The role of the horse has been diverse in North America during the last century, including slaughtering horses for meat products intended for human consumption. Although horse meat is not culturally preferred in the diets of Americans and most Canadians, it is an acceptable meat source in the diet of Mexicans. The peak in the number of horses slaughtered in North America occurred in the 1980s, with as many as 350,000 horses per year. Over 90% of these horses were processed in the US, with the resultant meat products exported overseas.
Public concern grew in the 1990s in the US on the alleged conditions of handling, transport, and slaughter of horses. Welfare concerns were focused on the utilization of the double-deck trailers, long transit duration without feed or water, use of an electric prod, and lack of provisions for injured, pregnant, old, or very young horses. This societal pressure promulgated the development of federal regulations on the safe and humane commercial transport of equines to slaughter. However, by the end of 2007, the last three processing plants in Texas and Illinois were closed due to state and federal laws.
Closure of the processing plants precipitated a dramatic increase in the number of US-origin horses transported to slaughter plants in Canada and Mexico. With this shift in destination, welfare of the horses was compromised by increased duration of transport, inspection processes at the US borders, and the handling and stunning at slaughter facilities, especially in Mexico. Guidelines, regulations, and assessment tools for welfare of slaughter horses have been developed and implemented in Canada.
The number of “unwanted” and neglected horses has increased in the US with the closure of the processing plants. The existing rescue and rehabilitation facilities in operation throughout the US do not meet the needs to care for these horses due to limited capacity and funding.
Major challenges in the future sustainability of the industry will depend on several factors including the cultural preference for horse meat in the diet, the public’s concern for the care and handling of horses during transport and slaughter, the impact of additional regulations, and the continued availability in the supply of horses, particularly those originating from the US.