Horses and Dagger

by Jennie Lloyd


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Off rural Highway 16, along a dusty stretch of Bristow sits one of the largest live auction houses in Oklahoma. At the mouth of a wide gravel driveway, weathered plastic figures of a horse and steer greet passers-by with a stoic gaze. Black metal letters stand out against rust-colored rock: Mid America Stockyards.

For 40 years, Mid America has drawn packed houses to their Saturday cattle sale and horse auctions every other Monday. On busy auction days, three sets of stadium bleacher seats become a loud, moving sea of cowboy hats, well-worn plaid, and overalls. The earthy tang of horseshit and dirty boots steams up the stale, warm air. State flags flank both sides of the auctioneer who speaks and calls in an old-hand showboating twang.

Experienced riding horses, skittish unbroken colts and head-down workhorses—plus mules, donkeys, and even llamas—emerge from a whitewashed gate one at a time. They twitch their tails and ears under the lights, as the gathered crowd of grimacing men and gray-haired matrons bid on the animals.

Among these bidders are experienced “kill buyers.” These are the people who frequent auction houses to buy cheap horses by the pound, as cheap as a nickel a pound at MidAmerica,thensellthemtoslaughterhousesforaprofit.

Jerry and Helen Marie Varner have managed their highly profitable and well-respected family auction and cattle business for decades. The Varners see more than a thousand head of cattle come through their barns each week.

House Representative Skye McNiel, R-Bristow, still helps out with her grandparents’ business on Fridays. With her pretty blonde hair, blue eyes, and big smile, she serves hearty breakfasts and lunches at the stockyards’ café. Earlier this year, McNiel became a polarizing political figure when she introduced House Bill 1999, the bill that has opened Oklahoma to horse slaughter.


On February 20, 2013, HB 1999 passed in the House easily, 82-14, and officially ended a 50-year state ban on horse slaughter.

While McNiel’s bill sped through the House, a similar bill introduced by State Senator Mark Allen, R-Spiro, passed in the Oklahoma Senate with equal ease (SB 375 was approved 38-6).

McNiel garnered wide support for her bill among the deep-pocketed agricultural interests in the state, as well as the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and the American Quarter Horse Association. Calls and emails to Oklahoma Quarter Horse Association were not returned. According to national export data, quarter horses make up about 70 percent of all horses sent slaughter.

The bills passed quickly and with relatively little debate; a little too quickly and quietly for Representative Jeannie McDaniel, D-Tulsa.

“It just sort of snuck in quickly, and bang it was gone,” McDaniel said.

The aftermath of the bills’ initial passage caused an intense rift between opponents of horse slaughter and those who support the legislation. McDaniel said her email inbox is overflowing. The majority of McDaniel’s— all urban—constituents who have contacted her regarding HB 1999 are “overwhelmingly opposed,” she said.

McNiel said she’s received a lot of hateful and negative feedback, including a death threat currently under investigation by the OSBI.

“People will say things on a computer that they won’t say to your face,” McNiel said. “The Capitol police watch me when I’m in the Capitol Rotunda,” and anywhere on the grounds. She said she fears threats made against her family and daughters. But that doesn’t mean she’ll back down.

Governor Mary Fallin signed HB 1999 into law late Friday afternoon, March 29, 2013.

Fallin said HB 1999 would “allow the humane, regulated processing of horses.”

The law will go into effect November 1, 2013.


Oddly, legislators’ support for horse slaughter far outweighs that of public opinion, according to a mid- March SoonerPoll commissioned by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). A strong 66 percent of Oklahoma voters opposed the passage of proposed legislation allowing for the slaughter of horses in the state. Most of those opposed—88 percent—are strongly opposed, the poll concluded. More interesting was that respondents in rural areas opposed horse slaughter legislation at high rates, not unlike their urban counterparts. In rural counties, 65.1 percent of those surveyed opposed the bills, with 69.6 percent of respondents in the Tulsa metropolitan area opposed and 64.3 percent opposed in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area.

The bills achieve a rare feat today—people of all political stripes hate on Oklahoma’s horse slaughter bills at high rates. Independent respondents were opposed or strongly opposed at the highest rate, 72.5 percent, Democrats at 67.6 percent and Republicans, 63.4 percent. Conservatives and moderates? They both oppose horse slaughter.

