I began writing this series partly in response to photos that found their way into my Facebook feed. Like many of you, I would see images of skinny, lame, and debilitated horses taken by what I assumed to be legitimate rescue groups at auctions around the country. I was, admittedly, only peripherally aware of the “equine slaughter pipeline” and the part that kill buyers play in that industry. What I am learning is that perhaps a better term would be the “equine auction pipeline.” I am also learning that a person needs to do more due diligence rather than assuming Facebook pages are the whole story…
In addition to the Facebook photos, I started this series because of my frustration over the USDA certification module I was taking to maintain my veterinary accreditation. I wrote about that disconnect in Part One. Part Two discusses the history of the slaughter industry and provides information about the major equine organizations that continually oppose legislation that would end equine slaughter. More on that at the end of this post…
At the end of Part Two, I asked 3 questions…
- Did you know that some breeders use slaughter as a means of disposing of unwanted horses?
- Did you know that some highly visible equine rescues practice “bait and switch”?
- Did you know that only a few people have a contract to purchase horses for slaughter, and everyone else in the pipeline is a middleman?
I will start by answering the last two questions, as they are at the core of the title of this post. (I will address the first question at a later date.) There is a scam that many, many of us are falling prey to… and our emotional response is lining the pockets of the lowest of the low. I also want to make it very clear that there are some incredible, well-run and legitimate rescues that are saving horses across the country.
In a future post, I will describe how to do your own due diligence to determine if you are dealing with a “rescue”/horse trader that is lining the pockets of kill pen buyers, a well-intentioned but overwhelmed rescue that is not meeting the needs of their horses, or a well-run, dedicated rescue organization focusing on protecting and saving horses from an inhumane death.
Some housekeeping details and the source of this information
Before I explain that statement, let me do a little housekeeping. I have read countless articles and spoken to many, many people. I assume that you do not want to read every article I have read in its entirety. Therefore, I will provide links, as I always do, to the complete article while trying to give you the “Cliff’s Notes” version. I will pull quotes when it would be impossible to state the facts any clearer, or when the original writer’s expertise shines through. However, if you really want to dive deeper, follow all of the links.
My first exposure to what is really happening at auction houses came from Vera V-Abdallah, founder of Love This Horse Equine Rescue. Vera and I connected immediately on so many levels! She focuses on rescuing Arabian horses, and she has adopted children, as have I. I was referred to Vera by the admins of a Facebook page called Kill Pen Fairytales. This Facebook page is all about what this blog is all about… the Kill Pen fairytale.
The second best source of information and explanation came from this article on the Equine Info Exchange. The author’s name is given as Liberty Vallance but I have no information about this person, nor can I find any. Nevertheless, I found the explanation to be incredibly insightful and detailed. If you choose to read only one full article, this might be a good one.
I believe the author is a woman. She, like me, went down this rabbit hole because she purchased a “kill pen horse.” Her 36 years in the horse industry, combined with her degrees in business and law, made her begin to question some of what she was learning… just like me. I have never written a post where I quoted such a lengthy part of it… but the Liberty Vallance article describes this scam so succinctly.
What follows will be a combination of what I learned from Vera on a phone call and from her website, what the Liberty Vallance article describes, and information from the website of Animals’ Angels. I will be writing an entire post about Animal’s Angels, as they have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of all animals.
The AUCTION Pipeline
There are a limited number of actual kill buyers purchasing horses in the United States for the purpose of slaughter in Mexico or Canada. According to Animals’ Angels, in 2021 the number of active shippers had dropped to only 10. These people have a quota that they are asked to meet on perhaps a weekly basis. Their quota is based on supply and demand, just as any market commodity is. Demand has diminished in recent years. Here is the list provided by Animals’ Angels of the active shippers to Mexico:
- Rio Grand Classic Livestock Auction, Texas
- Dennis Chavez, New Mexico
- Equixport, Texas
- Blake Wilf, Arkansas
- M & M Livestock, Arkansas (Stanley Brothers)
- George Baker Stables, Oklahoma
- Ramos Livestock, Texas
- Bowie Livestock, Texas
- Joe Simon, Oklahoma
Due largely in part to the work of Animals’ Angels, the European Union required horses shipped from the United States for human consumption to be held for 6 months to clear their system of drugs. In 2014, the EU imposed a conditional ban on meat exports from Mexico, thereby drastically reducing the amount of horsemeat exported from that country. Small amounts still go to Japan, Russia, and Hong Kong. Mexicans eat very little horsemeat, and are often conned into believing they are buying beef.
