The animals are transported under brutal conditions - why would you spend money on the comfort of a creature you're about to kill? - then slaughtered under terrifying conditions. Their meat is then exported to countries where horse meat is consumed. These animals were not raised for meat; humane slaughter, if one believes such a thing is possible, has not been designed for them.
Today CBC News has this story.
A CBC News investigation into the horse slaughter industry in Canada, including hidden-camera footage from one slaughterhouse in Saskatchewan, is raising questions about how horses are being killed.
The footage, obtained from the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition but shot by an unidentified videographer, documents slaughter practices at Natural Valley Farms in Neudorf, just east of Regina. It appears to show what anti-animal cruelty activists say is the inhumane treatment of horses.
A vet from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is posted at the plant but doesn't appear on the footage to have done anything to stop the practices.
Many of the horses slated for slaughter are race or workhorses no longer fit for their former jobs, or unwanted pets. The horses are shipped to any one of seven slaughterhouses in Canada from the U.S. The meat is sent to parts of Europe and Asia where it is considered a delicacy.
Horse slaughter businesses in Canada have grown by 75 per cent since laws were passed in the United States in 2006 making it illegal to kill horses for food, according to figures from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It is still legal to ship horses outside the country for slaughter.
John Holland, an engineer from West Virginia, was one of those responsible for getting the slaughter ban passed in the U.S.
"Those people have simply moved over to your border," he told CBC News. "So Canada is basically being used to get around the fact that we don't want our horses slaughtered."
One of the arguments Holland and others used in advocating for the ban on horse slaughter was that it is extremely difficult to slaughter horses humanely.
Experts such as Dr. Temple Grandin, an American professor who has designed dozens of slaughter facilities in the U.S., said it is possible to deliver a humane death if the right slaughter infrastructure is in place.
The key to humane horse slaughter is a stunning box, or kill pen, that is designed specifically for horses and high enough so the animals cannot see over the side in order to contain their large bodies, Grandin said. Non-slip flooring is also essential.
"Animals panic when they start to slip. People need to be calm. No whistling, no yelling, no hitting and you can do it where they can just walk right in," Grandin, who did not review the hidden-camera footage from Natural Valley Farms in Neudorf, told CBC.
A veterinarian who did see the footage said the kill pen being used at Natural Valley was designed for cattle, not horses.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor of veterinary medicine at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and a founding member of Veterinarians for Equine Welfare, said the pens at the farm are too large.
He said the pens allow the horses space to move around and back away from the captive bolt operator responsible for shooting them with a device called a captive bolt pistol, sometimes referred to as a bolt or cattle gun, which is used to stun horses before slaughter.
The footage shows the operator is not always able to stun the horses properly to render them fully unconscious before they are slaughtered by slitting of the throat, Dodman said.
The footage also showed horses slipping on the kill pen floor, which appeared extremely slippery.
"Its legs are spinning around; it's like it's on ice. The legs are just spinning around in circles, it's trying to go backwards, it's trying to go forwards — it's just sheer terror, sheer panic," Dodman said of a horse on the videotape.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency allows for about five per cent of animals to wake up during the slaughter process. But in the worst cases, the horses are incorrectly shot, usually as a result of struggling, Dodman said.
"There are parts of the animal that are still moving that let you know that for at while at least, it's conscious," he said.
Twyla Francois, central region director of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, said she is trying to raise awareness among horse owners who don't realize the horses they take to auction could end up at slaughter.
In the 10 to 12 hours of hidden-camera footage she watched, a CFIA inspector was never present at the kill pen, Francois said, despite government regulations that require a vet from the agency be present to oversee the slaughter process at the plant.
The CBC left repeated phone messages at the plant that weren't returned. Requests for an interview with someone from the organization that represents the horse slaughter industry were turned down.
Two months after CBC News filmed compost heaps at the facility from outside the property, the hidden camera operator returned to the compost area to find large exposed mounds of horse remains dumped in a field that were not covered, as required under Saskatchewan environment ministry regulation.
When CBC reporters arrived at Natural Valley Farms to speak to the man who runs the operation, Ken Pillar, he also refused a request for an interview and a tour of the plant. But he did say that the facility follows all regulations.
"We have trained and went through every possible thing to unload horses carefully. They are euthanized here in a perfect manner, as humanely as possible," Pillar said.
The CFIA said it has investigated complaints about the plant in the past, but never found any problems.
One scene from the video footage shows a stun gun operator repeatedly hitting an unco-operative horse with a stick. There was also evidence horses had been transported with their horseshoes still on, which violates regulations, unless the animals are separated in the truck, because the horses could hurt each other.
In accepting the hidden camera footage, CBC agreed not to contact government officials for comment until after the footage was released publicly.
Full disclosure time. I eat meat. I care about animals. And I know there's a contradiction inherent in those two statements. After being a vegetarian for a few years, then returning to being an omnivore, I've decided to live with the contradiction.
I want all animals to be treated as humanely as possible, including ones that are raised and killed for meat. I believe humans, being animals ourselves, have a right to eat other animals, but I also believe we have a responsibility to minimize the damage we do.
Animal activists in the US were able to change laws to protect horses. I hope Canadian animal activists can do the same.