Horse-loving Americans gave a collective pearl- clutch when a YouTube video went viral in March. In the video, Valley Meat Company employee Tim Sappington is shown in cowboy hat and boots, cursing animal rights activists before shooting a black and brown colt between the eyes with a .48. The New Mexico man watches the horse drop to its side, then he walks toward the camera and says, “Good.”

The video outraged animal lovers coast to coast, garnering headlines and sparking fierce opposition to horse slaughter. Despite public opposition, Sappington’s employer, Valley Meat Company, may be permitted to slaughter horses within the next few weeks.

ThoughHB1999isnowstatelaw,abanonselling horsemeat for human consumption would remain in effect statewide. In Oklahoma, we can kill horses. We just can’t eat them.


After the live auction is over, kill buyers—also known as contract buyers—turn a profit by selling the newly acquired horses to slaughter facilities across the border in Canada or Mexico. There, the meat is processed for sale overseas. Some horsemeat is sold back to U.S. zoos as lion and tiger feed, though its use in pet food was banned in the 1970s.

Nine million horses live in the U.S., and Oklahoma is home to about 326,000, according
to the Oklahoma Farm Bureau. Oklahoma City
is considered the horse show capital of the world, while Purcell, Oklahoma, boasts itself the Quarter Horse capital of the world. More than 12,000 Oklahomans work with, for, or around horses. Equines are our workmates and companions, not our entrees or appetizers.

However, some countries consider horseflesh a delicacy, priced on par with veal. The meat is much leaner than beef, contains no cholesterol and is rich in iron. In China, people eat horsemeat by the ton (about half a million tons a year). Italian gourmands crave tender, thin slices of prosciutto di cavallo. A Puglia, Italy, recipe for “horse chops,” or baciole alla barese, calls for rolled and seasoned pieces of horsemeat to pan sear in a coat of lard, red wine, and tomato sauce. In France, a hearty stew, or pot-au-feu de cheval, must simmer all afternoon to marry together the flavors of fresh garden vegetables and a horse’s collar meat. The flesh is also frequently smoked and made into cold cuts or squished into burger patties.

Currently, no horse slaughterhouses operate in the U.S., and the last three facilities shuttered in 2007. Since then, the number of horses imported by Canada and Mexico increased astronomically, 148 percent and 660 percent respectively, according to a June 2011 report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In 2010, nearly 138,000 horses were sent to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, about the same number that were sent to slaughter before the ban was put into place, the report found.

The GAO analysis of horse sale data estimated that closing U.S. horse slaughterhouses caused horse prices to drop on lower- and medium-end horses to the tune of 8–10 percent. Higher-priced horses held their market value, while the economic downturn repressed the prices of all horses by 4–5 percent, the report estimated.

Profits on horsemeat within the food industry are hard to analyze. Food margins are thin to start, and companies are always looking for a cheaper way to process meats. “Supply chains have become vast and unwieldy,” in a system where meat “now travels across multiple borders and through myriad companies,” according to an editorial in Financial Times.


Pro-slaughter and horse advocates agree on one thing: the way other countries operate horse slaughterhouses can be, and often are, subpar, suspect, and—as a quick search on YouTube will reveal—revolting.

Cattle and livestock expert Temple Grandin, the autistic “cattle whisperer,” has asserted in a statement that she believes Mexican slaughterhouses, where thousands of horses are shipped from live auctions like Mid America each year, are inhumane.

“The worst outcome from an animal welfare perspective is a horse going to a local Mexican abattoir,” Grandin wrote in a statement on her website, “Once a horse crosses the Mexican border, there is no way to monitor how it’s transported or slaughtered. A plant in the U.S. would be monitored by the USDA/FSIS, and the conditions for both transport and slaughter would be better.”

Though Grandin does support ethical, well-run, and humane slaughterhouses in the U.S., she condemns south-of-the-border slaughterhouses because they use a small knife, known as a puntilla. These knives are used to sever the spinal cord, so horses are paralyzed and unable to breathe. The animals are then hoisted upside down, awake and able to feel pain, until they bleed out.

Canadian abattoirs have been repeatedly accused of ethical violations as well. Though they eschew the puntilla in favor of a quicker death, Canadian kill boxes can still lead to a terrifying death for easily panicked horses. More intelligent than cows and with twice the blood, horses simply aren’t the same as cattle. When a frightened horse is dragged from a pen into a kill box, he will often thrash his head against the sides of the wide stall in an attempt to escape. This thrashing motion makes it difficult to aim the captive-bolt gun at the horse’s head.

