing horses en masse. Give them easy access to a domestic slaughterhouse, so goes the argument, and abuse will decline.

In fact, it is the exact opposite that’s true. Abuse went down after slaughterhouses were closed. All that domestic slaughterhouses would provide is an easy and profitable excuse to send many more healthy horses to a premature death for meat that we don’t even eat in this country. It’s all very sad logic upon which to rebuild an industry.

20 Responses to GAO on Horse Abuse

  1. Catherine Gore says:

    Thank you for writing about this. As a vegan, I’m aware that there is no moral difference in eating a cow or a horse. But I think it’s important to recognize that the battle against horse slaughter can be won – now. Furthermore, ignoring horse slaughter will do nothing to reduce the consumption of other animals. I think it works the other way around.

    700 wild horses are now being rounded up and delivered to slaughter via the Ft. Hamilton Shoshone Reservation in Nevada:

  2. Catherine Gore says:

    OK, I have to admit that when I read this piece the first time I only skimmed and that’s why my first comment appears kind of off topic.

    I just finished reading through the piece again and was pretty shocked to see these words:

    “Horse abuse and neglect is a small problem …”


    I apologize in advance for this long comment.

    I’ve been thinking long and hard about the plight of horses for years, and to illustrate the extent to which I think they are abused, let me just say that more than any other animal, I would not want to come back as a horse in another life. They can live a long time, approximately 30 years, and so often their abuse goes on for a long time. They have multiple owners over their lifetimes, some better than others.

    Horse-racing is rife with abuse – from the whipping, the drug use, the over-breeding, cruelty in the breeding process itself, horses dying and being injured on racetracks every day – to so many of them being sent to slaughter when they under-perform. Rodeos – all you need to do is visit SHARK’s website to learn about the barbaric cruelty there: Every summer I learn about horrific abuse of horses at rodeos all around the country. Carriage horses – over-worked, literally horse slaves, in shackles, blinders over their eyes, dragging tourists around in heavy carriages (often holding heavy tourists, I might add) often in intense heat, in cities and towns across the country. The Tennessee walking horse industry has been torturing, “soring” horses for decades. That issue is finally getting the attention it deserves, thanks in large part to this undercover video from HSUS released last year: But there is also abuse in the more common show world:

    There are so many uses of horses that are abusive, too many to list. And there’s also the everyday abuse in “pleasure” riding. I’ve heard with my own ears a veterinarian advising someone to simply administer the drug “bute,” a painkiller, to a 17 year old horse suffering with an arthritic knee before and after riding him. Horses are routinely given painkillers and I know that many are routinely ridden lame, especially at all the for-profit horse-back riding businesses around the country. Again, I’ve seen with my own eyes horses in miserable conditions at those places, where strangers come, again many of them very heavy, to climb on the back of a horse and ride him or her for a few miles, maybe making him gallop, maybe trot, and who was likely purchased at an auction for a couple of hundred dollars.

    And what about the training? What does it take to break a horse? Again, some are gentler than others, but many are not gentle at all:

    And don’t get me started with the simple fact of the bit. Who decided that a horse doesn’t mind, as I’ve said here before, a hunk of steel gagging him in the back of his mouth. Just yesterday I read the phrase “mouth-destroying bit.” There are various kinds of bits – some meant to hurt more than others.

    Sorry for the extended rant – but too many people aren’t aware of the extent of horse abuse. Horse slaughter has to be stopped, but so does horse abuse in its many forms, and that’s going to be tough, given how deeply entrenched is our belief that horses exist for our interests, not their own.

    • You have to look at abuse as it’s measured by states and statistically referenced by the GAO in reference to slaughter, Catherine—not the broader types of abuses you mention (bits, drugs, etc) which fall outside the state definition at issue here.

      GAO cherry picked state data on abuse and neglect to show a huge problem and it simply didn’t exist. Not at all. Further, you have to look at how small the numbers they did come up with stack up in comparison to the entire horse population. By comparison, the data they provided did show a small problem getting smaller, not a large problem getting larger.

