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Dark Horse

For many equines that have served humans faithfully, an undignified end awaits

by Lisa Couturier

Published in the July/August 2010 issue of Orion magazine




I WENT TO AN AUCTION last Monday. Not an auction for foreclosed homes. Not an auction for priceless art or jewelry or land. I went to the New Holland Livestock Auction in the Amish and Mennonite country of New Holland, Pennsylvania, where each week horses are sold—though I’d no intention of buying one. I know a thing or two about horses. I spend a significant amount of time with them and can groom them, bathe them, saddle them, walk them, run them on a lead, ride them, feed them, blanket them, work them in a round pen, give them medicine, soak their sore hooves, lift and stretch their hindlegs and forelegs, clean the undersides of their feet, bandage their legs, and minister to their wounds. But I could not foresee, in the spare few minutes each horse at such an auction is given to demonstrate its abilities, personality, strength, or lack thereof (whether young or old, muscled or thin), that I’d be able to determine whether any particular horse would be the one for me.

Besides, it was hard to even think at the auction. I took a seat in the large crowd of people—with the Amish men wearing straw hats, black pants, and jackets; with the Mennonite men in their black hats and suspendered pants; with the city slickers from somewhere else and the country folk from nearby; with children and their grandparents fussing over spilled sodas. People talked, laughed, visited, ate hot dogs, Amish pies, and French fries. We all sat sandwiched together in the steep, gray bleachers that formed an oval around the dirt ring in which the horses were shown, one after another, from ten a.m. until midafternoon. A “loose horse” was a horse that came into the auction ring without a rider; the horses with riders were called “saddle horses.” Loose horses are at a disadvantage in terms of finding a good home because even though they are often saddle broke they nonetheless sell for less without a rider atop them in the ring.

The fate of those horses that entered and exited the ring quickly—such as one thin copper-colored Thoroughbred mare I remember—seemed bleak, the implication being that the horse was barely worth the time it took to auction off. That particular Thoroughbred mare, whose long, flaxen mane and tail were braided, must have had someone who had cared enough for her to make her pretty, perhaps believing this would help sell her to a good home, where a girl might braid her once again. Her head hanging low, she slowly walked around the ring, only once, and then stepped out a side exit. If there was any bidding for her, I didn’t hear or see it.

More than once the black-bearded Mennonite man running the auction—someone called him Zimmerman—asked the audience to settle down. Given the noisy crowd and the loud, stern voice of the auctioneer calling out in rapid-fire succession the back-and-forth bidding for the animals, I did not expect the saddle horses to try so hard to do well. Horses are flight animals; they flee at the unfamiliar; fear is their dominant emotion. But they are social creatures, too. They aim to please because they’ve learned to trust, which meant that even the strong and healthy horses, of which there were many, obediently did as they were told amid the chaos of the auction: go forward; go back; turn left, now right; stop, immediately; go fast, go slow; stand still. They were willing to do as asked, as they’ve been over the centuries—to churn the soil in our fields, to fight our battles, to run our races until their lungs bleed or their bones break. This might possibly be their last chance to perform, and they mustered up that certain nobility and courage possessed by horses, as though they had upon their backs the Navajo of long ago, the warriors who, before battle, would whisper into the ears of their horses: Be brave and nothing will happen. We will come back safely.