It is not a simple, easy, or quick singular blow to the head for many horses. Abattoir employees may shoot a frantic horse three or four times before he dies. Even then, undercover investigations by animal welfare organizations show signs of life in some horses as they are strung up, even after being shot multiple times.

Equines are our workmates and companions, not our entrees or appetizers.

In 2011, the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (CHDC) released undercover footage and videos of a Quebec slaughterhouse. The footage showed everything from the misidentification and often missing information on the horses, to gross failures during assembly-line captive-bolt gun use. At the slaughterhouse they investigated, at least 40 percent of the horses in the stun box were not rendered immediately unconscious, according to CHDC findings.

In 2009, Humane Society International (HSI) reported 93,000 horses were slaughtered in Canada. The organization also expressed concern about the treatment of horses while they are transported from live auction to slaughterhouse. On these long trips, horses are loaded unceremoniously onto trailers, where Canadian regulations allow them to ride for up to 36 hours without food or water, according to HSI.


“In Oklahoma—as in other states—abuse is tragically common among horses that are reaching the end of their natural lives,” Fallin said after she signed HB 1999. “Many horses are abandoned or left to starve to death.”

Pro-slaughter advocates frequently say it’s the only option for strapped horse owners. Times are tough, and horses cost thousands per year in care and upkeep. U.S. slaughterhouses are sold as the perfect solution to the problem of abandoned, neglected, and aging horses. Unraveling this claim is difficult because there are no firm statistics or tracking in place to accurately count abandoned horses.

The governor referenced the 68-page GAO report to support her stance. “Comprehensive, national data are lacking,” the report stated, “But state, local government, and animal welfare organizations report a rise in investigations for horse neglect and more abandoned horses since 2007.”

The cases of horse neglect the GAO referenced were attained through interviews and anecdotal evidence. Pet- tracks cases of animal cruelty and abandonment in each state, though most are unconfirmed allegations. In Oklahoma, nine people reported the malnourishment, neglect or theft of at least 40 horses between 2011 and 2012. No reports have been filed in 2013.

For-profit slaughterhouses are a far cry from humane euthanasia, said Oklahoma City horse advocate Stephanie Graham. The cost of a quick, painless euthanasia, an injection given by a veterinarian, and disposal of the remains cost approximately $225, according to HSUS.

Graham grew up just outside Yukon, on a wheat farm where her family kept American Quarter Horses and Appaloosas.

“I grew up riding, showing, training, the whole works,” she said. “I always had my hand in the dirt or on a horse.”

Graham, a chronic pain specialist, has found herself immersed in battling recent Oklahoma legislation that would pave the way for horse slaughter facilities to open in the state.

“I wouldn’t call myself an advocate,” she said. “I’d call myself a decent human being. There’s nothing radical about that.”

People like Graham enumerate legitimate concerns, especially regarding the treatment of horses that are sent to slaughter across the border. It’s a concern shared by McNiel, who also condemns the “horrible” treatment horses often receive during transport to slaughter. She said a slaughterhouse in the U.S. would save horses the long distances they travel in cramped trailers.

On March 26, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called out Oklahoma agricultural officials after an undercover investigator found serious violations during a ride with a kill buyer through Oklahoma. The kill buyer admitted he falsified health forms for the horses in his trailer, according to a PETA statement. The horses were transported from Iowa, though Kansas and Missouri, and then into Oklahoma before they headed to Texas. The kill buyer said a veterinarian taught him how to falsely “certify” the horses in his trailer were free of equine infectious anemia (EIA), a potentially fatal viral disease with no known cure or vaccine. The potentially infected horses were unloaded onto a crowded feedlot in Stroud, Oklahoma, PETA stated.

Agriculture Secretary Jim Reese said he and other officials are “aware” of the allegations, and that they are being investigated by the state’s multi-county grand jury, according to the Oklahoman. Reese told the newspaper that the jury is also looking into allegations of stolen property, concealing stolen property, and transporting stolen property across state lines, among other crimes.


The daughter of prominent Bristow cattle ranchers, Representative McNiel said she loved saddling up horses on Sunday afternoons. “We are predominantly cattle people,” she said, “But we love being on horseback.”

Her husband, Pecos McNiel, trains horses and is a talented auctioneer, and the couple’s two daughters have horses, too. “We understand how you can love a horse,” she said. “We get that. We love our cattle, show pigs, show lambs.”

But where horse advocates make a strong distinction between cow and horse, McNiel said, “It’s OK for cattle to be processed, and it’s an identical method for a horse.”

