The dilemma facing policy makers and citizens is what to do when there are too many wild horses. Shrinking wilderness and encroaching urban space reduce habitat for horses. In this section, you'll explore some of the options.

Attribution: Alexandr frolov, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Although most Americans aren't comfortable with the option of slaughter, it is, unfortunately, a realistic part of the wild horse story. For thousands of years, humans have eaten horse meat. Processing wild horses into chicken food in the 1930s reached its peak, when nearly 30 million pounds of horse flesh were canned. In fact, for nearly 30 years, federal policy was the unregulated exploitation of the wild horse herds.

Since 1980, well over 4 million American horses have been slaughtered in the U.S. and Canada and their meat exported to Europe and Japan for human consumption.

Today, an average of over 100,000 American horses are slaughtered annually at U.S. and Canadian plants. It is estimated that more than a third of all slaughter-bound horses in the U.S. were bred for racing [Source: 11/21/1999 Lincoln Journal Newspaper]. They are either no longer competitive or just don't make the grade. Other horses that end up in the slaughtering plants include: camp, show, "backyard", rental, Amish, urban carriage horses, PMU mares and foals, unwanted pregnant mares, and barren broodmares.

Most horses sold at auction are bought by "killer buyers" (middlemen for slaughter plants) and go straight to slaughter. Very little horse meat is used in dog food. It's too expensive with some cuts selling for over $20 US per pound.

80,000 North American PMU mares ("Pregnant Mare's Urine") produce urine that is used in the manufacture of the estrogen replacement drug, Premarin. The majority of surviving foals born to these PMU mares are considered by-products and are sold for slaughter.

Slaughter Houses are on the Decline

An increasing number of Americans have become aware of the slaughter industry, and in the 1990s' decade, the number of equine slaughter plants in this country has decreased from fourteen to four.

But there are still an average of over 100,000 American horses being slaughtered here and in Canada annually.

Remaining Equine Slaughter Plants in the U.S. & Canada
Remaining Equine Slaughter Plants in the U.S. & Canada

California Takes Action

In 1998, California became the first state to ban horse slaughter. Californians voted overwhelmingly to pass "Proposition 6", a state initiative to prohibit horse slaughter for human consumption, punishable as a felony. Other states may soon follow Calfornia's historic lead.

American Opinion

State and nationwide polls have shown that the vast majority of Americans are strongly opposed to horse slaughter:

  • In 1995, a national call-in TV poll resulted in 93% of callers agreeing that "the killing of horses for meat be banned."
  • In 1997, a state-wide poll taken in California revealed that 88% of those questioned were opposed to horse slaughter.
  • In 1999, a poll conducted in New York State yielded the following results:
  1. 91% considered horses companions or recreational or sporting animals.
  2. 72% would never eat horse meat.
  3. 73% believed that the manner in which horses are slaughtered is cruel and inhumane.
  4. 81% personally opposed the practice of horse slaughter.

Due to many factors, statistics show a steady decrease over time in the number of horses slaughtered.

Number of Horses Slaughtered by Year
Number of Horses Slaughtered by Year

Do you think slaughter and the commercial use of horsemeat is a good solution to the wild horse dilemma?

Rendering Plant Manager Interview

The word "mustang" conjures up visions of horses running free in a rugged landscape. But the reality is not always so romantic. During the making of Wild Horses: an American Romance, Producer Christine Lesiak took her crew to a horse rendering plant in North Platte, Nebraska. The following interview with the manager of the plant does not appear in the program, but we offer it here as background to the dilemma. Most agree it's a last resort. Even "Jack", who manages the rendering plant, admits that wild horses are far from ideal for slaughter.

The Interview

CHRIS I want to start by asking, when you look at a horse, given your job, what do you see?"

JACK "Well, when I look at a horse, I see the value of the horse in an export market, in a dress meat market, in a retail market.

CHRIS Is this particular horse a good example?"

JACK "That's a good example. That horse right there will make a hind-quarter, a full carcass. It's large enough. It's old enough. It's not overly fat. It's got a lot of muscle to it, and that'll bring a premium price.