BEFORE THE AUCTION BEGAN, I had walked through the barns adjoining the auction ring where the horses stood tied to their posts. There are approximately 9 million horses in the United States, and at the auction there were two hundred of not necessarily the unwanted but surely the unlucky. Unlucky because, though I suppose going to a horse auction might sound like a day in the country—Amish food and horse-drawn buggies and all that—this particular auction is frequented by men known as “kill buyers,” which, by association, makes New Holland a kill auction, one of the largest east of the Mississippi. Kill buyers (KBs) also are called “meat men”—the men who purchase horses, typically from the major kill auctions, and deliver them for slaughter, though they also visit Thoroughbred racetracks and wheel and deal with horse dealers who’ve secured horses elsewhere: former show horses from the hunter/jumper/eventing/dressage worlds whose unsuspecting owners believe the dealer will place their horses in good homes; horses listed in newspaper classifieds or on Craigslist (you can find them for sale for a dollar); surplus lesson horses; horses that start out at smaller auctions, such as the Hickory Auction in Pennsylvania, the Camelot Auction in New Jersey, or any of the other nearly one hundred horse auctions scattered across the U.S. All these places are entry points for what is termed the “slaughter pipeline”; and those horses unlucky enough to stay in the pipeline eventually arrive at bigger and potentially more deadly places such as New Holland, where, the day I attended, the younger Mennonite and Amish boys managed a parade of breeds and types (drafts, minis, Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, fit and fat and healthy horses, tired and skinny horses, carriage horses, work horses, mares and geldings and stallions and foals) by whipping in the face the more frightened horses that took longer than a few seconds to understand what they were being told to do. Of course, not just KBs attend such auctions. And the horses being sold could have many possible new homes and potential uses—with families who want a trail horse, say, or with horse trainers, or with competitive riders looking for a strong event or endurance horse. Nonetheless, by the end of the day at any number of auctions around the country, the KBs have “bid for horses against private buyers, against each other and other dealers, as well as against horse rescues,” says Christy Sheidy of Another Chance 4 Horses, in Bernville, Pennsylvania. “The horses the kill buyers took could’ve easily been re-homed and gone on to live happy lives with families who want and appreciate them. They were not unwanted.”

Ultimately, kill buyers take what they need to satisfy their contracts with slaughterhouses. The day I visited New Holland, they were taking horses going for $500 or less; and though sometimes these were the young or the old, the sick or the skinny horses, it was clear that the healthy ones were preferred—the more body weight, the more money for the load. The buzz at New Holland that day was that a KB would receive about $600 from the slaughterhouse for each horse, though prices fluctuate depending on location, supply, and demand. A report quoted by a USDA slaughter statistician for that time period indicated the price of a horse at auction to be around forty-three cents per pound, but horse meat can fetch as much as fifteen dollars per pound in the retail market.

Because Americans don’t eat horses, it is surprising to learn that people of other cultures do. “Horse meat became popular after World War II,” says Carolyn Stull, animal welfare specialist at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis. It was an inexpensive protein “for lower-income people in Europe, where beef was scarce, and old or lame draft horses were processed as affordable meat.” Prices have risen since World War II, but the market continues to be highly profitable for the foreign companies that process horses from the U.S. and Canada, both of which have large horse populations. In a paper concerning horse transport regulations, Stull cites the different types of horse meat various cultures prefer. For instance, the Japanese prefer draft horse meat, she writes, referencing a 1999 article titled “Horses Destined to Slaughter” (though at New Holland I heard that the Japanese and French like Quarter Horses the most because of the lean muscle mass). The Italians, cites Stull, prefer eighteen- to twenty-four-month-old horses; the French go for ten- to twelve-year-old horses; and the Swiss take the two- to three-year-olds.

There are currently no horse-slaughtering facilities in the U.S., which means horses are transported to Canada and Mexico before being put to a typically untimely death. In the 1980s there were sixteen slaughterhouses in the U.S. By 1993 there were about ten, scattered across the country—in Connecticut, Texas, Oregon, Illinois, Nebraska, and Ohio. By the fall of 2007, the last three—two in Texas and one in Illinois—were shut down by courts that upheld state laws banning horse slaughter. The fight against slaughter within the U.S. grew from outrage over the fact that ex-racehorses like Ferdinand, Kentucky Derby winner and Horse of the Year, as well as a racehorse named Exceller, who’d defeated two Triple Crown winners, had slipped through the cracks and been purchased for slaughter overseas (Exceller in Sweden in 1997, and Ferdinand in Japan in 2002). Slaughter opponents included the general public (seven in ten Americans are against it, according to Madeleine Pickens, former racehorse breeder and wife of billionaire T. Boone Pickens); a majority of the Thoroughbred racing industry; and professionals within the horse industry (trainers, riders, breeders), all of whom, once they spoke up for horses, were labeled “animal rights activists” by the proslaughter contingency as a way to discredit them.