She said she finds it difficult to maintain common ground with opponents of HB 1999. “Our opponents are based on emotion,” McNiel said, “We can’t talk facts to them.”

To McNiel and other pro-slaughter advocates, capitalism is the answer. A demand for quality horsemeat in foreign markets plus an excess of unwanted healthy horses in the U.S. equals potential profits. And those profits grow once you subtract the expensive transport of the horses out of the country. It’s simple. Her opponents, she said, “want to make it very absurd and very gruesome.”

About 21,000 horses from Oklahoma are shipped to slaughter facilities across the border, with 160,000 ultimately sent to slaughter nationwide last year, McNiel said.

Even if legislation is passed and the ban on horse slaughter is lifted in Oklahoma, McNiel said she doesn’t know of any companies who are interested in opening a facility in the state.

She agreed we have a “problem” with transport and other ethical violations in foreign abattoirs, “and we need to address it,” she said. “We may need to look at population control, look at people who abandon or abuse horses. But we can’t do it through fear. We need to do it through facts.”


Representative McNiel explained the language for HB 1999 has been simmering since 2006, she said, “when the U.S. federal government pulled funding for USDA inspections.”

McNiel is referencing the federal government’s effective prohibition on horse slaughter nationwide since 2006. A small piece of legislation attached to an annual agricultural spending bill effectively blocked funding for USDA inspections of horse slaughter. No inspection, no business, no deal.

The Moran Amendment would reinstate a 2006 ban on the slaughter and consumption. It is named after U.S. House Representative Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat and co-chair of Congressional Animal Protection Caucus.

In 2011, the annual spending bill included language that would have continued the federal ban on funding for horse slaughterhouse inspections. However, before the bill reached President Barack Obama’s desk, it was stripped of the ban that was so easily approved in 2006. The president signed the bill into law on November 17, 2011. And just like that, a five-year ban on horsemeat inspections was lifted.

Valley Meat Company, the slaughterhouse that employs Sappington in New Mexico, could be ready to slaughter horses in a matter of weeks. Since then, a number of cities in other states have applied for horse slaughter inspection permits, including: Larkspur, Colorado; Gallatin, Missouri; Woodbury, Tennessee; and Sigourney, Iowa, according to Food Safety News.

As a response to Valley Meat Company’s application to slaughter horses in New Mexico, Representative Moran called on Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to deny permit applications for horse slaughter facilities. In the March 25 open letter to Vilsack, Moran wrote, “Horses are not raised as food animals and are routinely given substances that are banned by the FDA from administration to animals destined for human consumption.

“At a time when USDA’s budget is diminished by budget cuts and sequestration … every dollar spent at horse slaughter plants would divert necessary resources away from beef, chicken, and pork inspections—meat actually consumed by Americans.”

Moran urged Vilsack to “exercise all available options to prevent the resumption of this industry.”

Moran has also promised to fight for a federal ban on horse slaughter and for the reinstatement of his amendment. “I will be working with my colleagues in the coming weeks to include that language in the final Fiscal Year 2014 appropriations bill,” he promised in a March 8 statement. One meat processing plant, Oklahoma Meat Company, in Washington, Oklahoma, (just a few miles south of Norman in rural McClain County) has applied for an extension of USDA inspections. The facility already processes cows, sheep and goats, according to the company’s USDA application filed on May 24, 2012. The Oklahoma slaughterhouse differs from other applications in that it is owned by locals. Almost all horse slaughter facilities in the U.S. have been owned by Belgian, French, or Dutch interests.

Another measure is also circulating in federal houses of congress, called the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, which would shut down any possibility of an American slaughterhouse and slam closed the borders on kill buyers shipping horses to Canada or Mexico. The bipartisan legislation was written in response to the scandal in Europe, when horse meat was discovered in fast food meals after it was mislabeled as beef.


Back in 2006, a more definitive ban on horse slaughter was also being promoted as a permanent solution.

One looming Oklahoma figure, T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oilman and Oklahoma State University alumni, championed the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, and became an outspoken opponent of horse slaughter at home and abroad. Despite disappointing his former colleagues in the cattle industry, Pickens told Time magazine in July 2006, “I don’t like it. And I’m going to do everything I can to stop it.”

One of the people he met during his quest to end horse slaughter in the U.S., was the outspoken former mayor of a small Texas town. Pickens was moved by Bacon’s story, and talked about her frequently.

