I’m not sure how exactly I got invited to subscribe to ASPCA’s newsletter, I was subscribing to a lot of things in November and December. You know, “give us your email, get a free____.” I always thought of the ASPCA as a respectable force for preventing cruelty to animals, saving abandoned and abused animals, pushing for regulations to give market animals (beef, swine, poultry, etc.) a decent chance to enjoy a few years before they go off to slaughter. But in the month or so they’ve been sending me their newsletters, “respectable” has ceased to become an adjective I use with them.
Oddly enough, it’s the attitude they’ve expressed regarding horses that has destroyed my image of them. Why that’s odd is because I LOVE horses. I was one of those little girls that got bit by the horse bug, and though my life path hasn’t ended up intertwining with them, I still haven’t lost my love for them, only for what naive “pet-parents” (“pet parents” are for spoiled living room decorations, not working animals) wearing rosy-colored glasses think horse life should be.
My first indication that the ASPCA had waaaaaay to much in common with the “no treatment of animals” PETA view was when they took the side of the abolitionists in the New York carriage horses debate. The argument is that horses don’t belong in an environment like New York City, despite the fact that they’ve been there as long as the city itself. Personally, I’d say that any place that isn’t fit for horses to be walking around in isn’t fit for people to be walking around in, either. And unlike those “couch riders” who stare at pictures of horses galloping free in majestic wide plains and think they know what a horse wants, I’ve actually driven carriage horses.
They get a pretty good life. They normally work two six-hour shifts a week. Sick leave is as much as they need for as long as they need (one of our horses was out six month when she got a nail in her hoof). It’s a rare combination that has one even working thirty hours a week. And the carriages are so light it takes no effort for even a human to move them about. The only real effort comes in pulling a loaded carriage uphill, an effort which varies depending on how steep the hills in your city are. And it’s nothing compared to the plows they were bred to pull. The horses understand traffic lights, marked lanes, and their stands (a place where, while not their stable, they can take a break, have a drink, and eat any tips). There’s horses that don’t like being out alone, and those that genuinely like being among us “two-legs.” And they figure out going to the stand can sometimes result in tidbits that they won’t get hanging out in the corral.
But the abolitionists don’t see that. They think that horses are happier pawing through the snow in winter for grass and keeping at least one eye out for predators, fighting to get mares (if they’re stallions) or getting stolen by other herd stallions (if they’re mares) and getting kicked by other horses for overstepping bounds or having the tasty spot are things all horses would choose over a warm stable and a pile of hay that they can chew in peace.
And then there’s this little matter of survival. Most carriage companies use draft horses, which are not only stronger, but less excitable than lighter breeds. Since they’re bigger and eat more than saddle breeds, they’re not as popular as “pets,” or even as working horses. In fact, many of the breeds are endangered. Not only the horses, but the knowledge to produce and repair harnesses and carriages is in danger of being lost. Without the demand from carriage companies, the few businesses that still deal in this equipment, and their knowledge, could also be lost.
So the abolitionists, if they get their way, will end up giving a few individuals a life of ease instead of a life of easy work, at the price of possible extinction. Keep in mind that the only truly wild horse, Przewalski’s horse, very nearly became extinct, at one point the last remaining herds being kept in captivity, their keepers praying that their numbers would recover enough to release them before they became “domesticated” (considered to happen after fifteen generations of captivity). In fact, if grasses continue to get tougher, horses (which lack the multi-chambered stomachs that cattle and deer evolved to deal with grass) as a species may be as dependent upon a human relationship for their existence as corn.
Well, those few individuals might not be saved. Even among horsemen, controversy exists as to the best thing for aging horses in failing health, the ones that would have fallen to wolves or coyotes in the wild. Many feel it’s kinder to put a pile of feed in front of them and them put a bullet through their head as they lower their head to enjoy the meal than to leave them to stumble around on arthritic legs, unable to chew their food with worn-out teeth. There simply are no hospices for horses. Even horses afflicted with equine infectious anemia (the horse world’s equivalent to AIDS), which can be asymptomatic for quite some time, are almost always euthanized, because no one wants to shell out the money to keep a quarantine for EIA positive horses.
So what happens to horses that nobody wants to take care of? Economically, the best answer is slaughter. And the ASPCA has a problem with that, too.
There’s people that get attached to their chicken, or pigs, or all kinds of farm animals and can’t bring themselves to eat them. It doesn’t stop chickens, or pigs, or all kinds of animals getting butchered for food, even at the hands of those who fell in love with them. Nowhere are horses raised expressly for food, but in many places, people are practical enough not to waste the flesh that the horse no longer has use for. And horses are the only animal whose meat gets more tender as they age.
Would I eat horsemeat? Maybe not that of one I knew as a friend. To satisfy my curiosity as to what it tastes like? Sure. After that, it depends on the taste. After all, if we don’t stop breeding ourselves to death, we’re going to end up eating anything we can, including our own dearly departed brethren.
Don’t like that? Then stop breeding and New York won’t be such a dangerous place for horses. Until then, remember the horse’s prayer:
*“. . .Remember that I must be ready at any moment to lose my life in your service.
And finally, Oh my master, when my useful strength is gone,
do not turn me out to starve or graze, or sell me to some cruel owner,
to be slowly tortured and starved to death;
but do thou, my Master, take my life in the kindest way,
and your God will reward you here and hereafter.
You will not consider me irreverent if I ask this in the name of Him
who was born in a Stable.
*Originally written for 19th Century carriage horses. Author unknown.