Imagine you're a lifelong horse lover and an equestrian competitor. With international competition grounds from Ocala to Wellington, there are a lot of us in Florida.
And one day, you wake up to find that your new grand prix-level show jumper, an impressively fit and nimble animal capable of clearing 6-foot fences, is missing from your stable.
Think what it would feel like to find your horse, which you've dreamed of being your next big champion, dead in a secluded part of your pasture, carved up expertly by the hands of a skilled butcher. His legs are missing. Only his head and neck are recognizable.
That's what happened last week to Debbie Stephens, a professional rider based in Manatee County. The theft and butchering of her horse, Phedras de Blondel, made national headlines, and it made the two of us shudder. One of us boards a horse not 10 miles away.
It was a crime, but American horses are still rounded up for legal sale in the meat trade even though the United States' last equine slaughterhouses shut down in 2007. Traders known as kill buyers purchase unwanted horses from auctions or private owners and haul them for cash to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada. Around 145,000 horses, mostly unwanted animals who had fallen through the cracks of responsible ownership, were killed this way in 2013.
Other aspects of the meat trade occur in the underground black market. The most recent example was Stephens' international-level show horse, fresh off the plane from Europe, who was stolen from his stall in the middle of the night, led to a pasture and butchered on the spot for his meat.
But similar cases have been reported for at least a decade in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. All of it is gruesome and stunningly inhumane.
Many horse lovers and equine professionals advocate for slaughter, arguing that if the United States reopened our domestic plants, we could control the overpopulation of unwanted horses while overseeing the process.
But the truth is, abuse occurs whether it is done here by federally regulated plants or by Mexican abattoirs. Horses doomed for processing plants are usually starved and neglected, stuffed into cattle cars and driven hundreds of miles with no food or water.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a 900-page report detailing conditions at the Beltex Corp. plant in Fort Worth, Texas. Photos show horses walking off of trailers with broken legs, drastic flesh wounds and eyeballs hanging out of their sockets. This was at a plant here in the United States, regulated by our federal government.
Our horses are meant to be ridden and cared for, not eaten.
You could use a good laugh
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Belinda and Justine
I've owned my horse Belinda, a stunning 17-year-old black Hanoverian mare, for more than a year. She's mothered two foals that have gone on to be impressive dressage competitors. She came to America by plane from Germany, but it's not her bloodlines I love. I love my horse because of her personality and the bond we share. When I first heard what had happened to Stephens' horse, I felt betrayed by our species. I've grown up loving animals, and have been taught to treat them with kindness and respect. I can't imagine what it would have felt like to find my own after a death like that.
I board her at a private farm next to Little Manatee River State Park. On the weekends, we sometimes explore the natural equestrian trails there. Our quiet rides remind me how fortunate I am to have a partnership with a horse like Belinda — her home is where I go when I need to unwind after a long day of work. She lets me hug her and pet her when I'm feeling blue. She lets me put a cold bit in her mouth and leaps over logs with me on her back. Every time I saddle up, we're building upon our partnership in this sport.
When the relentless rain from this past summer made her hooves soft and caused her to be in pain, I spent nearly $1,000 on veterinary costs to diagnose and treat her problems. I would do it all again, too, because it's my responsibility to take care of her. She trusts me to do so.
So when I heard the news of a horse slaughter at a farm less than 10 miles away from where Belinda lives, I was horrified.
As I read the New York Times article, I could picture that horse, following these strangers obediently as they lured him from the comfort of his stall, likely only knowing gentle and kind interactions from humans since the day he was born. He must have been scared and nervous with these people in the dead of night. I know Belinda would be.
I've spent the majority of my life around horses. I got my first pony, a fat and stubborn lesson horse named Roy, as a Christmas gift when I was 13. I still wear a bracelet of horse hair around my wrist, which serves as a memory of my teenage mount, Tuffy, who passed away when I was in college. This sport and these animals helped make me the person I am today. And I feel like I'm a better human because of it.
Zack and Tracey
When I first read about the killing of Phedras, I thought of the fear and pain he surely felt and how such a crime could have occurred on my horse's farm.
I first started riding my horse, Zack, around 2002 when my trainer at the time, Cindy Reddish, bought him as a training project. He was four years old. I was 13.
My dad couldn't afford to buy me regular riding lessons, so Cindy allowed me to clean stalls, groom, exercise horses, mow pastures and do other manual labor to work off my bill. I started taking lessons on Zack, and she eventually let me compete with him at jumping shows to try to get him sold.
Over the next several years, no buyers showed interest in Zack, but I fell in love.
He is the most difficult horse I had ever ridden — even today at 17 years old, he has a nervous energy that requires patience to translate into expressive movements. But Zack and I stayed a team through my middle and high school years. He was with me when my father died suddenly from cancer a few weeks after I graduated from high school. He was with me through my transition to college.
We competed at the American Quarter Horse Youth Association's World Championship Show in 2010, the summer before I left my hometown of Palm City to attend the University of Florida. At the end of the show, Cindy told me to take Zack with me to UF, that I earned him. It was the greatest gift I've ever received.
In college we began training intensely in the discipline of dressage with Fernando Cardenas in Citra. I worked three jobs while studying full-time at UF to afford him.
Zack was with me when I graduated from college and moved to Augusta, Ga., for my first real job as a journalist. He's with me today as I try to balance my passions of dressage and journalism.
Zack has taught me work ethic, patience, compassion and determination. He has completely shaped me as a person. But it's not just Zack. Horses are highly intelligent animals that connect deeply with humans. That's why we shouldn't eat them.
Whether it's the $200 unwanted junk horse at a livestock auction, or my lifelong competition partner, slaughter is a shameful fate for a horse.
There are other ways to control the overpopulation of unwanted horses in the United States — like better education on breeding and more support for rescue sanctuaries.
Even with those efforts, horse owners now have to fear criminals breaking into their farms at night and slaughtering their animals. If this black market for horse meat shocks the world as it does, certainty there should be more outrage for the tens of thousands of horses sent across the borders for slaughter each year.
Not meat on the hoof
Maybe it's because we don't look at horses the same way we look at cows or pigs or chickens, but as Americans, we typically just don't eat horse meat. We've grown up seeing pictures of world leaders in history books on horseback. Horses helped us explore new territories. They carried our messages. We loved horses before we loved cars.
Most people don't interact with horses every day. But we still turn up our nose at some cultures who eat horse meat, the same way we do when we think of cultures who eat dogs.
Horses are a symbol of freedom. Wild horses still roam in herds out West. People stop to take pictures of them in parades and ride in a carriage behind them on their wedding day. We marvel at their endurance and agility in the Kentucky Derby and the Olympic Games.
Animal welfare advocates have been working for years to pass the Safeguard American Food Exports Act through Congress, which would ban the transport of horses to Mexico and Canada for slaughter on the premise that the painkillers and dewormers regularly given to domestic horses make them unsafe to eat.
The bill would be a way to stop the painful and terrifying deaths suffered by tens of thousands of horses each year. The responsibility rests with humans to give our animals a more dignified life and death.
Justine Griffin is a business reporter with the Tampa Bay Times. Tracey McManus is the Clearwater city government reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. Both are lifelong equestrians.