Horse slaughter is a phrase that makes everyone uncomfortable. But in light of the recent media coverage of horse abuse and neglect, it is important to understand that much of this neglect directly stems from Congress passing a bill, H.R. 503, in 2007 that effectively shut down the three remaining slaughterhouses in the U.S. Each year, approximately 100,000 horses were humanely euthanized at these plants. Now, there are no federally regulated slaughterhouses for horses open in the U.S.

Presently, horses are sold for next to nothing at local stockyards and hauled to Canada or Mexico. One veterinarian likened the foreign slaughterhouses as "Auschwitz for horses." There are no regulations as to how these animals are slaughtered and the reports are horrendous. In '07 there were 44,000 horses shipped to Mexico, an increase of 312 percent from the previous year and 35,000 shipped to Canada, an increase of 41 percent.

No one wants to have to sell or euthanize a horse but oftentimes there are unwanted horses n too old, feeble or unusable. Simply put, there are just too many horses n currently 9.2 million in the U.S. Many horse owners don't fully realize or understand the financial commitment owning a horse takes. Now with escalating hay prices and the recent spike in gas prices, many folks are opting to sell, give away or just not feed their animals. Some are simply turning their horses out in the hills to fend for themselves.

We in the horse world saw this coming a few years back and fought hard to avoid passing the no-slaughter bill. The American Veterinary Medical Association in 2005 predicted that if this bill passed, we would only be doing a disservice to this animal we so dearly embrace. The AVMA opposes the horse slaughter ban, as does the American Quarter Horse Association, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Association of Equine Practitioners and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, just to mention a few.

Now there is a companion bill in Congress, H.R. 6598, which will be on the table in January and proposes to cease the shipping, transporting, moving, delivery, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling or donation of horses to be slaughtered for human consumption and for other purposes. This would cut off the current slaughter market to Mexico and Canada. Guaranteed, the welfare of the unwanted horses in the U.S. will only worsen. There will be more neglected horses, and the legislation doesn't address the funds needed for their long-term care if they cannot be slaughtered.

The Humane Society is also pushing to change the legal status of horses from "livestock" to "companion" animals. Keep in mind that horses have been used for hundreds of years for work. Many people still rely on horses for their livelihood in ranching and agriculture. Do we change their title from "livestock" to "companion" like that of a dog or cat? If this classification changes to companion animal, this would have significant negative ramifications for the horse industry. The horse industry has a $112 billion impact on the U.S. economy, generates more than 1.4 million full-time jobs and pays $1.9 billion in taxes to all levels of government. A healthy horse market is important to our American economy and important to many of us here in the West who depend on the horse for income.

Action must be taken. The first thing would be to contact Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg. Let them know that we need them to oppose H.R. 6598 for the welfare of horses. E-mail the House Judiciary Committee members at http://judiciary.house.gov/">judiciary.house.gov/ and voice your opinion now.

Secondly, contact grass-roots organizations such as the United Horsemen's Front. Their goal is helping to "achieve humane and realistic solutions to the unwanted horse problem from the perspective of experienced horse people who have the best interest of the horse at heart." You can learn more at http://www.unitedhorsemensfront.org">www.unitedhorsemensfront.org.

Thirdly, practice more conscientious breeding practices, offer help for neglected or abused animals, and own responsibly. Remember, owning a horse is a privilege.

The perfect world would be one in which no horses were slaughtered and no horses were neglected or abused. But with the ever increasing number of unwanted horses, we must keep the option of horse slaughter legal here in the U.S. where we can humanely manage the process.

Nancy Condit of Montana Mare and Foal LLC writes from Frenchtown.

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