When demand dropped, so did quota numbers. Horse traders that used to provide horses to the actual kill buyers had to come up with another way to make money. Now they haunt the auctions and compete with the honest folks there to get a decent horse for a good price and for the right reasons. The “kill buyers” buy horses that they never intend to send to slaughter.
Some basic math and an economics lesson
The Liberty Vallance article describes the math and economics in a very clear way. I am going to use her words:
Kill pen horses come from local livestock auctions, Craigslist ads, free-bee ads, and even websites like Dreamhorse if a horse is being under-valued enough. There can be many reasons a horse ends up there: bankruptcy, sudden hardship on the farm, death in the family, etc. The horse is taken to the auction usually because it’s highly time consuming to sell a horse privately.
Nobody actually “puts” a horse in the kill pen, and they’re not sold at auction specifically to kill pen brokers. They’re just….sold….to the highest bidder, whoever that is. The kill pen brokers scour the auctions and internet looking for horses to fill a weekly quota they receive from processing plants in Mexico and Canada. Horses are sold at action by the pound. In general, the average horse sells for about $400-$500.
In the past, a public person could approach a feed lot and offer to buy their stock privately, if they wanted to, before it was shipped to Canada or Mexico. It was not uncommon to purchase a horse from a kill pen for a few dollars over meat price. The broker got his money back plus a little extra for his trouble, and he would always take that money back to the auction and replace the purchased horse easily enough.
However, in recent years, the meat brokers have begun to capitalize on the idea of selling horses to the public for a much larger profit than they would ever make from the slaughterhouses. Higher profits mean less money out of pocket. Since 2015, the price of “kill pen horses” has tripled and quadrupled even though the price per pound of horse meat has remained fairly constant.
Since 2015, meat brokers have learned that they can not only charge whatever they want for a horse in their pen, but that people won’t even argue the price nor take the value of the creature into consideration if they believe it is in danger. Many unhandled, greenbroke, injured horses are being sold for top dollar where they would never have sold on the open market for such ridiculous prices.
This is a business math problem. It’s economics. Mexico and Canada do not care about the horse’s training or its purpose or how pretty it is. They only want the meat. They are not paying extra because a horse is dead broke or has registration papers. Mexico and Canada are paying meat prices and meat prices only. So, if the broker paid $0.80/lb for a horse, and Mexico is only paying the current market rate of $0.40/lb, does it make sense that the kill pen buyer will be buying horses for $800 and selling them for $400 a week later? No. This is a business.
Here’s how it works: The kill pen buyers have a quota that is given to them from a contract with the slaughterhouses that they must fill. Let’s say, for example, that this week Mexico is asking for 100 head of horses. In order to keep their business, the kill pen must provide the processing plant with 100 horses or the plant will seek their supply elsewhere. Economics 101.
So, if the slaughter pen sells 50 horses to the public during the week, he STILL needs 50 horses to complete his order or risk losing his business contact. He will send 100 horses to Mexico whether you buy them or not, BUT remember that we said that he actually paid MORE for most of the horses that are offered to the public? He won’t sell those to Mexico.
In fact, the horses that are now being offered to the public for sale on the internet are SURPLUS horses called “riders” that the kill pen has purchased specifically to sell to the public, NOT to the slaughterhouse. (Note: Rider doesn’t mean the horse can be ridden. It’s just the term they use for a horse that’s suitable to sell to the public as a pet, including minis, donkeys, foals, etc). They will never be offered to the slaughterhouses because he would take a loss on them. The horses DO have a shipping date on them, but they will not ship to the slaughterhouses. They said the horse is shipping…they just didn’t exactly tell you where…you just assumed.
