Commentary: Horse of another color

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In light of the heated controversy—much of it played out right here in this space—regarding plans by several meatpackers to open plants dedicated to processing horse meat, the following news lead is eye-opening:

“Horse meat is not only a delicacy in Europe and China; it’s also one here. Since at least the 1500s, Navajos have harvested and consumed horses.”

That statement is attributed to Tim Begay, with the Navajo Historic Preservation Department, whose comments were part of a story in the Navajo Times a couple weeks ago. Begay, a Navajo Cultural Specialist, added that horse consumption among members of the Navajo Nation was—and is—a way to combat colds and flu, as well as an alternative food source during the winter months.

However, that characterization doesn’t flash a green light for the proposed horsemeat plants, he said.

“[Horsemeat] was used as medicine, which is totally different from slaughtering and selling them to different countries,” he said. “After [natives] domesticated horses, and if you look at Apache history, that’s when they also started eating horses.”

The last time Begay said that he ate horsemeat was in the late 1980s. He added that the methods of butchering a horse are similar to how a sheep is butchered for consumption during tribal feasts or ceremonies.

Of course, horses didn’t physically become part of the Navajo culture or permanent residents of their tribal homelands until Spanish conquistadors brought them to the New World in the 16th century. However, the horse existed as a spiritual being in ancient ceremonies about the creation of the universe.

“They always played a significant role in all of Navajo history,” Begay said about the animals he called “sacred creatures.” He cited a Navajo story in which one of the Hero Twins, Naayéé’ Neizghání, grew sick and was instructed by Navajo deities to conduct an Enemy Way Ceremony with songs and prayers to rid him of the darkness that affected his spirit. The prayers, songs and chants used during the ceremony were about the horse, which the Hero Twins saw when they journeyed to meet their father, the Sun.

Recognizing the ecological damage

More importantly, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly has endorsed horse slaughter and horsemeat processing for a different, and more contemporary, reason: An estimated 75,000 feral horses are currently roaming the vast reservation that sprawls across northern Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Utah. The horse herds damage the range and farmland, trampling riparian areas and depleting precious water sources.

“Outsiders” don’t understand why the tribe supports permits for horse slaughtering facilities, Shelly told The New York Times. “I’m ready to go in the direction to keep the horses alive and give them to somebody else, but right now the best alternative is having some sort of slaughter facility to come and do it.”

The Navajo aren’t the only natives with such sentiments, according to The Times. The National Congress of American Indians, the Mescalero Apache Nation in New Mexico, the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and the Yakama Nation in Washington state have all supported the issuance of permits for horse slaughter facilities, nearly all expressing similar sentiments to Shelly’s position.

The Oglala Sioux even considered opening their own facility, the Bennett County Booster newspaper reported in April.

Other tribes have noted the suffering of the horses themselves.

An editorial in the newspaper published by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (headquartered in Pendleton, Ore.) urged Congress to respond to the problems of feral horses on tribal lands.

“Not funding horse inspectors resulted in widespread starvation, neglect, abandonment and unnecessary suffering of the horse, especially in Indian Country,” the newspaper’s editor wrote. “[While] Robert Redford has proclaimed that ‘Horse slaughter has no place in our culture,’ the actor forgets that there used to be horse slaughterhouses in America. At race tracks and horse ranches around America horses are slaughtered when they break legs. It is possible to maintain a romantic image of the horse and also be a realist about the kind of deprivation that is apparent on public and tribal lands because of horse abandonment.”

Meanwhile, Navajo Cultural Specialist Begay admitted that his background makes him reluctant to support rounding up horses to be slaughtered for meat.

“We sing for them, and now we want to get rid of them,” he told the Navajo Times. “Does that adversely affect our way of life? We now have vehicles. Nobody really rides horses except for in rodeos or during ceremonies like the Enemy Way.”

Other Navajos, such as Olin Kieyoomia, of Tohatchi, N.M., confirmed that horsemeat serves as medicine.

Kieyoomia, who is president of the Navajo District 14 Council, said he ate horsemeat from a feral horse last fall to help overcome a lingering cold. Before killing and eating the two-year-old horse, Kieyoomia said he and his father made an offering of corn pollen to thank the animal for providing nourishment. Within two or three days of eating the horsemeat, which he cooked in a stew, Kieyoomia told the Navajo Times that, “Believe it or not, we got better.”

