Perhaps you've seen the ad: A freckle-faced little girl covers her face, so pleased she can't hold it in. Purina has a series of these cute and effective ads for its Equine Senior feed. At the bottom of the ads is this: "Horses Make Better People, We Make Better Horses." And Purina is not alone. Page through any horse magazine, including this one, and look only at the advertisements. The AQHA: "Time spent with an American Quarter Horse is one of life's greatest joys." The Arabian Horse Association: "Dear Diary, Today I met the coolest horse." Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association: "It's like having an All-Star in the family." Weaver Leather Products: "They say you spoil your horse too much. You just smile and say they're right."
The image of the horse that the industry has created, advanced, and is now dependent upon, is of friend, athlete, teacher. Not dinner.
The horse industry presents to its customers the image of the horse as childhood friend, gallant athlete, and escort into retirement. Whether it's the feed makers, the pharmaceuticals, the breed organizations, the trainers, the racing industry, the veterinarians, or any other part of our industry, they all know where their bread is buttered. These are hard-nosed businessmen and women--not soft-hearted animal rights advocates--who are smart, practical marketing experts selling their products and services to their customers. They aren't selling horsemeat, or French cuisine, or sushi. The people to whom these ads appeal are not "open-minded" about horse slaughter, and they do not see the slaughterhouses as "necessary evils." To the little girl in the Purina ad, now grown up, the image of her horse standing in a feedlot outside a slaughterhouse is intolerable.
The image of the horse that the industry has created, advanced, and is now dependent upon, is of friend, athlete, teacher. Not dinner. "Horses Make Better People, We Make Tastier Horses?" "The American Quarter Horse: Your friend today, Pierre's pâté tomorrow?" Never. The industry can't have it both ways.
It now appears that the slaughterhouses will soon be closed. Then what? The only sensible path for the horse industry to take is to work for a healthy industry in a country that does not slaughter horses for food. I suggest that we think of ducks.
Duck hunters and horse owners have opposite problems--there are too few ducks and there are too many horses. But one solution fits both: good old American cash. Enter Ducks Unlimited (DU), a nifty organization, even if you're not a duck hunter. Visit its impressive Web site, www.ducks.org. To ensure that there are enough ducks for the hunting industry, DU has a program that offers financial incentives to wetland owners in the United States and Canada to leave some of their farmland untilled, and to plant set-aside crops that will attract breeding waterfowl. The money comes from donations and corporate partners. (DU also works with Congress to protect wetlands in the Farm Bill.)
See the connection? A "Horses Limited" organization supported by the industry, corporate sponsors, and individual horse owners could provide financial incentives to horse owners to leave their mares fallow. Does it sound silly to pay a horse owner not to breed her mare? Any sillier than to pay a farmer to leave land undrained, untilled, and wet? How often have you seen DU's classic logo of a duck profile in a car window in front of you? Next time you do, think horses. "Farm the Best, Conserve the Rest" is DU's effective tagline, and that fits our industry almost perfectly. "Breed the Best, Give the Others a Rest." One day maybe we'll see a "Horses Limited" logo on the back of every horse trailer and in every horse-related ad.
Most mares in the country that are pregnant get that way because some human decided she should. In a slaughter-free country, those decisions will have to be made differently from the way they have been made in the past, or we'll have starving and neglected horses by the thousands, which can do the horse industry no good at all. Financial incentives for responsible breeding are the answer, and Ducks Unlimited shows the way.
After the flag and the eagle (and way before the duck), there is no more potent symbol of America than the horse--not horsemeat. The horse industry knows the potency of that symbol, we promote it, and it's time to stand behind it, first by supporting the slaughter ban, then by actively encouraging, with cash where necessary, responsible breeding.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.
Robert Laurence retired from his position as a professor of Law and Animal Science at the University of Arkansas. He and his wife, Pk Ellis, run Ravenrock Ranch, a small horse retirement operation in Hindsville, Ark.