Horse breeding industry faces crisis

FORESTBURG, Alta. – Tears welled up in Betty Coulthard’s eyes as she described the day she delivered two loads of young mares to a slaughter plant.

After a disappointing production sale last spring where 44 registered Quarter horses did not sell out of 60 on offer, she had to make the difficult choice of culling the herd on her Forestburg ranch.

She shipped 25 young, registered horses to a meat plant at Lacombe, Alta. Her average price per horse on the first load was $161 and a second load averaged $191.

A Quarter horse breeder for more than 30 years in central Alberta, Coulthard sees her livelihood slipping away. She keeps about 50 mares and many trace back to North American championship stock.

She raises and sells young horses for pleasure riding, barrel racing or showing.

“You have to breed 100 horses a year to get two good horses.”

Coulthard is concerned about people who do not want to spend $2,000 on a sound young horse that can be trained.

Instead, they are willing to buy a horse with unknown history at an auction for less than $200. At that rate, she cannot stay in business.

“We are not hobby people, we are business people,” she said.

Coulthard is also concerned when people suggest unwanted animals go to rescue services. These are often horses in difficulty. They may have structural or temperament problems. By being raised at rescue centres, their genetics are being preserved while breeders of quality animals exit the industry.

“We’ll see our horse quality diminish as professional breeders disappear,” Coulthard said.

She believes a number of things brought her business to its knees. The recession shrunk incomes and she could no longer afford to keep horses.

Too many hobbyists are breeding horses with no plans for the resulting foals and too many slaughter animals are coming in from the United States, which drives down the meat price.

She also cites lack of organization and communication among horse breeders as a problem. Too few people were aware of new identification regulations that may also prevent them from selling them to slaughter plants, she said.

The market is poor but it is not necessarily connected to high import numbers, said Alberta Agriculture horse specialist Les Burwash.

“The right kind of horses still have reasonable value,” he said.

“The American horses coming into the processing plants are not affecting the sale of horses that are useful,” he said.

Burwash estimates about 125,000 horses are processed each year in Canada with most of the meat destined for Europe.

“If the people are going there to buy a cheap horse, then they are going to buy a cheap horse. They are only going to spend so much money.”

A June auction at Vold-Jones-Vold in Dawson Creek, B.C., reported 317 horses sold. Broke geldings ranged from $250-$2,000, colts and fillies were $50-$270 and mature studs were $100-$425.

Other livestock markets are depressed as well and if horse owners are forced to sell to the meat plants, Burwash advises they sell them on the rail where they might receive $250 rather than accept a live price for half that amount.

The requirement for full health documentation on every horse presented at a federal slaughter plant has created additional obstacles.

Burwash said horse owners will just have to learn to live with the new regulations.

He does not want to see the Canadian slaughter industry jeopardized because of lack of traceability.

“If we lose our processing of horses, probably 35 to 40 percent of our horses will have zero to negative values and we will have the same or more of the welfare issues that we have seen in the United States with the closing of the processing plants,” he said.

Billy Smith of the American Quarter Horse Association said when the U.S. Congress eliminated U.S. horse slaughter in 2007 by refusing to fund meat inspectors, no budget was provided for dealing with unwanted horses.

He said it is unlikely horse slaughter will return to the U.S. soon.

Anyone hoping to build a plant would need significant legislative support and that is unlikely because Congress fears the backlash from protests and litigation costs.

“The horses are just dying. They are starving to death or they are ending up in transport to Mexico,” said Smith.

“The yearling horse market is pretty lousy so it is a difficult thing and it is an unintended consequence of legislation in the United States.”

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