“From a historical perspective, horses have always been an herbal remedy,” he said.

Doubtful if many non-natives—and certainly nobody connected with animal rights causes—would agree with that last statement. But the explanation raises the same “spiritual” justification that activists insist is the reason why horse should not be killed and eaten.

Of this we can be sure, however: The controversy will continue, no matter what the outcome.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Jo-Claire Corcoran    
September, 10, 2013 at 09:06 PM

When are responsible journalists going to start questioning the validity of numbers pulled out of the air. 75,000 horses.. really? supporting evidence please, methods used for counting etc. Race tracks slaughter horses that break a leg??? wrong, they are euthanized. Horses are not raised for food in this country, that race horse would not be safe to eat with all the legal and illegal drugs used in race horses today... drugs which are banned from use in any animal intended for human consumption. Our cattle ranchers must raise the beef cattle under food safety guidelines, yet this publication thinks it's OK to slaughter an animal for food which was not raised under those same guidelines. Makes me question now, just how safe our beef might be. The food chain is not a dumping ground for someone's unwanted horses. 92.3% of the US horses slaughtered are young sound healthy horses. Can't ship a horse with a broken leg to slaughter. Horse slaughter does nothing but encourage over breeding. Perhaps horse owners should be held accountable if the dump their horse somewhere. It is illegal to abandon any animal. I think of great note though is the Pres of the Navajo nation does not represent the majority view on this issue. And the assertion the lack of slaughter plants in this country contributed to neglect is bunk. Horse slaughter never went away, the same number of horses were being slaughtered after the plants closed as were before. So the numbers don't support the pro-slaughter's fallacies. For the truth visit

debbie Catalina    
oregon  |  September, 10, 2013 at 09:52 PM

I want to see documentation!!! I hear a miriad of voices from our Indian brothers and many are crying "fou" and "dirty politics" These voices are alleging that the leaders do not represent the voices of the majority and that these same leaders will gain financially by the slaughter houses. There needs to be and independetn outside audit of the numbers of horses, and there needs to be peer-reviewed and transparent procedures for audit of the "damage" and well, and these audits need to include all impacts. We are DONE DONE DONE taking all this anti-horse nonsense at face valley. Only a stupid person would take counts and studies at face value when they come from the same people that stand to profit from sale of the horses for slaughter.

shirley smith    
September, 10, 2013 at 09:56 PM

US horses are not raised or regulated as food animals and should never enter the food chain.

Susan carter    
Santa Fe, nm  |  September, 10, 2013 at 10:19 PM

So , Begay ate horsemeat once over 30 years ago. The other guy and his Father made a stew out of a whole 2 year old horse last fall. This justifies building slaughter plants. Follow the money, let's see ben Shelley account for every penny of the nearly 4 million dollars. I hope the Dine' hold his feet to the fire.

Curtiss Lukens    
September, 10, 2013 at 11:37 PM

The European Union is enforcing their passport rules since July 31, 2013. No horse meat can be accepted without a document that lists all drugs taken in the horses’ lifetime. And you cannot get one once the horse is 6 months or older. Feral and wild horses for sure have no proof of medication. Recent studies showed less than 10% of Europeans are eating horsemeat. China and Asia don’t want our horses they have their own. Dog food makers used to use it in the 1900’s but it made the dogs sick. A very recent study showed that most American horsemeat is too drug laden for zoo animals. There goes most of the horse meat market. Starting a horse slaughter plant now is actually a stupid idea. NO investor in their right mind would put a penny into this type of operation. Estimates say that it would cost at least 5 million dollars to build a plant. It takes 800 to 1,200 gallons of water to process one horse. Does the reservation have that capacity? It sounds like they already have a big water problem. Valley Meats in Roswell would have to have all of their waste water shipped out to where? De Los Santos wants to process 100 horses a day. Can the reservation do the same thing. Do the math 100 horses a day times 1,200 is 120,000 gallons of waste water a day. At 9,000 gallons per large tanker truck that is 13 tanker trucks per day going where to be dumped? A plant in Canada had to close because they were caught dumping it in a river. The language to de-fund horse slaughter inspection has already been entered into both the house and senate versions of the Ag bill and it is identical so it does not have to go through conference committee like it did in 2011 when Sen. Blunt (R-MO) with Jack Kingston (R-GA) and Herb Kohl (D

