One of the arguments trotted out from time to time by proponents of horse slaughter sounds good and goes like this: Slaughter offered a viable option for keeping the domestic horse population in check; the number of horses in the United States went up when processing plants in Illinois and Texas closed and the number of horses slaughtered went down; the resulting population boom and the economic downturn worked together to increase the number of unwanted and neglected horses.

Problem is that the numbers don’t support the argument.

According to the Government Accounting Office’s report—Horse Welfare: Action Needed to Address Unintended Consequences from Cessation of Domestic Slaughter—the number of horses slaughtered in North America actually went up a bit, not down, since the U.S. processing plants closed in 2007. In 2006, the last full year before U.S. plants closed, 137,688 horses were slaughtered for human consumption in North America, the majority (104,899) in this country, the rest in Mexico and Canada. By 2010, the number of U.S. horses slaughtered had increased slightly, to an estimated 137,884 (all of them exported to Mexico and Canada for processing).

Take a wider look at the numbers and you get the same result. From 2004-2006, the last three full years of horse slaughter in the United States, the figure for North America (the U.S., Mexico, and Canada) totaled 346,835 animals. From 2008-2010, the number of horses slaughtered was almost identical, 346,420 (Mexico and Canada).

An overabundance of horses and the ongoing recession are obvious contributors to a slide in prices for horses and an increase in abuse and neglect. Closing slaughter plants in Illinois and Texas, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have been a factor. Ending slaughter in the States is an easy whipping boy when it comes to growing animal welfare problems, but the GAO numbers indicate that the cessation of slaughter here has had almost no effect on the horse population.

This doesn’t mean that overpopulation is not a serious problem; it is. But what should be done? A weak economy and the resulting drop in sale prices has caused Thoroughbred breeders to cut back and it makes some sense to expect the overall horse population to drop for the same reasons. Should legislatures and breed organizations take action to hasten the process along?

Beginning in 2009, the United States Trotting Association placed a restriction on the number of mares that could be bred to certain stallions. The books of Standardbred stallions which never had bred a mare or which never had a list of mares bred submitted to the USTA were limited: 140 mares for trotting stallions and from 160 mares (in 2009) to 140 mares (in 2011 and thereafter) for pacing stallions. As far as I know, there have been no legal challenges to the rule.

The American Quarter Horse Association was not so lucky when it tried to limit the number of foals produced through embryo transfer. A group of prominent breeders argued that a restriction on the number of registered foals produced from a single mare in a year was an illegal restraint of trade and violated antitrust laws. They sued the AQHA, asking for millions of dollars in damages. The lawsuit eventually was settled and the rule was changed to allow the registration of multiple foals produced from the same mare through embryo transfer each year.

Any attempt by a breed organization to limit the number of horses bred or registered is subject to a similar restraint of trade argument in court. And even if successful, such rule changes would not affect the vast number of unregistered horses produced every year. Federal or state laws aimed at controlling horse breeding also would have to pass free trade muster and neither the feds nor the states have shown any interest in this approach.

Is over-production of horses a real problem? If so, what’s the solution—more laws and rules, financial incentives for horse owners who don’t breed their animals, state licenses for horse breeders?