      • Catherine Gore says:

        Point very well taken, Vickery. I see that I went off topic in both comments, even more in the second one, I think! My apologies, James, for misinterpreting your words in your excellent post. Honestly, I’m usually a much more careful reader.

        I believe my error was in not making the distinction between the illegal abuse of horses, which James’s post discusses, and shows to be a relatively small problem that was distorted by the GAO, and the broader topic of legal horse abuse, about which I feel a deep need to raise awareness (ok, and about which some might say I’m obsessed – the reason I jumped to the faulty conclusion about James’s meaning) and believe is widespread. But again, whole other topic.

        If that weren’t enough, I got my forts mixed up in my first comment – it’s Ft. McDermott, not Hamilton.

  3. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    This avid reader intends to do ALL she can to END this farce and deny those individuals/legislators and groups who favor SLAUGHTER their pathetic victory!!! I cant thank you enough for your important information!

  4. Mustang Man says:

    Lets work on one or two abuses at a time, end slaughter, end the round ups. Then we can work on another two issues. Horses didn’t get to this stage overnight and fixing the parasitic habits of apes (humans) is not going to happen overnight either. EWA’s report by John Holland is a perfect example of attacking the issue with real life facts instead of all the hyperbole both sides like to use way too often. Now lets get those fact’s out there to the public.

  5. Carrie Gobernatz says:

    Don’t forget America’s Zoos, we need to stop the animals from eating our horses. Not safe to feed them this meat along with the cruelty of the slaughter process.

  6. Faith says:

    I knew the GAO report was not credible when I read that they contacted our state vets in Pa to get the stats on horse abuse. Anyone knowing anything about PA law knows state vets have absolutely nothing to do with abuse. Their sole responsibility is disease control. Furhter Pa does not keep records of abuse so it is an impossible question to answer. Remember the GAO college report. They need investigated.

  7. Deedie says:

    I think they should be held accountable. This should get more publicity. I’m so grateful for this article, that finally proves the deceit surrounding the horse slaughter “business”. I know that politicians lobby for money and make promises, but this is low down and dirty. I think this very informative and TRUTHFUL article should be circulated widely.

  8. Barbara Griffith says:

    I think the public really needs to question any report the GAO comes up with in the future. These politicians look to organizations like GAO for talking points for a lot of the bills that they want to pass. If the GAO can be bought, which from this horse slaughter report they can, just how many other rules and regulations have they helped unscrupulous law makers pass that no one needed or wanted? You see almost every in a newspaper article about a report or study the GAO just completed which puts them in a position to influence just about everything the US government does. Which is not good.

  9. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    What is so unnerving about the GAO report is those folks are supposed to be the WATCHDOGS

  10. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    (sorry; accidentally hit ‘enter’.)
    I had read Vickery’s article in Forbes on the report and John Holland’s excellent dissection – all hiding in plain sight.
    The human eye tends to roll over that which isn’t too interesting but becomes avid and remembers those subjects of interest. Numbers bore people, so they skim right over them, and points get lost. But it’s the method the GAO – an organization we should be able to trust – authored the report. A lady commented that the report was authored to ‘render a foregone conclusion’. And it served it’s purpose well.
    I advocate for wild and domestic equines, for their welfare and equitable considerations under the law. I am against horse slaughter for many reasons, but the most irritating is the continual insistence that it’s a ‘meat’ industry when it is decidedly NOT. It’s disposing of animal – with little or no provenance, no understanding of it’s origin, past diseases, treatment of those maladies, no way of knowing even if the animal found in a feed lot or auction yard is there under reliable or legal circumstances.
    When the GAO report came out, those who oppose slaughter were appalled; every belief shattered, every step forward crushed. We knew the report was flawed, but it was a government study, by an entity charged with ACCOUNTABILITY.
    It’s gratifying to know that we weren’t wrong. But it’s incredibly disturbing to realize that it doesn’t matter.

