Equine Cruelty, Abuse and Slaughter

While the meaning of "unwanted" is clear, the definitions of "neglect," "abuse," and "cruelty" are open to wide interpretation. Much thoughtful, scholarly work has been done to define these terms. We offer our own interpretations.


Some equines are recipients of cruel behaviors with malicious intent, while others are injured by well-meaning yet misguided people. Are those actions of "cruelty," or must there be intent to harm? What important differences exist between active cruel behavior versus passive cruel behavior? Is one more excusable and less criminal than the other is, even if the injurious results are the same for the animal?

According to an editorial by Andrew Rowan that appeared in Anthrozoos, (vol VI, number 4), the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.) defines "cruel" as "Disposed to inflict suffering; indifferent to or taking pleasure in another's pain; merciless, pitiless, hard-hearted."

Rowan argues for a narrow definition of cruelty, one that necessarily means that the agent of the cruel act gained satisfaction from causing harm. He acknowledges the difficulty in establishing the motivation and intent behind abusive behavior.

In cases where animals are harmed from people's carelessness or neglect, Rowan believes that they should be considered "abuse" or "neglect," not "cruelty" cases.

Two authors of an abstract contained within the same journal do not differentiate between cruelty and abuse per se, but choose to use the term "abuse" and do not weigh intent to harm as Rowan does. In their "Proposed Typology of Companion Animal Abuse," Vermulen and Odendall's replace the term "animal cruelty" with "animal abuse" to be in accordance with current victimology trends and to "lessen value judgement." They define companion animal abuse (a category which includes equines) as:

The intentional, malicious, or irresponsible, as well as unintentional or ignorant, infliction of physiological and/or psychological pain, suffering, deprivation, and the death of a companion animal by humans. The abuse is based on harmful effects caused by the lack of the fulfillment of basic companion animal needs for their health and well-being. The abuse is thus independent of human intention or ignorance, socially sanctioned or rejected norms, and covers both single and repeated incidents.

Thus, the definition of "cruelty/abuse" is broadened to include many specific forms of abuse, and intent is not a deciding presence to clarify typology.


Abuse and neglect are closely related phenomena. The circumstances of abuse are diverse, including: overtraining, incompetent handling, training or competing under physically harsh conditions, and outright physical abuse (e.g., whipping).


Neglect is not always obvious, and can be unintentional. Neglect may include dietary mismanagement rather than overt starvation, allowing unnecessary breedings to take place, and various forms of sensory deprivation. Inattention to the equine's well being — irregular checks on the animal, inattention to hooves, coat care, and parasitic control, denying the equine proper veterinary care, and adequate shelter from the elements — would also classify as neglect.

The hopeful voice of Bernard E. Rollin, PhD, was heard in the April 15, 2000 JAVMA, (Vol 216, No. 8) in his abstract "Equine Welfare and Emerging Social Ethics." He argues that a new ethic — which demands that the animal's nature be respected in our uses of the animal — is emerging and will dominate the new millennium. He reports that incidences of animal cruelty in Western democratic societies have fallen sharply over the last 30 years, and he expects numbers to further decline in the future. He attributes these changes to two main reasons: attitudinal changes in our legal system and increased public concern.

He writes that our legal system now understands that an individual's abuse of an animal often presages psychopathic abusive behavior towards his fellow humans, and the courts now respond more seriously to cases of animal abuse.

Second, the general public increasingly cares about the treatment of animals. For example, twenty years ago there were no proposals before the government that call for federal legislation of animal welfare; today there are about sixty proposals per year put forward for consideration to Congress alone. With the growing influence of "natural horsemanship," a gentler training method in which the trainer works with the horse's nature, other long-standing, aggressive training techniques increasingly are being regarded as abusive.

Dr. Rollin's definition of cruelty is: "willful, unnecessary, purposeless, deviant, cruelty or the infliction of egregious neglect" upon animals. He suggests that there is relatively little cruelty being practiced today. He said, "at most, 1 percent of animal suffering is the result of that sort of deliberate cruelty."

He posits that most suffering is not the result of pathologic behavior but a by-product of our efforts to produce inexpensive food, cure disease, advance knowledge, protect human safety, etc.

As this new ethic (in which a horse is allowed to behave like a horse) gains momentum, Rollin expects more legislation to further limit cruel practices. Although "we may use animals," he says, "we must respect their basic needs and natures."


An often emotionally charged and difficult issue for horse lovers, slaughter is an element that needs to be addressed in considering major issues that affect equines. Although horsemeat is not raised for human consumption or even commonly consumed in the United States, it is commonly eaten in Europe and Asia. An unwanted equine can be sold directly to a slaughterhouse, but more often than not changes hands several times before it is sold through an auction, often experiencing stress, abuse, cruelty, and neglect during this process.

Most equine carcasses are shipped to Europe and Asia for human consumption. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided figures, from 1995 through 1997. An average of 100,467 equines were slaughtered annually in federally inspected facilities in the United States. In 1996, according to the USDA, the United States exported 38 million pounds of horse, ass, and mule meat, with a value of $64 million. Of the total volume exported in 1996, some 29 million pounds, or 76 percent, went to Belgium and France. Lower numbers of slaughters have been recorded from 1998-99, but the numbers are staggering still.

At one time, there were as many as 34 plants in operation in North America. Some of them slaughtered horses for the pet food market only. Then, the market changed. Many of the major pet food manufacturers switched emphasis to beef as the key ingredient in their products and contracted with major beef slaughter plants for byproducts. Many horse slaughter plants, dependent on the pet food market, closed their doors.

The number of plants slaughtering horses for human consumption also is less than it was several years ago, when there were nine in the United States alone.

There is minor disagreement as to why the number has dwindled in North America. Some Canadian slaughter plant officials say the reason is a diminishing European market. Some U.S. plant officials disagree, saying that demand has remained constant, but that competition from other countries has taken a toll.

Of late, other countries have become major players in the horse meat game. In the past, South America in particular was not viewed as serious competition. Although there are a great many horses in South America, there was little capability for shipping refrigerated meat by air. That has changed in recent years, and a number of South American countries are vying for their share of the market.