Bacon ran for mayor after watching her beloved small Texas town fight for years to rid themselves of a horse slaughterhouse called Dallas Crown. Bacon spearheaded efforts to shut down the plant, which closed down in 2007. Though she is no longer mayor, Bacon still speaks out about the horror story of Dallas Crown.

“I’m fifth generation Kaufman,” she said proudly, in one of a few rapid-fire recent phone conversations. “I had an exuberant, empowering childhood.”

But, Bacon said, “The horse slaughter plant was a black eye” on her town. So she ran for mayor, in part to fight Dallas Crown. And she won on both counts.

When she got into office, she said, “We were about to have to build a new wastewater treatment plant”, plus update their sewer system to the tune of $2 million, “if we were lucky.”

Horses are frequently treated with antibiotics and worming medications toxic to humans, and because equines have twice the volume of blood as a cow (with less meat), wastewater and sewage problems were frequent and egregious. Hundreds of gallons of blood overwhelmed the small Texas town’s municipal capabilities. The blood and carcasses never seemed to stay put.


Kaufman residents who lived near Dallas Crown frequently reported blood spills in the roadway and in ditches, as well as blood bubbling up in bathtubs and toilets. Residents’ photos reveal horse carcasses and bones on the plant’s property. Bacon said the stench of death was horrendous. The blood and the carcasses attracted hundreds of vultures, cockroaches, and other scavengers to the area.

Kaufman couldn’t shake its reputation as “the place where they kill horses.” Bacon said business investors would visit, but never call back. “The standard answer was, ‘It’s just not a good fit,’ ” she said.

Dallas Crown employed about 42 people, who were paid $7-$10 per hour for the undesirable dirty work that went on inside. The city gained nothing in sales tax revenue, while the plant’s property taxes were only $1600-$1700 per year; it wasn’t nearly enough to cover the city’s costs to support the plant municipally.

The local hospital installed special water filters because the water still wasn’t acceptable after treatment. Additionally, hospital administrators were “extremely unhappy because the prevailing winds carried a terrible odor there,” Bacon said. But the smell was inescapable almost everywhere in Kaufman.

A hundred percent of the people who lived in the vicinity of Dallas Crown signed a petition condemning the plant as a nuisance alongside the city’s city council, Bacon said.

When the plant shuttered, Chevideco left $916,000 in unpaid fines after 19 months of continual violations.

“Horse slaughter, it’s a burden on taxpayers,” Bacon said. “It’s not good jobs, and it’s going to hurt a community, not help.”

She believes that a horse slaughter plant in Oklahoma “absolutely” would have the same problems. Even after the plant closed, the city had to deal with watershed cleanup issues related to the horse blood, urine, and waste.

Once a foreign-owned plant sets up shop in a rural area, shutting them down again can be extremely difficult. “We were hamstrung by their deep pockets,” Bacon said. “I don’t think anybody realizes. God, it’s just almost impossible.

“We had so much evidence,” she continued. “But it was not sufficient help to get us out of this.”

An obscure state law banning horse slaughter in the state of Texas allowed Kaufman to finally rid itself of the plant. Dallas Crown is owned by an international conglomerate headquartered in Belgium. This allowed the slaughterhouse to dodge federal taxes, and made confrontation difficult.

She believes that a horse slaughter plant in Oklahoma “absolutely” would have the same problems. 

Chevideco appealed their case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. “It’s only because the Supreme Court refused to hear their case that we got rid of them.”

McNiel said she believes Dallas Crown was an anomaly. “Can you tell me any industry where every single person acted perfect?” she asked. “One bad business out of all these hundreds shouldn’t give us a black eye for all eternity.”

After Governor Fallin signed McNiel’s bill, she stated, “Should there ever be a processing facility planned, my administration will work with the Department of Agriculture to ensure it is run appropriately, follows all state and local laws, and is not a burden or hazard to the community.”

The governor also noted that communities could block the construction and operation of horse slaughter plants “at the local level.”


Back at the barn on auction day, bidders at Mid America Stockyards hold up small square cards, and conduct the comfortable call and response between auctioneer and buyer. According to HSI figures, more than 50 percent of horses sold at rural auctions like North America end up in a slaughterhouse.

After the deals are done and the bleachers have emptied, horses are loaded onto trailers in the lavender dusk of Oklahoma back roads; some head on to home pastures, others turn-signal onto highways that lead to places unknown.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 8. April 15, 2013.