  11. Thank you for writing this article and representing and clarifying the facts. It is unbelievable how determined the pro-slaughters are in the mission to destroy our nation’s horses. Articles such as yours are important to our cause as we need everyone in support of protecting horses to be educated and informed. We all need to speak up. Their lives depend on us!

  12. Maggie Frazier says:

    Very good article – I read John Holland & Vickery’s articles always! They both have the nitty gritty of whats going on with our horses. Certainly is telling that our so-called watchdog (!) the GAO put forth this not only slanted report but absolutely untrue. How is it that after that hullabaloo – the BLM is allowed to dictate to the NAS telling them what they could include in their $2,000,000 report? Altho, have to say, the NAS did a better job with it than was intended.

  13. gloria righmey says:

    A challenge to all Pro slaughter people. PLEASE, OH PLEASE, try and explain your repeated comments continually blame increased abuse, abandonment, neglect, ( or ANY other negative horse situation for that matter) on the closure of the equine slaughter in this country. When the slaughter option is now and always has been an option. When just as many horses are slaughtered now as before the US plants were closed. If someone wanted to sell their horse for slaughter now, They could and would. Just as before, they can still take their horse to any horse auction in the country, and the kill buyers are buying as many or more horses as before are US plants closed. Nothings different. There simply hauling them out of the country to be butchered instead of hauling them to a US slaughter plant.I challenge you, or any other pro slaughter person to answer and explain this indisputable fact. As not one pro slaughter person ever has . BECAUSE THEY CAN’T. Because you can’t blame negative consciousness on something that hasn’t changed. SO until you do so, STOP with the bull and lies that it is the closing of the US plants that has caused ANY of the problems in the horse industry. Because that is IMPOSSIBLE. Say there’s no difference between slaughtering a horse or cow if you choose. Or it is a profitable business that you should be free to pursue. But stop with the lies of how the closing of the Us slaughter plants is causing the horse problems. And trying to make yourselves into kind caring concerned horse welfare advocates. Its beyond despicable. Its too bad for pro slaughter that they didn’t end ALL horse slaughter,including those sold and then simply hauled to Canada or Mexico at the same time they only closed the US slaughter plants. But not the sale of horses for slaughter. Then at least it would have been possible it was the closing of the US slaughter plants that might have caused any problems in the horse industry. Instead of the real reasons which are the recession., drought, increased hay and transportation costs.. As it is now, any 12 year old can see through your bull no matter how often you repeat it. Is there no news editorial writers that have enough brains, guts, or who bother to do some minimal research, with no bias opinions that will ask a pro slaughter person how these negative effects can be caused by the closing of the US plants when just as many horses are sold to slaughter now as before our plants were closed? To those of you who keep spouting these impossible, totally nonsensical lies and propaganda blaming the closing of the US slaughter plants on all kinds of negative horse problems. Well I’m asking you. Can’t wait to hear your reply. Gloria

  14. I hope you’re not holding your breath! Those low-lifes NEVER an answer to this question. It’s amazing how they can go on spewing this stuff when they know reasonable people know it’s bilge.

    I guess that’s what it takes to be pro-slaughter.

  15. John Holland says:

    I want to thank James for doing such a careful and accurate job of showing just how the GAO attempted to deceive us all. EWA can do all the research in the world, but it means nothing if it does not get properly presented in the media like James and Vickery have done.

    And yes, as has been noted several times in these comments, we all knew the report was biased nonsense when we read it. But having a smoking gun like their misuse of the Colorado numbers, gives us what we need to prove intentional deceit.

    I can’t add much here except to say that while numbers are boring to many, they tell a story in terms that power cannot ignore. We need to encourage more advocates to make the extra effort to understand what the numbers say, because it always seems to be in our horses’ favor.

    • Lisa LeBlanc says:

      I’m just grateful that the numbers didn’t bore YOU.
      It’s so incredibly easy to take a thing at face value, then wonder why it makes you ‘itch’.
      You have a ‘magic eye’ for not only delving beneath but for presenting your findings in a way that doesn’t bore.

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