Somewhere in time’s own space
There must be some sweet pastured place
Where creeks sing and tall trees grow
Some paradise where horses go.
For by the love that guides my pen
I know great horses live again

Stanley Harrison

Statistics from The Jockey Club reveal that slightly over 70% of Thoroughbreds actually make it into an official race.  A small portion of the unraced horses are retained for breeding, others are used as sport and pleasure horses, while unlucky ones are abandoned, euthanized, or dispatched to “killer” buyers and auction houses in the slaughter supply chain.  Horses initially used for breeding, racing, or sport may eventually endure the same ignominious fate.

While many worthy rescue and aftercare programs across North America cope gallantly with the surfeit of unwanted Thoroughbreds, the overall effort is fragmented and vastly underfunded.  Each organization is doing what it can independent of an overall industry-led strategy.

This article, part one of a three-part series, aims to approximate the scope of the horse-slaughter problem with actual numbers.

Number of U. S. Thoroughbred Horses at Risk

Deriving an accurate projection of the number of American-based Thoroughbred horses going to slaughter on an annual basis is not a straightforward procedure because most of the pertinent information is anecdotal.  However, sufficient current and historical data from indisputable sources are available to formulate a workable estimate.

In 2003, the American Horse Council Foundation commissioned a national study to determine the economic impact of the horse industry.  In an oft-cited report published in 2005, the AHC research consultants extrapolated from their survey sample that there were between 8.9 million and 9.6 million horses in the U. S., with a midpoint projection of 9.25 million.

American Quarter Horses were said to comprise the largest breed with close to 3.3 million horses, accounting for 36% of all horses.  Thoroughbreds came in a distant second at nearly 1.3 million, or 14% of the total horse population.

The AHC projection for the number of Thoroughbreds was demonstrably vastly overstated, an actuarial impossibility.  The Jockey Club’s records show that every single foal born in North America (United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico) from 1969 through 2003 would have had to been alive in 2003 in order to add up to a population of 1.3 million.  (Annual American imports of Thoroughbred horses were not a factor because historically they represent a relatively small number and are exceeded by exports by a multiple of two or three to one.)  AHC survey respondents had different interpretations of what defined a “Thoroughbred” horse and this undoubtedly led to the inclusion of many part Thoroughbreds and other breeds in the 1.3 million estimate.

The Jockey Club reported 955,659 U. S. Thoroughbred foals in the 30-year period beginning in 1986 and ending in 2015 for an average of 31,855 per year.  The 955,659 demographic is decidedly skewed toward older horses because foal crops have been markedly smaller in recent years.  In 2015, 43% of the 955,659 horses, if living, would have been at least 20 years of age and 60% would have been 15 years of age or older.  (Life spans would resemble a normal or Gaussian distribution curve were it not for the fact that so many Thoroughbreds, including an atypical number of younger animals, have their lives shortened by slaughter.)

Given mortality due to advanced age, plus younger horses dying of sickness and injury, and upwards of 200,000 unfortunates being sent to commercial slaughterhouses from 1986-2015, the population of full-blooded Thoroughbreds in the United States today is likely in the vicinity of 400,000 to 480,000 horses.

Fewer Equines

The worldwide financial turmoil of 2008 and 2009 took a heavy toll on American horse ownership.  To illustrate, Thoroughbred foal crops and American Quarter Horse registrations showed significant declines in the wake of the economic meltdown, both falling by over 30% between 2009 and 2015.  Niche breed associations had the same experience; for instance, American Saddlebred registrations plummeted by a third.

Corroborating evidence of a shrinking horse population emerged from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture.  This tally, conducted every five years, enumerates horses kept on farms and ranches that produce or sell more than $1,000 in agricultural products, but it does not count horses in nonagricultural pursuits like racing, jumping, and dressage.  The 2012 Census reported a U. S. farm and ranch population of just over 3.6 million horses, which was down by 10.1% from the 2007 Census.

The overall horse population has regressed further since the 2012 USDA Census.  The empirical basis for this conclusion is that the size of the easily most prevalent breed in the United States, the American Quarter Horse, declined by 6.4% between 2012 and the end of 2015 and the Thoroughbred foal crop was off 5.3% over the same period of time.  These are bellwether breeds.

The USDA study and the pronounced negative trends in the number of Thoroughbred foals and other breeds since 2008-2009 point with confidence to a significantly diminished horse population in 2016, as compared to the 9 million-plus horses estimated more than a decade ago.

A moderate appraisal is that the U. S. equine population is down at least 13%, or by 1.2 million horses, in the last 12 to 15 years.  This equates to around 8 million horses in the United States in 2016 with full-blooded Thoroughbreds accounting for 5% to 6% of the total—back to the previous estimate of 400,000 to 480,000.

Magnitude of Slaughter

Using information in the public domain supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Equine Welfare Alliance does a commendable service by compiling and posting on its website the number of U. S.-based horses butchered monthly and annually.

After the U. S. Congress during 2007 stopped funding federal inspections at domestic horse slaughterhouses, thereby effectively forcing them to close, the commercial killing of U. S. horses did not miss a beat.

According to the USDA and the Equine Welfare Alliance, in 2007 and 2008, the slaughter business segued to foreign venues, primarily in Canada and Mexico.  In 2007, 29,671 horses were dispatched in U. S. slaughterhouses whereas 92,698 were exported to Canadian, Mexican, and Japanese slaughterhouses.  In 2008, when there was no legal equine slaughter in the U. S., 134,059 horses were conveyed to foreign slaughterhouses.