Curtiss Lukens    
September, 10, 2013 at 11:48 PM

) (This is continuation from above) had it removed. This was the main reason horse slaughter has raised its ugly head again. So when they get their differences resolved over food stamps the Ag bill will be passed this year and horse meat inspections will be de-funded. Or Obama has the defunding language in his budget, so all they have to do is pass the budget. Then the SAFE act,(Safeguard American Food Exports HR1094 and S541), will be passed that will forbid horse slaughter and the transport to slaughter. So anyone that wants to proceed with this business is really foolish. Now about these 75,000 horses I think someone is really wacko about that number!

joanne pfeiffer    
hollywood sc  |  September, 11, 2013 at 08:56 AM

HOW IRONIC that the Indians lay claim to lands where horses were FIRST. What gives them the right?? They want all kinds of liberties because of how they were treated centuries ago. I submit that Mustangs have MORE liberties than both Native Americans and all other Americans. LEAVE THEM ALONE! If you want cattle, buy them feed and hay and find a way to provide water, do NOT steal from wildlife.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Washington  |  September, 11, 2013 at 09:02 AM

I agree: 75,000 feral horses is very likely an inflated number. But there is real and tangible evidence that both wild mustang and wild burro herds do serious damage to grassland hillsides, riparian areas and water sources. Just spend a couple days in the back country of Eastern Oregon, as I have, and you can see it with your own eyes. The herds trample the ridgetops, cave in the steeper stream banks and tend to rip out bunch grass by the roots--unlike cattle or bison--leaving entire swaths of land barren of vegetation. So the issue of feral horses and they eco-damage they do is real, especially on reservation lands, As for the the drug residue issue, that is certainly a concern with ex-racehorses, who do have veterinary records, however, per EU rules. But with feral horses, it is obviously NOT an issue. As for wastewater treatment, that is an issue with ANY type of food processing or packing plant. Per state and federal regulations, there needs to be a suitable system in place before permits are issued, so again, that is a red herring. Finally, the bottom line with opening and operating horse plants is not to initiate slaughtering--that's already happening, only in Mexico (primarily) where there is minimal oversight on the very issues the commenters are raising: drug residue monitoring, environmental impact and animal welfare. The goal is to slaughter horses under USDA oversight here in The States, and to minimize the trauma of transporting animals thousands of miles to meet the same fate. Fighting over exaggerated numbers or claiming that meatpacking generates too much wastewater are distractions form an honest analysis of the real issues involved in dealing with how best to manage feral and domestic horse herds.

corrine wynne    
September, 11, 2013 at 10:13 AM

So when you.say the overcrowding long hauls would end. Really just a distraction from the usa long hauls by the exact same killer buyers and overcrowded trailers. And that the borders would stay open too. In other words your idea changes nothing. Same distance from florida to missouri as florida go canada. Google it. Plus u think we are dumb and go oh well in the usa its not as savave hauling them, no, its the exact me men in trouble for doing it here, george baler, trent loos, and etc. so really your just talking money, lets just cut to the chase, momey, dollars, welfare is out. On the reservation the horses are drinking from cracking wells contaminated by uranium, arsenic, and ecoli, they want rid.of the.horses because the epa would stomp a knot in their tail over disposal.

corrine wynne    
September, 11, 2013 at 10:20 AM

Sorry that was fracking wells. Google the navajo reservation wells contaminated by uranium, e oli, and arsenic from fracking. This is in those horses, the numbers in their horses went up sin e articles in march, each lublication had their numbers growing drastically. Then add that feral horses according to pro slaughter are.not wild protected horses but once pet or livestock owned and dumped off, whicheans they.would jave been given drugs also. Ladtly some people turn their herds loose like leachman did to graze tribal lands and owned livestock doesnt not count as their feral herds to reopen for. Ben shelly keep track of your stories another atticle said.20 ywars ago they ate horses, either way, my mother said tribal consumption ended when dogs started dying from horsemeat in pet food by the thousands, then federal law banned horse meat in pet food. They did.t have many people who ate them anyway she said,