CHRIS You know, most people look at a horse, and they see a pet; they see a beautiful animal; they see a practical animal perhaps, something to ride. They see a symbol of the old west. When you look at a horse, what do you see?"

JACK "Well, I see basically the same thing. But I see something else that is a commodity that you can get more money for. There is a use for the animal after its use as far as a pet, riding, and such as that.

CHRIS What is one of these horses worth?"

JACK "That roan right there is worth probably around $700.

CHRIS And what is the product when you're done with it?"

JACK "That one will be a full carcass. It'll be shipped four quarters. It won't be bone or there's no prime cuts or anything. That'll be sold as a carcass, after dressing. The other one back over here, that'll be probably just the hindquarter will be sold, and the front will be bone for a meat that goes into sausage. Then there's some of them that will be bone in the prime cuts, pretty much the same as beef. And they'll be sold that way

CHRIS You're talking how much a pound? If I sell you this horse, how much am I going to get per pound?"

JACK "You would get around 60, maybe up to 65 cents.

CHRIS Sixty-five cents a pound?"

JACK "That's for the top horses, yes.

CHRIS And if I buy the meat, how much am I going to pay?"

JACK "If you buy the meat and you want to pay . . . it's about $1.30.

CHRIS $1.30 a pound?"

JACK "No, it's $1.30 for the whole carcass, is what you would pay here. That's not including, if it's exported, then you have freight, duties, freight over there, profit so.

CHRIS Now, who are your customers?"

JACK "We're owned by a European firm. And they're . . . they're the customers. We sell to them.

CHRIS OK. Now what country is that?"

JACK "Belgium.

CHRIS Oh, all right."

JACK "All the plants in the United States are owned by Belgian firms, and they all deal strictly in horses.

CHRIS So, this meat is sold in grocery stores?"

JACK "And butcher shops. Mainly in France. France is the largest consumer. And it's mainly in butcher shops that strictly sell horsemeat. That's all they do, and then in the supermarkets.

CHRIS Why hasn't horsemeat caught on in this country, do you think?"

JACK "We don't eat our pets. In some other countries, they eat their pets. But we don't eat our pets. And with the other things we have, the beef, the pork, the poultry, lamb, we don't have to rely on horses for our red meat.

CHRIS Where have these particular horses come from?"

JACK "This one is a local one. They're all right here in Nebraska cause they're all singles. They're local, I'd say within 200 miles from here. I mean, if there was a large group of horses, it would have come maybe out of South Dakota, come out of Montana, Utah, Texas, Iowa.

CHRIS So, how do they end up here? I mean, what's the decision process? Why do these horses end up here, while the others are running free or being ridden or being used?"

JACK "There's something wrong with them. The owner wanted to get rid of them. Normally they're crippled. They're done with. Their usefulness is done.

CHRIS So, you get a phone call, and people bring their horses in. Do you reject some and accept others?"

JACK "Yes. Some of them we will not take. I won't take colts. I'd just as soon see them stay out in the country and be raised. And if they're too ill, we won't take them. We have a vet here, and he does an ante-mortum inspection, and if they're not good enough for slaughter, then they're put down, and they go to a rendering operation.

CHRIS I see. Now, lately there's been a lot of controversy about mustangs, wild horses ending up in a plant like this. How have you seen that played out? Are people coming out to talk to you? Are you supposed to be aware of freeze brands? What is your philosophy?"

JACK "We have an agreement with the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] that if we get a horse that has a freeze band, it has to have a title. And if it doesn't have a title with it, it's still government property. It's still their horse, and so we have to contact the buyer that we buy it from to get the title. If he doesn't come up with the title, then the BLM is entitled to take that horse.

CHRIS That sounds like a hell of a lot of trouble."

JACK "Well, it is, it is. And that's when people will maybe get one, and they don't bother to get a title, or they've got a title and don't bother to send it in, or they lose it, or something like that.

CHRIS It seems to me that given the kinds of wild horses that are out there that after a year of ownership, a lot of times it doesn't work out."

JACK "Well, no, and a lot of it is just the horse itself. You can't do anything with them. But there are some that people get that they do make something out of. Then, eventually, along the line, something's going to go wrong. If they get old, they're going to get rid of it. But the majority of them that I've seen come in here are wild, and even if they've had them a year or two, they're still wild. They just can't do anything with them. They're just too spirited of a horse.