Slaughter, however, is not banned at the federal level, and individual states that have not banned it could see new slaughterhouses opened in the future. In early 2009, a Montana state legislator, aptly named Ed Butcher, tried and failed to lure the Chinese (who eat a lot of horses) into building a plant there. But Butcher has not given up. As of March 2010, even though he decided not to run for re-election, he told a reporter for the Montana Independent Record that he’s still “shepherding his horse slaughterhouse idea by trying to find a market.” According to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, lawmakers in nearly a dozen states are drafting initiatives to reintroduce the possibility of slaughtering of horses in the United States. This is why slaughter opponents ceaselessly fight for the passage of the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act of 2009 (H.R. 503 / S. 727), which would end at a national level the slaughter of horses for human consumption as well as the domestic and international transport of live horses or horseflesh for human consumption.

A new plot turn in this story is that, as of July 31, 2010, the European Union (EU) will require that horses destined for slaughter and human consumption are free from certain drugs, including many that long have been in the bodies of horses, most notably phenylbutazone (a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory commonly called “bute,” which is given to an estimated 98 percent of American Thoroughbred racehorses as well as to just about any breed of horse to relieve occasional pain or swelling). Kill buyers will be required to provide a signed statement for each horse claiming that to the best of their knowledge the animal has not been treated with these particular substances. “Some kill buyers claim openly that they will simply fill in bogus forms,” says John Holland, president of the Equine Welfare Alliance. The fact is, it would be impossible for KBs to tell the truth, because the horses they pick up could have had numerous owners, and it is rare for papers of any kind to travel with horses to auction, let alone an animal’s lifelong medical history.

It is unlikely that this new hurdle will suddenly stop kill buyers from shipping horses across our borders, as they had been doing even before the last three U.S. slaughterhouses closed. The figures for 2009 show that horses slaughtered in Canada were sold to as many as twenty-four countries, with France, Switzerland, Japan, and Belgium receiving 92 percent of the exports. The demand from countries where horseflesh is considered a pricey delicacy is the predominant reason horses go to slaughter. Some slaughter proponents suggest that the demand is met by horses that are no longer useful to their owners and are therefore better off slaughtered than suffering starvation and neglect. Neglect does of course occur, but neglected and starving horses are not necessarily the ones chosen by the KBs, and such horses don’t always make it to auction to begin with. Consider the nearly two hundred mustangs found starving—seventy-four of them already dead—at the Three Strikes Ranch in Nebraska in 2009. With such a large enticement of horseflesh, the owner of Three Strikes could have chosen to have the meat man come hither; he could’ve sent his neglected horses off with a KB who would’ve paid him for the animals. But he did not.

It is more often the case that horse owners do not wish their healthy animals an untimely death, are unaware that dealers flip their equines like real estate, and would be horrified to know that their animals had been sold into the slaughter pipeline. Bottom line: a horse is a commodity and someone is making money off of it somewhere down the road. And it is all perfectly legal, since horses are deemed livestock by the U.S. government, even though they are not part of the American food chain.

Horses in America today are used less for agricultural purposes and more for sport, competition, trail rides, and showing. They are bred and raised to be companions, not dinner entrees, which is why slaughter seems incompatible with our country’s relationship to this animal. And the manner in which these horses are killed only makes it more so. Before a horse is ostensibly unconscious and hung upside down by one of its back legs, and before its throat is cut and it is bled out, the horse must enter the killbox, or knockbox, where it is shot in the head with a device called a captive bolt gun, which is a four-inch-long, retractable, nail-like instrument. The captive bolt gun does not immediately kill the horse but is meant to render it insensible to pain. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, a captive bolt gun will work effectively under the following conditions: if it is clean and in proper working order, if the horse stands still, and if, shall we say, the gun is dead-on the right spot on the horse’s forehead. These conditions are hard to ensure.

