Do slaughter and horse meat have a role in responsible ownership?

Unwanted horses are kept in pens in Nebraska awaiting transport and slaughter

Slaughter and horse meat are two of the most emotive phrases in racing, but Roly Owers, CEO of World Horse Welfare, explains why the organization does not campaign against horse slaughter and the eating of horse meat.

The European horse meat scandal in 2013 was a stark wake-up call for the food industry, governments, consumers, and many horse owners. It revealed what appears to be systemic and chronic fraud in the food supply chain, laid bare the vast deficiencies in Europe’s system for equine identification, and – perhaps most of all – shone a spotlight on a great taboo: Horses are eaten in many countries around the world, and horse-loving countries often supply the meat. 

Of course, horses are unique in so many ways, not least in their versatility to humankind. No other animal performs so many different roles, from beloved pet, to elite sport athlete, to transport vehicle, draft animal, and food source. Indeed, many animals fulfil several of these roles in their lifetime. This adaptability means that they often fall through the cracks of laws designed to protect companion or farm animals, a topic that was the focus of the first experts meeting on equine welfare held by the European Commission in May 2014, co-organised by World Horse Welfare and Eurogroup for Animals. 

In European law, horses are primarily considered as food producing animals, but they are not regulated as closely as other farm livestock. However, the flawed European “horse passport system,” whose prime purpose is to prevent certain equine medications from entering the food chain, allowed horse meat contaminated with the painkiller phenylbutazone to appear on dinner tables. Even this regulation seems strict when compared to that covering the thousands of tons of horse meat imported from North America that could contain the residue of any number of drugs. 

The very subject of horse meat is an anathema to many horse owners and hence, inspires highly emotive debate. However, it was why World Horse Welfare was founded almost 90 years ago. Our founder, Ada Cole, was a determined and practical woman who campaigned against the export of Britain’s working horses to the continent for slaughter. Her concern was not that horses were eaten, but that they were treated so abysmally on their way to the slaughterhouse: Tossed about on boats for hours on end, then hoisted by cranes, and whipped for miles as they trudged to the abattoir. Many collapsed and died in the process. Thanks to her intervention, countless horses have been spared this horrific ordeal.

You might be surprised to learn that World Horse Welfare does not campaign against horse slaughter and the eating of horse meat. In keeping with our founder, we believe that eating horse meat is a personal choice influenced by culture. However, since 1927, we have successfully campaigned (and continue to campaign) vigorously against the long-distance transport of horses to slaughter. It is an abhorrent and unjustifiable trade. 

We also believe that slaughter can play a role in preventing welfare problems, and so should remain an option. All horse owners bear responsibility for ensuring their horse has a good life, as well as a “good death.” But the reality is that horses are large, expensive animals to euthanize. How much better is it to put a lame or sick horse out of their misery than to abandon it, or let it linger on in pain because a horse owner cannot spare what can be several hundred dollars to have it euthanized and its body cremated? 

This choice will certainly not be for some horse owners, but owners who have this possibility and use it should not be castigated for doing so. This is particularly true in countries such as Italy where options to euthanize are limited.

But it is more than just about lame or sick animals. For example, the racing industry in Britain breeds thousands of Thoroughbreds each year. Some will race, some will go on to find other careers or homes, and some will go to the abattoir. Is the abattoir option a welfare issue? Compared to the problems we see across Europe, we think not, so long as it is a local abattoir that operates humanely. Slaughter can be done humanely and it is obviously imperative that it is. And as already highlighted, what is also important is their treatment on the way to slaughter. Long journeys in poor conditions are a living hell for horses, and scientific evidence shows that lengthy journeys are deleterious to horses’ health and welfare. 

Clearly abattoirs are not the total solution, far from it. Above all, they are certainly not the excuse for the reckless overbreeding of horses in Europe and America that goes on today, but we do believe they are part of the jigsaw of managing end-of-life decisions. Horses have given humankind so much over the centuries, and responsible ownership, from whether to breed, how best to care for them during their lifetime, and how to say goodbye at the end, is as important today as it ever was.


World Horse Welfare is a highly regarded international charity that works to improve the lives of horses around the world through education, campaigning, and hands-on care. Its president is HRH Princess Anne. 

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