CHRIS How do you respond to the people who say you should never kill a horse, a wild horse?"

JACK "What else you going to do with them? I don't know. I don't know what else to do with them. They're gonna die anyway. So, this way they can at least sell them, and get some money out of em, and maybe go out and buy a regular bred horse.

CHRIS Would there be a temptation for me to go and buy a whole bunch of wild horses, keep them for a year and sell them for meat? Is that good profit-making?"

JACK "That's been done. Years ago, when you adopt them for $25, and a lot of people had a large family, all the same last name, a lot of first names. But I think the restriction now is you can only adopt two.

CHRIS But that wouldn't be your first choice for your product anyway?"

JACK "Oh, no, no. I've never seen a wild horse make what you could classify as a good carcass. They're crossbred and interbred, and you can tell 'em when you dress one out. You can tell which one's a wild horse.

CHRIS Really?"

JACK "Um hum. It's just like a mule. You can tell a mule.

CHRIS Now, this is fascinating to me, because I've been trying to figure out, how do you tell? What clues do you have on a carcass that it's a wild horse?"

JACK "Just by the bone structure.

CHRIS In what way is it different?"

JACK "lt's . . . it's different. Just the shape of the bone, the shape of the backbone.

CHRIS Is it sturdier?"

JACK "Oh I don't know if it's any sturdier, but you can definitely tell the difference in them. Just in the bone structure because of the all the past breeding. They have a totally different bone structure than, say, a nice quarter horse or an Arabian, something like that. And the same way with a mule or a burro. They all have a different type bone structure.

CHRIS So, the ideal horse for you is a quarterhorse?"

JACK "Quarterhorse. I prefer a quarterhorse over any other.

CHRIS And I asked you earlier if you got racehorses."

JACK "Occasionally, we'll get some thoroughbreds. They're just tall. Most of them are what we consider as regulars, as boning horses cause they're not large enough. That breed normally doesn't get as large as a quarterhorse.

CHRIS Wow. So, all in all, we do kill horses."

JACK "Yes.

CHRIS And it's OK."

JACK "There is a market for them. And it does put money back in the agriculture community. And it's also a good export product.

CHRIS Do you think we'll ever raise horses for food?"

JACK "No, no, no. They are too slow in developing. The demand is for an older horse, whereas cattle is about 15 to 18 months for fat cattle or a steer.

CHRIS So, a horse needs to be older and bigger,"

JACK Yeah.

CHRIS Now, these horses we see here have how much time left?"

JACK "Tomorrow. They'll be . . . they'll be processed tomorrow.

CHRIS OK. It's not something I want to see."

JACK "Stick around.

RALPH (Videographer) Can you buy horsemeat in the United States?"

JACK "No, not really. There's no retail market for it.

CHRIS Well, meat markets can be created. We're now seeing buffalo meat."

JACK "Well, of course. You know, if there were . . . if there was a domestic market for it and someone wanted it, we can sell it to them. I think there's some regulations that it can't be in the same case as the other meats. It has to be separately marked.

CHRIS But your plant gets horses from all over the country?"

JACK "Yes.


Soon after Congress passed the law protecting wild horses in 1971, their numbers began to increase. Twenty-five thousand became fifty thousand, with no end in sight. Ranchers and environmentalists joined in protest, claiming the horses were destroying fragile public land. In the heat of the controversy the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) came up with a solution: 3 or 4 times a year, the BLM rounds up thousands of excess horses, brands them, and puts them up for adoption. Once charged with wiping out the mustang, the government now advertises the advantages of owning one.

Attribution: Kurt Kaiser, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are no more wild horses roaming the plains of Nebraska. But each year hundreds are shipped to here from wild ranges in the west. People gather in Elm Creek, Nebraska to put in their bid on a piece of the American West.

These mustangs are shipped here mostly from Nevada by the BLM in an effort to reduce herd populations. The goal is to limit the number of wild horses roaming the federally-managed lands of the west to fewer than 40,000 by encouraging public adoption of these wild horses.