“It is a dangerous practice to equate the medical procedure of chemical euthanasia performed by a veterinarian to end an animal’s life with that of a slaughterhouse worker killing an animal,” says Nena Winand, a faculty member in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. “There are many differences. Vets monitor vitals to cause the least amount of trauma, mental or otherwise. [Slaughterhouse workers] don’t take the time to monitor that the horse is dead. The horse gets hit multiple times with the captive bolt gun. We don’t know that they’re always insensible to pain. This treatment of horses has been going on since I was a kid, and I’m fifty-two now. The industry has never been successfully regulated. We pay taxes to monitor and enforce the humane treatment of these horses, but nothing’s enforced and it never has been. Whoever says otherwise is misrepresenting the history of this industry. To say it’s all perfect—well, it’s just insane.”

It all seems like the ultimate betrayal to a horse that likely served its owners for years and, at some point in its life, experienced human kindness. But there is not an exchange rate for kindness, while there is one for demand. In 2009 alone, demand resulted in the slaughter of 93,812 horses in Canada; of those, 56 percent were American horses; Canada’s revenue was $86.9 million; and the largest importer was France, paying $27.8 million. Worth noting, in a reflective and economy-minded sort of way regarding the issue of demand, is something comedian Jon Stewart said, which was referred to by racing columnist Jay Hovdey in the Daily Racing Form: “There’s demand for cocaine and hookers, too.”

“There are two things that flourish in the dark—mushrooms and horse slaughter,” said the late John Hettinger, a Thoroughbred racing legend and former member of the board of trustees of the New York Racing Association. “Most people don’t know it’s going on. We must deny them the darkness.” To shine a light inside the darkness, various humane groups (the Humane Society of the U.S., the Humane Farming Association) have taken undercover videos inside slaughterhouses, where workers poke, whip, and beat the animals’ bodies with fiberglass rods. Video from inside Mexican slaughterhouses reveals horses stabbed repeatedly with knives, which paralyzes the horse but leaves it conscious at the start of the slaughter process. The videos are exceedingly difficult to watch. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the USDA recently disclosed some nine hundred pages (including photos) documenting hundreds of violations of humane treatment to horses during transport to slaughter and at the American plants prior to their closings in 2007. The photos (available on Kaufmanzoning.net) depict horses with severed legs, crushed skulls, and missing eyes, as well as pregnant mares. Late-term pregnant mares, foals, blind horses, and horses who cannot stand on all four legs are not supposed to be sent to slaughter. Those animals that do make the trip are to be fed, watered, and rested. Often they are not.

“The whole thing, it’s a boondoggle on the American people,” said slaughter opponent and oilman T. Boone Pickens to a Chicago NBC reporter. “People that are for slaughter should be forced to go down on that kill floor.”

For those of us who will never get to the kill floor, or who have not the stomach to watch the videos on YouTube, here are two short excerpts, the first from the notes of an Animal and Plant Health Inspection Investigator at eleven-twenty a.m. on April 13, 2005, at the Cavel slaughter plant in DeKalb, Illinois:

Eight horses were in the alleyway leading directly to the knock-box. . . . The employee who is routinely assigned to work on the kill floor, hanging the horses on the rails, was using a riding crop to whip the horse in the alleyway closest to the knock-box. This horse continued to move backward, away from the knock-box causing the other horses behind it to be overcrowded. As the whipping continued the horses in the alleyway became extremely excited. I immediately told the employee to stop but he did not listen to me. During this time, the last horse in the alleyway attempted to jump over the alleyway wall and became stuck over the top of the wall. Eventually it had flailed around enough to fall over to the other side of the wall. I went to the kill floor to find the plant manager, could not find him. . . . Meanwhile two more horses fell down in the alleyway. The first was the second horse in line to the knock-box. It had fallen forward and the horse behind it began to walk on top of it as the downed horse struggled to get up. The second horse to fall was the fourth horse in line. It had flipped over backwards due to the overcrowding and was subsequently trapped and trampled by the fifth and sixth horses in line in their excitement. . . .