More from Liberty Vallance:
“Kill pen horses” who do not sell will be shuttled to another sale lot or auction in another town somewhere where they can be sold as saddle horses to someone else. If your inventory doesn’t sell at your lot, ship it to a different one…or grant it a magical extension because we have a few buyers on the hook. They have a huge network for selling horses at their disposal. Facebook is only one part of that network. The kill pens create a false emergency, fleecing the public into thinking that the pretty horse is going to die if they don’t buy it, when the truth is, he’s just being put on a truck to go to another sale lot.
The extensive article from Liberty Vallance goes on to explain the graphic above. Remember, the kill buyer has a quota. He will fill it with horses that would never be offered to the public. When he spends more than market price to purchase that horse that he spied the mom and daughter trying to buy at the auction, he is certain that he will recover his money. The profit he makes on all of the “rider” horses allows him to fill his quota with cash he didn’t have to provide up front!
Vera told me she has actually followed horses purchased in a California auction on Sunday that are advertised on the Texas “kill buyers” site on the following Wednesday or Thursday. During those 3-4 days, traveling 1600 miles, the horses have had no access to food or water, and their debilitated state makes their situation appear even more urgent.
Another scam that Vera has observed are the “quarantine scammers.” These are people who charge $450 a month to keep your “rescued” horse in quarantine… but the truth is, this horse is thrown into a pasture with 40 other horses, battling for one round bale. Because we have established that it is unlikely that all 40 horses are truly disease free (little to no regulation on health papers!) you are not getting any oversight or veterinary care during this “quarantine” period.
I can’t resist… I have to quote Liberty Vallance one more time…
We know that when we go to look at a horse in the regular world that there are several things that people do to be dishonest to separate us from our money, but for some reason when we talk about kill pens, we automatically switch to thinking that these kill buyer guys are running a charity letting us buy their horses out of the goodness of their hearts. When we purchase these kill pen horses that are offered to us, not only do we condemn 3 or 4 more other horses who will never be offered for salvation, we take these riders away from legitimate rescues and forever homes.
It would be one thing if these “riders” were the leftovers at the end of the day that no one wanted to buy, but the sad truth is that these horses were bid on at the auctions by horse rescues and families looking for pets. The auction world is a small one. Everybody knows everybody. The kill buyers do not sit on their hands when they see a rescue…or a ranch…or a mom and little girl…step up to purchase a horse.
They need that horse to sell online with a false deadline so they can buy their quota horses. That’s why they spend the extra money above market price. They know who they are bidding against. It is their business to know. They play games with the rescues, knowing that the rescues have limited resources. One game is to bid the price way up on a single horse and then drop out, forcing the rescue to spend twice its budget on one horse. If the rescue doesn’t win that horse, the kill pen gets it. If they bid up to win that horse, the kill pen gets everything they can’t buy because the rescue is out of money.
Are some “rescues” making a killing as well?
In my extensive research and countless conversations, I have learned that some “rescues” are actually corporations affiliated with kill buyers… actual kill buyers who do have a contract to supply horses for slaughter. Some do, indeed, carry a nonprofit status. I had a wonderful conversation with Sonja Meadow, founder of Animals’ Angels. She has observed “the players” in this industry first hand.
Sonja told me about Bruce Rotz, a shipper in Pennsylvania with a contract to sell horses to slaughter. He is not on the list above because he doesn’t ship to Mexico; however, he is one of the most notorious, cruel individuals involved with this industry.
This notorious kill buyer has a barn where he keeps horses destined for slaughter. He allows rescues to go inside his barn, take photos and fundraise on the plight of these trafficked horses. Individuals who buy these horses through the “rescue” pick them up from some neutral location. They never see Rotz’s horrible feedlot for themselves. Yet they are supporting his operation by dealing with a “rescue” that supports him directly.
My research has shown that Bruce Rotz’s feedlot is full of Standardbreds and draft horses cast off from Amish farms. One rescuer shared her opinion that the Standardbreds are the true “war horses.” They put their hearts into winning money for their first owner. They are sold to the Amish who extract their piece of flesh. Lastly, they end up in kill pens, having given their all for various humans.