From Nevada, the BLM trucks horses to adoption centers all over America, like the one here in Elm Creek, Nebraska. Since the program began in 1973, Americans have adopted over 100,000 wild horses.

It costs the bureau more than $1,500 to prepare a single horse for adoption. But you can own one for just $125.

It's a cheap gamble, and everyone at an auction is eager to play. Some of these horses will never get used to captivity, but others will adapt more easily. You never know what kind of horse you're going to get. That's why it's a gamble.

Don Shaw has successfully adopted horses from Elm Creek:

"We adopted a mare and a colt 14 years ago about, and she broke out great. They have no bad habits if they haven't been around people very long — you don't have to fix the bad habits. They said if they got any, they know where they got them from, and you're the only one to blame. So, that's one thing I liked about that."

It will take more than a year before Don tames his wild horses, because you can take a mustang from the wild a lot easier than you can take the wild out of a mustang.

Shaw has some tips on taming the adopted horses:

"You talk to them before you stick your head around the corner. You just don't pop your head around the corner, because that is what a predator does. Anything that sneaks up on you and sticks their head out is a predator. You just don't do that. So you talk to them, they know your voice. It's the first thing that they know so talk to them and yell at them or anything you want. They know you're coming — got their attention. Then they see you coming, and they put your voice to this body. Then they're not afraid of you no more. And you start from there, and you work your way up."

Though Don recently had his stallion gelded, it's still dangerously unpredictable.

When Don adopted his stallion, he had doubts about whether he'd ever be able to ride him. At first, Don's horse seemed uneasy in captivity. However, now the mustang trusts him enough to let him on his back. An animal that's been wild for too long may never adjust to life in a corral.

Adoption seems to be working now as a way to control the wild horse population, but is there another way to take horses from the wild without taking the wild from the horses? Do you think adoption is the best option for dealing with wild horses?


In recent years, thousands of wild horses have died on federal ranges from starvation and thirst. Although dying from hunger or thirst is the only natural enemy left to the wild mustang, it is a ghastly fate not befitting one of Nature's noblest creatures. Several activists are working to provide them with their own territories, as well as humane, sensible management, free of politics, where the wild horse is allowed to be wild.

Attribution: Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Founded in 198 by Dayton O. Hyde, the Institute of Range and the American Mustang is a non-profit organization whose the mission is to give freedom and quality of life to America's wild horses. The Institute owns an 11,000-acre sanctuary in the Black Hills of South Dakota. On this range, looking much as it did centuries ago, several hundred wild horses run free. At the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, visitors from all over the world can come to see and photograph wild horses in large herds, under spectacular conditions. It is a home they share with coyotes, cougar, mule deer, elk, wild turkeys, and peregrine falcons — a home where wild mustangs not only live, but flourish, nurtured by their freedom.

In South Dakota, Dayton Hyde is working hard to bring the horse spirit back to the great plains. This wild horse sanctuary is where tourists from all over the world come in search of the mythical West.

Hyde grew up on a ranch in Oregon, and that's where he fell in love with the American mustang.

"I remember trying to see wild horses, and I spent about four hours creeping up on a tableland, thinking the wind is right — I'll be able to look up and see wild horses grazing. "When I finally stuck my head up over the rimrock, the wild horses were there, but they were already running. They were already half a mile away, and you could hear their hooves running across the lava — broken lava fields. And it sounded like bells. I've never forgotten that sound of wild horses running. A thunder that you just couldn't duplicate.

"When I look back at the best horses we ever had on our cattle outfit, the best ones were captured horses. They acquire a wisdom running out — running wild and free, jumping over rocks, eluding danger, grubbing out a living in the midst of blizzards. There's a wonderful wisdom that comes to those horses that is not present in domestic horses. It's simply not there.

Population Control

A more recent effort has been underway to help control the population of the wild horses in a more scientific manner. The following is an article written by Kelly Stewart of the Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Davis, CA. Here Stewart describes in more detail the justifications, efforts, and future objectives of the wild animal birth control efforts at her university.

Attribution: P Flannagan / Horse in an Animal Sanctuary near the Roe Valley Country Park, Limavady.