And in this statement taken from records in Cook County, Illinois, a former slaughterhouse employee testified to the following:

In July 1991, they were unloading one of the double-decker trucks. A horse got his leg caught in the side of the truck so the driver pulled the rig up and the horse’s leg popped off. The horse was still living, and it was shaking. [Another employee] popped it on the head and we hung it up and split it open. . . . Sometimes we would kill near 390, 370 a day. Each double-decker might have up to 100 on it. We would pull off the dead ones with chains. Ones that were down on the truck, we would drag them off with chains and maybe put them in a pen or we might drag them with an automatic chain to the knockbox. Sometimes we would use an electric shocker to make them stand. To get them to the knockbox, you have to shock them . . . sometimes run them up the [anus] with the shocker. . . . When we killed a pregnant mare, we would take the guts out and I would take the bag out and open it and cut the cord and put it in the trash and sometimes the baby would still be living, and its heart would be beating, but we would put it in the trashcan.

I’D FOUND MY WAY to New Holland with a horse rescue worker I’ll call Pat. Like many people who start up rescues, Pat was a lifelong rider and horse owner before opening her rescue in 2008. When I first visited her on a cold winter afternoon several weeks before the auction, I was led into a paddock of ex-racehorses rescued from nearby tracks. While we walked, Pat recounted for me the injuries that ended the horses’ careers and commented on the “bottom-dweller trainers who would’ve sold them to the meat man” and the “good trainers who call rescues to come take them.” The horses gravitated toward her, while chickens poked about and ran under the horses’ legs of gold and a Labrador puppy jumped up to kiss the horses’ long sculpted faces. “These are Thoroughbreds?” I asked, surprised by their calmness. “They’re here for a few weeks or so, they settle in,” she told me, while leaning into the horses’ bellies and cooing to them. “Isn’t that right?”

Pat was willing to take me to New Holland—driving us north for three hours in her 100,000-plus-mileage truck, her old trailer trailing behind us. “I need a new trailer, a new truck, fences. Everything. But it works out, somehow. It just does,” she said after jump-starting the truck that morning as the sun rose and the fog settled into the foothills and roosters called in the background. We were heading to Pennsylvania to meet a man named Frank, who runs an auction in New Jersey.

“Frank is a kill buyer, plain and simple,” says Anne Russek, a former Thoroughbred racehorse trainer who trained out of Monmouth Park Racetrack in New Jersey and who worked with HBO producers on an episode of Bryant Gumbel’s Real Sports that aired on May 12, 2008, titled “Hidden Horses.” The segment was an exposé that followed the path of a four-year-old Thoroughbred bay filly named No Day Off, who raced for the last time at Mountaineer Park Racetrack in West Virginia on April 12, 2008—just one month before the program aired. When a Thoroughbred racehorse reaches the end of its career or is simply no longer profitable on the track, said the HBO trailer, it is often taken directly to auction and sold for meat.

“Frank wants to work with the rescues,” says Pat. “But when he has a full load of horses, he will ship them to Canada.” Pat implies, as we talk in the truck about meeting with Frank, that he has of late softened a bit. When finally I glimpse him at the auction sitting not far from us on a row of bleachers, I notice that he is older than the other KBs; he has white hair, a wide face, blue eyes, and a heather-brown, zip-up cardigan that gives him a rather grandfatherly look. Later in the day, after Frank has assisted Pat with rescuing a small pony that her daughter might like, the first thing he says to me when he learns I am writing about auctions, racing, and slaughter is: “I have an excellent attorney.”

The purpose of meeting Frank at New Holland was to pick up two Thoroughbred mares, former racehorses. Thoroughbred racehorses are not supposed to end up at horse auctions, nor are they to be disposed of directly off the track with the KBs in what is euphemistically referred to as “stable to table in seven days.”

“I’ve been involved in the Thoroughbred industry for thirty-eight years,” says Russek, who is now chairperson of the Thoroughbred Celebration Horse Show series, which exclusively features off-the-track racehorses. “As much as I was involved, I never realized how many Thoroughbreds were going to slaughter. It was a secret. Everybody’s dirty secret. You have to show so much identification to get onto the backstretch of a racetrack, where the horses are kept, but you show nothing to get a horse off the track. When I started working on this issue I couldn’t have been more surprised by the denial. Every track said, ‘It’s not happening at our track.’ It became very apparent to me what was happening. For instance, at a track like Belmont, where it wasn’t happening so much—but then a horse loses and goes to a lower-level track and the horse starts going down. They end up at Mountaineer Park, at Charlestown, at Beulah Park, Penn National. Those are where the East Coast horses end up.”