The quantity of horses transported across borders for slaughter peaked in 2012 at 176,223, and then dipped by 13.3% in 2013 (152,814), 4.1% in 2014 (146,548), and 10.8% in 2015 (130,707), no doubt shadowing the dwindling aggregate horse population.  The welcome downward trend is persisting in 2016, with 50,048 horses slaughtered through June compared to 67,405 in the first six months of 2015, for a decrease of 26%.  (Click here to access detailed monthly and annual statistics on slaughter of U. S. horses.)

Absent DNA testing, one cannot ascertain the number of horses slaughtered by breed; many full-blooded Thoroughbreds, for instance, can’t be identified because they were never registered and do not have lip tattoos.  However, assuming, logically, that U. S. Thoroughbreds in the slaughter pipeline are at least proportionate to their percentage of the overall American horse population, the number of Thoroughbreds slaughtered in 2015 would be in the range of 6,535 to 7,842 horses.

Suppose, for sake of analysis, that this “most likely” estimate of 6,535 to 7,842 Thoroughbred horses misses the mark by, say, 20%.  In this case, the number of animals slaughtered could be as low as 5,228 and as high as 9,410, still a consequential carnage on the low end.

(If the partially flawed American Horse Council 2003 survey findings were used as a basis for calculations–reporting that Thoroughbreds comprise 14% of the total U. S. horse population–the number of Thoroughbreds slaughtered in 2015 would have been a projected 18,300 horses.)

At least as many and probably more U. S. Thoroughbreds will die in Mexican and Canadian slaughterhouses in 2016 alone than all the 5,000 horses the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance affiliates have been able to save or euthanize since TAA’s founding in 2012.

While aficionados of all breeds of horses are chagrined about so many of their animals going to slaughter, the Thoroughbred industry is in the best position to do the most about it because of the cash flows emanating from breeding, racing, and tertiary businesses.

Supply Contraction

Fortunately, market forces are alleviating the predicament of an overabundance of horses.  For Thoroughbreds, the annual North American foal crop has dramatically downsized and settled in between 20,000 and 25,000.  When natural deaths–in a Thoroughbred population skewed to older horses–are factored in, breeding farms in the United States and Canada are likely not producing enough foals to replace the losses.

Provided there is not a large increase in the size of the foal crops, the challenge of what to do with Thoroughbreds no longer wanted by their current owners will to some extent be addressed.  Aftercare and rescue organizations will have fewer animals to place in second careers.

Whether smaller foal crops will endure into the future is, of course, an unknown.  Racetracks are struggling to fill races and it is uncertain if the foal crop will rise to fill the demand or if the number of races will continue to fall to accommodate the shortage of supply.

Although the reduced equine population has resulted in a commensurate decline in the quantity of horses going to slaughter, the ultimate goal in the Thoroughbred breed should be the humane aftercare of all of its horses.  Even partially achieving this unattainable ideal of zero tolerance for slaughter requires well-funded efforts on multiple fronts by horse owners and industry organizations.  Ensuing articles in this series delve into the specifics of a practical remedial strategy.


Various religions have prohibitions against eating such meats as pork, beef, and duck that are rooted in the tenets of their faith.  When it comes to other animals, the reasons why people do or do not object to treating them as livestock are less clear.  Why, for example, are dogs America’s favorite pet but viewed so negatively by the Chinese government and large portions of the population?

NBC News in 2014 carried an article titled “China Denounces Pet Dogs as Filthy Imports from the West.”  It reported that the Communist Party’s media arm, The People’s Daily, urged “animal rights activists to stop berating fellow Chinese who view dogs as a culinary delicacy.”  Imagine the uproar and outrage this admonition would have provoked in the United States.

Horses are certainly seen in a much different cultural context around the world and even within the same nation.  In France, for example, Thoroughbred horse racing has a long and prominent history, yet, according to The Guardian, horsemeat consumption in France dates back to the 1700s and 16% of the population buys horsemeat to eat.  In Italy, a nation that produced the famous racehorse Ribot, the population eats twice the amount of horse meat consumed in France.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States commented to ABC News: “We have a 250 year relationship in the United States with horses and eating them has never been a part of the equation.  It would be quite a turn in the road to view animals who helped us settle the country as an appetizer or main course.”

Copyright © 2016 Horse Racing Business

Part II will appear on September 8, 2016 at noon eastern time.

I welcome anyone to critique the content in my articles.  Send me an email.  Tell me where I am correct or in error.  The way to solve monumental problems is to bring to bear diverse viewpoints, as no one is always right or has all the answers.


  1. Ownership is a real commitment of time and $ and too many people buy horses and underestimate. Offloading becomes the easy exit. TB owners know the costs but many take the fastest way out when a horse can do them no good anymore.
    Thanks for showing the numbers, which may shock some people, or maybe not. People racing horses must know what is going on but choose to say that it is someone else’s problem to fix.

  2. Janet Manning says

    A few years ago I saw in a letter to the editor that TB breeders retain ownership of the horse. Lease the horse instead of selling so that the horse has a place to return to. I feel that a percentage of the winnings by horses be put aside for the care of.retired, hurt, aged out etc. And I mean overall winnings set aside and managed by independent organizations.