"It is a cruel irony that in this age of endangered species, conservationists sometimes have to cull the animals they want to protect. One reason is that wildlife can become a pest. White-tailed deer, for example, have reached unprecedented numbers in the USA, due to a decline in hunting. In urban areas, they eat peoples' gardens, collide with cars, spread lyme disease, and so on. Even wildlife sanctuaries can suffer from overpopulation, as is evident in some reserves in Kenya and South Africa, where elephants have been blamed for widespread destruction of trees and alteration of the landscape.

"In the past, we limited animal populations mainly through hunting or large-scale culls. But these methods are becoming less and less ethically acceptable to the public. Scientists from UC Davis are searching for alternative solutions, tackling the problem from the other end of life's procession. Rather than increase death rates, why not lower birth rates?

"Over the past decade [1990s], Professor Irwin Liu and his colleagues from the Department of Population, Health and Reproduction at UCD's Vet School have collaborated with scientists across the country to develop an effective means of birth control for wildlife. It sounds like the perfect solution: put animals on "the pill". But it's not that simple. For starters, how do you get wild animals to take the correct dosage?
"In the mid-eighties, reproductive biologist Jay Kirkpatrick, in association with UCD, began a wild horse contraception project on Assateague Island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. Bands of horses have roamed free on the island for centuries, but their numbers had grown to a point where they were beginning to damage the habitat. Using a dart gun, Kirkpatrick delivered steroid hormones to stallions to lower their sperm counts and the equivalent of a "progesterone pill" to mares to prevent ovulation.
"The exercise was not a success. It proved too difficult to dart the animals often enough with sufficiently large doses to maintain contraception. Furthermore, scientists worried about the transfer of steroids up the food chain. Horse carcasses on Assateague are scavenged by vultures, foxes, and gulls, and it's possible that these animals could be adversely affected by eating hormone-laced horse meat.
"Meanwhile, back at UCD, Professor Liu was testing a new technique of birth control on captive horses — an inoculation against pregnancy. With this method, researchers inject a female with a vaccine made from pigs' ovaries. This stimulates her immune system to produce antibodies which then interfere with fertilization when she mates, possibly by preventing sperm from penetrating the egg.
"Kirkpatrick returned to Assateague with the vaccine and this time he hit the jackpot. Just two doses, given a few weeks apart, were sufficient to prevent conception in most mares for a year, after which an annual booster maintained the effect. Not only this, but the vaccine did not interfere with a current pregnancy, and its effect was reversible once the boosters were stopped. Happily for the mares and their stallions, inoculated females were still interested in sex and, in fact, all other normal wild horse behavior. Finally, no serious side effects appeared for four years of treatment, after which the vaccine began to inhibit ovulation.
. . .
"But after four years, a trio of researchers perfected a time release vaccine that seems to be 95% effective for at least one year with only one shot. "The procedure is now being conducted on mares that are older than 9 years. Wild mares that are older than nine years are returned to the wild in the belief that they will not be adoptable. The new vaccine has already been tested on 200 animals in Nevada. The results will be clear after foaling season. The next efforts of the research will be to extend the effective length of time for the vaccine to two or three years.

"This solution is not without its critics. The Commission for the Preservation of Wild Horses objected to the fertility control project because results of the experiment had not been validated. But these objections will not deter future plans of implementing the new vaccine nor continued research in this area."

. . . "Since the first trials on Assateague, "immunocontraception", as it is called, has successfully reduced birth rates in other species, including feral burros in the Virgin Islands and white-tailed deer on Fire Island National Seashore in New York state. This method of controlling deer numbers was far preferable to a previous trial with bow-hunting, when local residents, relaxing on their porches, were treated to the sight of wounded deer stumbling along the boardwalks. Current research at UCD includes a study of ways to regulate the elk population at Pt. Reyes using immunocontraception.
"We have entered an era in which wildlife must be managed in order to be saved. The days when we could conserve nature by leaving it alone are unfortunately gone. But we can try to be as "hands-off" as possible by searching for benign, non-invasive methods of management. In this quest, scientists at UC Davis are leading the way."

Reproduced with permission.
© Kelly Stewart, Ph.D.
Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616

Continued: Resources