Some racetracks profess that their horses do not end up at auctions or in slaughterhouses because the tracks have instituted zero-tolerance policies for such behavior from trainers and owners. But the reality, explains Monique Koehler, founder of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, is a “Thoroughbred industry made up largely of owners with only modest resources and current economics that dictate that among all owners, no matter how responsible and well-intended, only a relatively few are capable of maintaining even a single Thoroughbred once it is unable to earn its keep on the track.”

Though it would not be impossible to list the policies of the nearly one hundred racetracks in the U.S., consider it safe to say that there are a good number of tracks with ostensible zero-tolerance, or “no kill,” policies. These “no kill” tracks attempt to clear away their injured and their low earners through more acceptable channels—retirement, retraining and adoption, or rescue; all three options are carried out by various high- and low-budget rescue groups. One inventive effort at the Finger Lakes Racetrack involves a transition barn of sorts, called the Purple Haze Center, where horses no longer able to race are retrained and stabled on the grounds of the track until they are adopted. It is the first Thoroughbred track in the country to have an in-house adoption program that is run collaboratively between track management and horsemen. And some tracks, such as Suffolk Downs in East Boston, are connected to CANTER (the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses), a group that works with trainers to identify racehorses who need homes and lists available horses on their website.

But not all horsemen take advantage of groups like CANTER or other rescue options and, apparently, resort instead to unscrupulous practices. Russek describes a place not far from New Holland that is run by a Mennonite man. “I went there hoping to establish a relationship with him,” she explained. “He told me dealers bring horses from the track saying they must go to slaughter because trainers don’t want it known what they’re doing.” In other words, a dead horse is harder to trace than a horse that ends up at auction when it’s not supposed to.

Take the story of Twilight Overture, a gelding who came from Thistledown, “which is a ‘no-kill’ track,” says Nena Winand. One of the rescues alerted Thistledown’s general manager that the horse had been purchased by a kill buyer at the Sugarcreek Auction in Ohio. At the request of the manager, the rescue called the KB, who, surprisingly, turned his double-decker around and returned Twilight Overture to Sugarcreek for the rescue. Thistledown and Winand paid the KB $850 for the racehorse. “I renamed him Next Stop: Mars,” says Winand. “Why? Because if you look at his record, he was in training from track to track to track. What does he think of his life? He was shipped every two weeks somewhere. Then he’s on a double-decker to get his head bashed in. He’s big, extremely athletic. His story epitomizes that slaughter is a convenient disposal system. This horse is very usable. There’s no limit to what he can do; he’s not bad-minded. It’s default; it’s convenient. That’s why it’s happening. Why would a trainer kill this horse, my horse? Because they want the 300 bucks they get for him from the kill buyer.”

“Zero-tolerance at the tracks? Yeah, right. There’s no enforcement,” says Pat, when two weeks after our trip to New Holland I arrive at her rescue and find her all in a flurry trying to raise $1,500 to rescue three Thoroughbreds from Mountaineer Park. “The trainer wants $300 each or she’s letting the meat man take them. And I need $200 each just to get them here. And I need it now.” She scampers from the field to a stall to the computer to check in with contacts about the amount of money being raised to rescue the Thoroughbreds. “Everyone wants me to take two of them; you know, I just got those others. I don’t have enough money to do it.” Pat sighs, slipping in and out of various website forums and boards where people from across the country shoot messages back and forth. This is their battle—to save horses —and the computer is both their weapon and their battlefield. Pat pulls up photos of two of the Mountaineer Park horses in immediate need. One is a chestnut named Nitro, the other a black horse named I Gotta Go. Seeing their photos makes them real; and I am reminded that, as another Triple Crown season winds down—that time of year when Americans watch the fastest of the fast run their million-dollar races—thousands of the lesser-known Thoroughbreds like Nitro and I Gotta Go await their fate, having not only never made it to national television, but potentially never making it out of racing alive.