I have also learned that the Stanley brothers, who are on the list above as kill buyers for Mexico, are affiliated with Fountain Hill Horse Company, which states, “We are set up to network horses that were headed to slaughter as well as performance horses in hopes of finding them all a forever home, with the means to properly care for them.” Are they doing this out of the goodness of their heart, or their wallet?
Another scheme is the Bail Out extortion. For a smaller amount of money, perhaps $50, an individual can “buy a horse more time.” Sometimes this “endangered” horse stays at the kill buyer’s lot. Other times, it is housed at the “rescue.” If it doesn’t eventually sell, it will go back to the kill buyer’s lot where it may, eventually, go to slaughter.
The article linked above lumps all “kill buyer purchases” as “Bail Outs” as described in Liberty’s extensive article. However, it is also used as a smaller fee, “time-lengthening” ploy where the individual spending the money is only buying the horse time, not actually buying the horse itself.
At the end of Part Two, I referenced a “bait and switch” tactic used by some rescues. Vera told me about two skinny Arabian mares that were photographed and displayed on a Facebook page. They raised a significant amount of cash through Facebook to enable them to purchase those mares. However, they never bid on them! They ended up with Sexton, a horse trader.
Many people who donated to save those mares reached out to Vera. She was able to purchase the mares from Sexton. At great expense to Vera’s rescue, she paid to quarantine and then ship the mares to Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society in Texas.
Speaking of Sexton… he epitomizes the scam I just described extensively. In this article, he describes his take on what he does…
“I think we’re helping the horses,” Sexton said. “Last year we would ship two, three, four semi-loads of horses a week to Mexico. We’d put about 33 to 40 horses in a load. When we first started this deal we were down to shipping one semi-load every other week because we were selling so many through Facebook.”
What that translates into is that his quota for horses actually going to slaughter has dropped. Either he wasn’t meeting his quota because the money was better through online “rescue this horse or it will die” sales, or demand dropped enough to reduce what he needed to supply.
An interview with Gail Vacca, Founder of Illinois Equine Humane Center
To provide humane treatment and shelter while working as a clearinghouse to seek adoptive homes for all of Illinois’ unwanted equines regardless of breed.
To educate the public and raise awareness for responsible equine ownership so that fewer horses end up in crisis.
Gail confirmed everything I have written about thus far. She stated:
The scam that is occuring is making the scum of the earth of the horse industry rich beyond their wildest expectations and all at the horse’s expense.”
Gail also shared that the incredible amount of money flowing to online Facebook brokers is siphoning money away from legitimate rescues. It is also impacting the number of horses adopted from rescues. This is such a shame. You are getting a much more known quantity if you adopt from a rescue than if you take “pot luck” when you “save” a horse through Facebook.
I asked both Vera and Gail how to educate consumers about doing their “due diligence” when assessing the legitimacy of a rescue organization. There are some amazing rescues doing amazing work. How do you know which ones fall into that category? That will be covered in upcoming posts.
I will also share more (at some point) about what I have learned as to why some organizations such as AQHA are so opposed to any ban on slaughter.
Another upcoming topic includes what you can do to help keep horses out of this pipeline altogether.
I have received some significant criticism from people who support slaughter to address “the Mustang issue.” I have already written a post about Mustangs. Alan and I visited a Mustang sanctuary, or holding facility, and I would agree that it was a less-than-ideal solution. I don’t have magic answers, but I do know that turning a blind eye to a cruel and inhumane “solution” is not the answer. I have been given the name of an individual who is apparently well-versed in “the Mustang dilemma.” Stay tuned for a post about that as well.
The article about Gail Vacca describes how the movie Black Beauty, adapted from the book by Anna Sewell, impacted her as a child. She says:
“The book and movie affected me deeply as a child and (were) likely partially responsible for developing my interest in animal welfare. … My favorite quote listed on my Facebook page is borrowed from Anna Sewell: ‘My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.‘“
Anna Sewell also said:
If a thing is right it can be done, and if it is wrong it can be done without; and a good man will find a way.”
It is the goal of this blog series to help many good people find a way to address the suffering of horses.