How do horse slaughterhouses work?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 25 2009 5:51 PM

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

No, they put a bolt through their brain.

A horse.
A horse

The Montana state legislature endorsed a bill Tuesday that would allow the construction of a horse slaughterhouse. It would be the only such plant in the country—the last three, two in Texas, one in Illinois, were shut down in 2007. How do horse slaughterhouses work?

A lot like cow slaughterhouses. Horses arrive on trucks and trailers, usually after being purchased at one of the many horse auctions across the country. They proceed down a ramp, into a feeding pen, and finally through a chute that leads to a small, brightly lit room. That's where an employee holds a pressurized gun called a "captive bolt pistol" up to the horse's forehead and shoots a 4-inch piece of metal about the size of a roll of quarters into its brain. Workers sometimes need to shoot three or four times before the horse stops moving. The horse is then dumped out a side door and strung up by its feet, at which point workers slit its throat and drain the blood. The body is then cut up and sent off to a meat company, usually in France or Belgium, where horse meat is a delicacy. (See a video of the whole process here.)

The main difference between horse slaughterhouses and cattle plants is that horses are more difficult to herd, often getting into fights en route to the holding pen. That's partly because they're raised for racing or riding, not consumption, and thus aren't accustomed to cramped quarters. (Federal transportation regulations for horses don't have a space requirement, so buyers tend to pack them in tight.) Horses also tend to be more excitable than cows—hence the blinders—and the smell of blood makes them nervous. Like other "flight animals," when they're scared, they try to run.

The biggest challenge for slaughterhouse employees is getting horses to hold still in the "kill room." Horses don't like things near their heads, so when a worker reaches over the railing with a bolt gun, they often swing their heads around, causing the gun to fire in the wrong place. The American Veterinary Medical Association calls the penetrating captive bolt a humane method but emphasizes that "[a]dequate restraint is important to ensure proper placement of the captive bolt." The Australian Veterinary Association, meanwhile, has dubbed the bolt "not satisfactory for horses since firm pressure on the forehead is essential for its effective use and this tends to be resisted by the horse."

Killing horses for human consumption is legal in most states, but slaughterhouses are currently nonexistent in the United States. (Meat companies now take American horses to plants in Canada and Mexico.) Americans have never been too keen on horse meat, partly because horses don't grow as fast as other livestock, and even when they do, they don't have much meat on them. There's also an ick factor since ponies are kept as pets and horses are revered on racetracks. Demand for horse meat comes mostly from Belgium, France, Italy, and Japan.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Chris Heyde of the Animal Welfare Institute, Nancy Perry of the Humane Society of the United States, and Susan Wagner of Equine Advocates.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.