All of this sheds light on—but in the end proves nothing about—how a tall, slender, dapple-gray Thoroughbred gelding that had raced at Suffolk Downs in Boston and at Tampa Downs in Florida ended up at New Holland the morning I was there, still wearing his racing plates and standing quietly in front of me, roped to a post against a concrete wall. He already had been claimed by a KB, whom Pat would have to find and then pay more than he had paid for the gelding if she wanted to take the horse home. About a month later, I will call this kill buyer to inquire about the dapple-gray gelding. Where had the horse come from? Who’d shipped him? The KB will inform me, rather politely at first, that he is on the road with the rig and cannot give me any phone numbers. As I ask again about the journey of the dapple-gray, I picture this KB standing ringside at the auction, closest to the horses entering, along with the other KBs, all Caucasian, most in their midforties, wearing baseball caps, slouchy jackets like high-school football players, jeans, and colorful studded leather belts. Soon enough he tires of my questions.

“Who the fuck are you? Are you the horse’s owner?” he rages.

“No,” I answer.

“Then why the fuck are you poking your fucking nose into this?”

OF THE TWO THOROUGHBRED mares we’d planned on retrieving from Frank at the auction, one was pregnant, due imminently, so Pat had spent the weekend building a foaling stall for the mare. When I called on Sunday morning to confirm our arrangements, Pat was hammering nails into plywood with a retired neighbor who volunteers. Later that afternoon, though, Pat called back to say that the pregnant mare had been inadvertently sent off on the slaughter truck a few days earlier. It was not clear how this had happened. Despite the fact that it’s against regulations, she nonetheless had been dispatched on the long trip to Canada.

Probably, said Pat, she was already dead.

At the auction, Pat leaves the bleachers frequently to track down Thoroughbreds, and while she is away, quite a few of them stream in and out of the noisy bidding ring, along with other breeds, too many to list, all in and out so fast it is hard to keep track of the numbers and prices. All of the following, which is in no way a complete list, were taken by the kill buyers:

– Thoroughbred bay gelding: $310

– Thoroughbred chestnut gelding: $325

– Palomino gelding, whipped several times by rider: $450

– Two Thoroughbred geldings, lost track of price

– Thoroughbred gelding, no price that I can hear, exits early

– Standardbred mare, leaves the ring early. On her way out, Mennonite boys whip her repeatedly in the face. Russek will tell me later that some of the Amish and Mennonites can be “truly heartless” in the way they treat their horses, an observation that is, in all but the same words, repeated by a horse rescue worker who reported her experience at an Indiana auction on the Grateful Acres website: “The kill pen is full of Belgian draft horses, the powerful, living machinery of Amish farms. . . . [T]he Belgians in this pen are grievously and horrifyingly injured. They have been worked until they literally cannot stand any longer. . . . No matter that the animal has slaved . . . for any number of years, no matter that his swollen, oozing knee is collapsing at every forced step. Just as a broken plow would be sold to the junk man for the metal, these broken animals are sold to the kill-man for meat.”

– Thoroughbred / Quarter Horse cross: $125

– Farm horse sold “as is” leaves ring early

– Paso Fino gelding, eleven years old, brown with white face: $160

– Brown and white Paint pony: $250

– Paint gelding: $360

After two hours it becomes increasingly difficult to watch, so I walk with Pat back into the barns to be with the horses, though the decision to be with the animals suddenly feels worse than staying in the bleachers. Standing so close to so many of them, looking into their faces, rubbing their bodies, listening to them eat hay, watching them watch us, I realize the emotional blackmail of the moment. There is the wish to save them all, knowing full well no one can, and that by tonight many of them will be heading to Canada, or to feedlots to be fattened up for a slaughterhouse in Canada. To the extent that one can, Pat has crossed this threshold, and her time in the barn is more goal-directed: She weaves through the lines of animals to find the Thoroughbreds. “Here’s one,” she yells out to me, while lifting the horse’s upper lip and calling out the tattoo number for me to write down. Racehorses are required to have a tattoo inside their upper lip, which identifies the horse and links it to its registration papers. Soon enough she is off with a list of tattoos to call in to a contact waiting to help identify the racetracks to which the Thoroughbreds were last connected. Meanwhile, I scan the rows and rows of horses and ponies, looking for the copper-colored mare I’d seen earlier in the day, the one with the braided mane and tail. Pat hurries back to say she has the dapple-gray racehorse. The KB gave it over for $600. “It’s a lot, but I’ll train him to jump,” she says. “He’ll make a good jumper, and people love the dapple-grays.”

