Answering Questions about Animal Welfare during Horse Slaughter

by Temple Grandin
April 2012

There is great controversy about horse slaughter. After horse slaughter was banned in the U.S., thousands of horses are crossing the borders of Canada and Mexico for slaughter. Some of the horses that go to Mexico are slaughtered in an EU inspected plant, but many others to local abattoirs. In their plants, they are killed with the puntilla. The puntilla is a short knife that is used to sever the spinal cord in a fully conscious animal. Both U.S. and International humane slaughter regulations and guidelines state that the puntilla should NOT be used.

There are some horse welfare advocates who are against resuming horse slaughter in the U.S. My biggest concern is that horses going to totally unregulated slaughter facilities in Mexico is much worse than even a poorly run U.S. plant. It is my opinion that the worst outcome from an animal welfare perspective is a horse going to a local Mexican abattoir. Once a horse crosses the Mexican border, there is no way to monitor how it is 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.

Requirements for Humane Horse Slaughter

Horse slaughter can be done humanely in a well designed facility that has good management. Below is a list of design and management requirements for humane horse slaughter.

  1. Management must care about having high standards of animal welfare.

  2. Measurement of welfare indicators such as:

  3. Video monitoring over the Internet by a third party auditing company. This prevents people from "acting good" when they know they are being watched. I have been in horse slaughter plants that had high standards when I was watching, but later they were caught on undercover videos being abusive.

  4. Non slip floor in the stunning box. Horses and other animals panic when they slip. Non slip flooring is essential.

  5. A level or almost level floor in the stunning box. Sloped floors are difficult for horses to stand on. A slight slope for drainage is acceptable.

  6. Solid sides to prevent the horse from seeing activity on the slaughter floor.

  7. A well lighted stunning box will facilitate entry. Horses and other animals will not go into a dark place.

  8. Eliminate distractions such as reflections on a wet floor or shiny metal. Other things that can cause balking are: air blowing on approaching horses, a hose on the floor, clothing on a fence, or seeing moving equipment. Air hissing and sounds of "banging metal" should be silenced.

  9. Two people should handle the horses. One person moved the horse into the stun box and a second person shoots it. This makes it possible to be ready to shoot the horse immediately after the tailgate on the stun box is closed.

  10. Do not use mechanical head restraint devices. These work well for cattle, but are not recommended for horses.

  11. Some horses will moved more easily if they are led with a halter (head collar) up the race and into the stun box. Handlers should be observant to determine which horses should be led instead of being driven.

  12. Only one horse at a time should be put in the stun box.

  13. If a variety of horse sizes are handled, an adjustable side on the stun box is recommended. One of the most common design mistakes is making a stun box too wide, which enables the animals to turn around.

  14. If wild horses (mustangs) are being slaughtered, handlers should be trained in the principles of flight zone and point of balance. If a horse rears, handlers should be trained to back up and get out of it's flight zone. The installation of solid sides on the chute (race) is recommended. Understanding the point of balance will also facilitate handling tame horses.

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