Jan Schultz    
Placerville, CA  |  September, 11, 2013 at 05:10 PM

This article is a classic case of passive aggressive enabling. Can anyone tell which side this opinionated "writer" is? I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt and just assume he has not done his homework and is just using his connections to publish manipulative pro-horse slaughter rhetoric. For his sake and the edification of the audience, please read this article. Written after Leland Grass exited the meeting of Navajo Elders and Medicine Men. It maybe a bit harsh on some "leaders" quoted in this article, but truth can be difficult. It s also a fact that USDA has fed th eboard of directors for many tribes a FAW sheet to repeat over and over. You see, it is clear now, our government does want slaughterhouses to kill off horses that have been left unmanaged and uncared for on the rangelands. Government wants slaughter so that breeders can continue to do what they have no authority to do, manage bloodlines. Government does want strife and grief. This is the article on the statements of the Elders and Medicine Men. Now, here is a link to the recent exhibit at the National Museum of the glory of the horse and its significant role in the lives of the Indian tribes. American Indians DO NOT support slaughter. White men speaking for American Indians want slaughter. White men using their lazy greedy spirits are desecrating the spiritual role horses hold in all of our lives.

Jan Schultz    
Placerville, CA  |  September, 11, 2013 at 05:19 PM

So what about slaughtering your 75,000 horses is going to fix the problem of bad management? You wan tto zero out the herd so you can start over again? Why do the animals pay with their lives. Your biological references are pretty funny, it is a fact that grazing of cattlre and sheep has stripped our public lands of their carrying capacity. Don't even start with the damage horses do. Refer to every range management plan and plainly stated are references by the managers of the damage cattle and sheep have done with recommendations to reduce the AMLs or shorten grazing periods. It is not and never has been about the effect of the horses on the land. It is plainly about pushing through a dirty, filthy, crime based industry that preys on equines, the so-called "horse industry." Again you are those who love the horses, the rightfully responsible "horse culture." The horse industry overbreeds, abuses and abandons the horses when they need support. The horse culture cares, trains and watches over their charges until a peaceful death. When the horse industry is put out like a sputtering flame, the horse culture will be at peace. The tribes that cannot manage their herds should not have them if they consider slaughter as a means to manage. And what is proven over and over is that the tribal lands are overtaken by personally tribal horses owned horses that have been allowed to run free and breed haphazardly for years. Slaughter is animal cruelty - to intentionally inflict distress or injury on an animal. There is no debate over the effect of a horse when run through auctions, transported on crowded trucks, lft without food or water and made to smell the air laden with the blood of those who have gone before it.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Washington  |  September, 11, 2013 at 05:36 PM

This "writer" is only trying to examine both sides -- make that multiple sides -- of this complex and controversial topic. Let's be clear: Slaughtering abandoned, unwanted, aging domesticated horses, as well as feral horses, to recover some value for their meat and hides is no panacea. But it's better than either letting horses die of neglect, get shot and left out in some back pasture when their owners can't afford to feed them or getting loaded up and shipped off to Mexico for slaughter. Ideally, wild horses would still roam free across uninhabited rangelands, but we're about two centuries too late for that option. Ideally, every domesticated horse would be cared for until a natural death by a caring, financially stable owner. But that's pure Fantasyland. Ideally, bison, antelope and other wildlife would also resume the nomadic existence they enjoyed for millennia, but we're 300 million people past the point where that's possible. Humane, properly supervised, closely regulated horse slaughter under USDA auspices is the best of a bad lot of choices. As is true with the general public, the native population is also divided on the subject -- understandably -- but now you know where I stand.

Canada  |  September, 11, 2013 at 11:59 PM

75,000? Aw, come on. Are the bean counters asleep?

September, 16, 2013 at 05:56 PM

So you are telling us that of the 33,000 wild horses in the western United States, 75,000 of them live on the Navajo reservation? hmmm. Who did the math on this?

October, 02, 2013 at 11:53 PM

Please sign the petition to Ban Horse Slaughter in Gallatin Missouri, and share!

October, 02, 2013 at 11:54 PM

Just copy and paste the link into your browser. Thanks!


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