People love ponies, too, Pat had said at the beginning of the auction. “They’re always asking me for ponies.” And so more than midway through the auction she has bought, for about $200 each, several ponies to adopt out as 4-H projects or as pony club mounts. One is a large, brown, bulldozerlike Hackney gelding she later will name Edward; another is a small gray boy just gelded and still shot up with testosterone who will be called Merry Legs; an unbroke Paint mare with one blue eye will become Maeve, or “the cause of great joy” in Gaelic. And then, finally, the gray roan Pony of the Americas (POA), who tentatively walks into the ring, scared enough that she’ll barely move forward. She is led to stand near the fence by the kill buyers. Her eyes look up into the bleachers, her skin twitches when someone touches her, and the bidding begins. “Do you want that pony, Pat?” I ask.

“I don’t have any money left. She’s cute, though.”

I raise my bidding card and so does a kill buyer. We start low, $35.

The KB raises his card for $40.

I go $45.

He goes $50; I raise for $60.

Zimmerman, the bearded Mennonite, looks up to me. I am new here, and I sense at that moment he knows it. He raises the bidding by $20.

KB agrees to $80. I go to $90. KB takes $95.

The auctioneer calls out $100. Zimmerman’s dark eyes stare straight to mine. Once we get to $100 the price could keep climbing, and I am unsure what I can do; at the same time, I look at the POA. As much noise as there is around me—the old couple bickering, kids playing and laughing—it suddenly seems as if there is no sound, and I feel like the student in the classroom who everyone’s looking at because I’ve been asked to answer a question I don’t have an answer for.

I raise for $100.

Zimmerman looks at the KB. There is a pause. But the KB does not bid. It is over, suddenly, in a matter of seconds. “One hundred dollars for number 730-1,” the auctioneer calls out.

I climb the stairs to the New Holland Auction office to pay for the pony I later will name Bridget and give to Pat, and I think how often I’ve blown a hundred dollars on a meaningless trip to Target. The cashier gives me the name and number of the person who unloaded Bridget at the auction because I request it. I am still naïve at this point and I assume her owners brought her here. I want to call them later to ask about their pony and tell them I have her now. That she is safe. “Charlie, here,” the voice answers, when a few days later I call. “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout her, ma’am,” the man says. “Bought her cheap at the Hickory Auction. I sell tack there and someone’s sellin’ her. So I take her. I bought her on Sunday and took her to New Holland on Monday. Ain’t gonna lie to ya ma’am, don’t know nothin’ ’bout her. I buy cheap horses and resell ’em. That’s what I do.”

Down on the auction floor, Pat is gathering up Bridget to put her in the pen with Edward, Maeve, Merry Legs, and the dapple-gray Thoroughbred. Not long after, we will meet up with Frank and transfer the mare he brought down from New Jersey. In the afternoon, when the auction is over and we are loading the horses and ponies onto Pat’s trailer, around the corner will come the thin copper-colored mare with the long flaxen braids. The bones of her skinny shoulders and hips poke up from her body when she walks. She is led by a KB.

He instructs her onto his trailer. She does not move. He yanks hard on her lead rope. As thin and weak as she is, she jumps back from the trailer, her long braided mane flopping against her neck. He yells at her, harsh and fast and low, and whips her over and over in the face and on her shoulders and belly. She jumps up and throws herself against the inside wall of the trailer.

He shoves her into the horses already on the rig and they all jostle together, colliding, biting, and agitating one another. As the dust floats up and is set aglow by the afternoon sunlight streaming into the trailer, the mare stumbles. Finally, she finds a place by the window and gazes out. 


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Lisa Couturier is the author of a collection of literary essays, The Hopes of Snakes and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape. She lives on an agricultural reserve in Maryland with her family and is writing a memoir about her and her grandfather's Thoroughbred racehorses.

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