August 2015 | Putting Out the Flames in the Horse Slaughter Debate
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Putting Out the Flames in the Horse Slaughter Debate

Suzanne Bush - August 2015

Alex BrownAlex Brown has been an exercise rider and assistant racehorse trainer and is a staunch advocate for the humane treatment of horses.

Alex Brown is not afraid of controversy. He’s a pragmatist who has boldly stepped into one of the equestrian world’s most contentious issues: horse slaughter. He has gone where few have gone before, in search of the facts.

Suppressing his own belief that horse slaughter is wrong, he created a series of videos that explored all sides of the issue. His goal was to find a space where people can examine horse slaughter without rancor. In one regard he has succeeded. His video series has angered both those who say that slaughter of horses for food is inevitable and those who think it is wrong.

“It’s a highly emotive issue. You have three schools of thought,” he says. “One is the pro-slaughter group, (we need slaughter). Then you have the anti-slaughter group which is the animal welfare folks, and then everyone else who doesn’t know enough about the issue.” He says that many people cling to their positions on this issue tenaciously, and the “echo chambers” of information they consume only reinforce their positions. “There’s no real dialog or discussion. Therefore, that’s the sort of niche that I tried to fill.”

Brown’s video series is the culmination of eight years of work that drew on his experience with horses, his desire to learn as much as possible about equine welfare, and his interest in understanding how horses are viewed by groups as diverse as the Amish, rodeo competitors and those in the horseracing industry. “I think I know this issue pretty much as well as anybody, and the video series does a pretty damn good job of covering this issue from a 360 degree perspective,” he says. “It’s not just my view. Hopefully that makes it a more informed resource, so people can come away and say ‘oh, I get it now.’”

Middle Ground is Hard to Find
“AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association) will just tell you in a very biased fashion why we need slaughter, and the animal rights groups will tell you in a very biased fashion why we shouldn’t have slaughter,” he says. He believes there are a lot of people who own horses, who ride horses or who just love horses, and who really don’t know much about the issue.

“The AQHA business model is around breeding as many horses as possible. They’re not going to say that’s the reason they support slaughter,” he says, but nonetheless that organization has been actively opposing legislation that would make it illegal to ship horses from the US to Canadian or Mexican abattoirs. The Safeguard American Foods for Export Act (SAFE), introduced in February, would also continue the prohibition against slaughtering horses in the US for food. AQHA, on its website, announced the establishment of a political action committee “with a goal of educating members of Congress on the size and scope of the American Quarter Horse industry.”

AQHA opposes the SAFE Act. Their website states that “AQHA opposes abolishing the option of horse processing until there are other provisions to take care of the more than 100,000 horses that meet that end each year. Consistent with positions established by the American Association of Equine Practitioners and American Veterinary Medical Association, AQHA supports the humane, USDA supervised end-of-life process as a much better option than starvation, neglect or inhumane treatment inside or outside of the United States.

“To date, no proposed state or federal law has addressed funding of care for unwanted horses, long-term placement of affected horses or established guidelines for standards of care at retirement and rescue facilities. Failing to address these core issues adversely affects the welfare of horses.”

“Additionally, horses as livestock are personal property protected under the United States Constitution. Any law that would result in ‘taking’ of personal property without just compensation or valid purpose is a violation of an individual’s constitutional rights. Furthermore, it is a violation of the Commerce Clause to unreasonably restrict interstate trade of property,” as when a horse owner ships a horse to Mexico or Canada for slaughter.

At the other end of the spectrum, Brown points to animal welfare groups that claim there is not a surfeit of horses and that the so-called unwanted horse is a figment created by the pro-slaughter group. Despite Brown’s stated opposition to horse slaughter, anti-slaughter groups have been critical of his video series.

“The animal rights people and the animal welfare people don’t like it [the video series] because they think I don’t stress enough the reason we shouldn’t have slaughter. I made a decision to leave out gory detail, because I don’t think regular people want to watch that content. They’re disappointed with it because it’s not explicit enough in its detail and I talk about the issue of unwanted horses. They go with this notion that there’s no such thing as an unwanted horse.” He says that some animal welfare groups use grisly images of animals being slaughtered in order to drive home their points about animal cruelty. But to Brown, that strategy ultimately fails to promote civil discourse, and only makes people look away.

Brown says that both groups view horse slaughter as a completely binary choice. Either you approve of it, or you are against it. He’s troubled by the vitriol coming from both ends of the spectrum, because he believes that only through dialog will true solutions occur. Overbreeding and under-funded rescue and retirement facilities are two problems that are in desperate need of solutions. Brown says that both pro-slaughter and animal welfare groups overlook the option of humane euthanasia of horses that are unwanted.

“When you look at the video you will see there is one irrefutable argument,” he explains. “Simply put, the horse is not a food animal.”

A Life Devoted to Horses
Brown is an experienced horseman, who spent 25 years in the horseracing industry as an exercise rider and assistant trainer for several top trainers—Steve Asmussen, Michael Dickinson and Barclay Tagg. He taught retailing, marketing and online commerce at the University of Delaware and was in the vanguard of experts who recognized the value of the internet and social media as marketing tools.

In 2006 he started a blog that chronicled the racehorse Barbaro’s treatment at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center after his catastrophic injury at the Preakness. That blog led to a book about the life and tragic death of the storied racehorse: Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and His Legacy.  A British national, he’s preparing to return to the UK this summer and plans to continue work on horse welfare issues in Europe.

“I’ve been here 28 years and working on this particular issue for seven or eight years. My goal for the video project was to create a brain dump of everything I know, because I’m leaving the country. I wanted to make sure, because I know a lot about this issue and I didn’t want it to get lost.”

Brown’s video series is at www.alexbrownracing.com.