Randy Musick is 70 years old, and he's spent most of his life delivering horses to slaughterhouses.
"I started with five or six [horses] at a time, and that turned into fifty at a time, and before long, I was moving hundreds," Musick told me over the phone from his home in South Dakota. "Through the years, it just kept growing and growing and growing."
Musick was what you'd call a "kill buyer"—someone who visits livestock auctions around the country and buys horses specifically for their meat. It's hard to find horse on menus in the United States, but it's a delicacy in places like France, Belgium, and Japan (where it's often eaten raw, as sashimi).
Musick's operation bought up live horses, then had them butchered, packaged, and sent off to market. He made a good living like this until 2007, when the government got involved.
At that time, there were three major horse slaughterhouses in the United States—two in Texas and one in Illinois. Between the three slaughterhouses, about 90,000 horses were processed for meat in 2006. But in January 2007, a federal appeals court ruled that horse slaughter was illegal in Texas; later that year, the governor of Illinois signed a bill banning horse slaughter in the state. As a result, the last remaining plants in the United States were shuttered, and horse slaughter was effectively ushered out of the country.
"My mother always said that horses are one step away from being worthless. Their only value is their meat." — Janine Jacques
But that hasn't curbed the industry. Today, kill buyers take their product across the borders to meat-processing plants in Mexico and Canada to get around domestic red tape and statewide bans. 150,000 horses are still taken from the US and slaughtered every year, according to statistics from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The federal government is hoping to change that: A bill called the Safeguard American Foods Exports Act is currently being debated in the Committee of Energy and Commerce, and, if passed, it will stand as the first federal prohibition on the sale and transportation of horse meat. That would mean no more kill buying, no more long trips to Canada or Mexico for processing, and an end to the industry without moving it back stateside.
Musick, who is no longer in the business of buying and selling horse meat, said conditions for horses have worsened significantly since the industry became all export. Back when horse slaughter was legal in Texas, he told me he'd "buy the horses and send them out to Fort Worth, Texas, where they'd be butchered the next day." Now, he said, "they're hauling them to Canada and Mexico, where they're spending twice as much time on the truck. We didn't want to abuse the animals—they were our property. We didn't want them all bruised up. We wanted to take care of them. Now, they're traveling two thousand miles to a plant in Mexico."
That's raised red flags for Janine Jacques, who started the Equine Rescue Network in 2009 to coordinate efforts to plug the pipeline of slaughter-bound horses. Just like Musick, Jacques became concerned after learning that horses were being sent to plants south of the border.
"I grew up around horses. It was a natural course of action in my mind that horses get slaughtered after a long life," she told me. "What didn't make sense to me was shipping them to Canada and Mexico. A couple days stuck in a trailer, no food and no water, and because of regulations, truck drivers aren't allowed to open the doors. So a lot of horses are kicked, and trampled, and dead by the time they get there. It's horrific to think about." Similar allegations were detailed in a 2013 report from Animals' Angels Investigations & Advocacy, a nonprofit dedicated to improving conditions for livestock.
Jacques explained that owning a horse takes a lot of upkeep, and even the breeds most expensive to purchase can end up en route to a slaughterhouse very quickly.
"Let's say I have a $100,000 horse that blows a tendon and can no longer perform at the level I bought it for. It's worthless now," she told me. "My mother always said that horses are one step away from being worthless. Their only value is their meat."
While Jacques is an active voice in anti-slaughter activism, she's also a realist. This is a systemic issue, she said, and dismantling an entire economic network comes with plenty of repercussions.
"I would never say I'm pro-slaughter, but I'm anti-horse suffering. Unless you can come up with a plan of what to do with the one hundred fifty thousand horses that get slaughtered each year, you're going to create more horrible conditions for horses regardless," said Jacques. "It's a pretty amazing little puzzle to fix."
The Safeguard American Food Exports Act, which was re-introduced last April after it failed to pass in Congress in 2013, hopes to solve that puzzle by making a health argument. Horses aren't held to the same health standards as other livestock, so consumers can't be sure the meat isn't tainted with chemicals used on the horses, or that the horses have been properly medicated to prevent disease, like other animals. As such, the bill would prevent Americans from exporting the meat.
"Congress finds that unlike cows, pigs, and other domesticated species, horses and other members of the equidae family are not raised for the purpose of human consumption," the bill states.
But others argue the bill singles out cruelty toward one particular type of animal, while ignoring the way other species are slaughtered every day in the United States. If Americans turn a blind eye to brutal, corporatized factory farming as a whole, what makes horse slaughter any different?
"Is the horse any more noble than the kind and gentle cow, with its soft eyes and gentle moo? To say it's OK to exploit a horse in one way and not another is a very limited way of looking at things," said Shamez Amlani, co-owner of La Palette, a high-end restaurant in Toronto with several horse dishes on the menu. "If you can think objectively about it, you might be tempted when a delicious horse steak appears in front of you."
Follow Luke Winkie on Twitter.