Meet the horses a Utah sanctuary is saving from becoming human food

Liberty Sanctuary focuses on rescuing young horses that might otherwise be shipped to Mexico or Canada for consumption.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trevor Howard works with a horse named Comanche, at Liberty Sanctuary in the Heber Valley, on Monday, July 3, 2023.

Heber • As he trotted around a wide gravel pen, his muscular black neck arched and nostrils flared, Comanche did not look like a horse who was past his expiration date.

Yet if Debra West hadn’t brought the 6-year-old gelding to her Heber Valley property, she said he would have been dumped like curdled milk at a slaughterhouse in Mexico. The same could be said for his buddies Axel, an 8-year-old bay stallion, and Chief, a 4-year-old bay with a big white blaze, and the rest of the 17 horses and burros that make up the first class the new Liberty Sanctuary has salvaged from equine kill pens in the United States.

By design, most of the animals are young. West said she feels adopting animals younger than 6 years old gives Liberty the best chance of rehoming them after they’ve gone through extensive training and adjusted to human handling. And she expects she will have plenty of horses to pick from. In a report titled “The Facts About Horse Slaughter” — which pulls from a 1998 study by animal welfare researcher Dr. Temple Grandin — the Humane Society of North America contends that 92.3% of horses in U.S. kill pens are “in good condition and are able to live out a productive life.”

“When I saw that figure, I knew, ‘This is who we need to be rescuing,’” West said, “because we really want to be working with them, train them and give them good, meaningful chances at a second life — a new, fresh life.”

No reliable study on the health of animals in equine kill pens has been released since that figure came out 25 years ago, a period which spans the closing of the last equine slaughterhouse in the U.S. in 2007. However, the 1998 study is still commonly cited by animal welfare groups.

The commercial slaughter of horses for food is technically legal in most states in the U.S., including Utah. Yet since 2006, Congress has refused to fund inspections of the equine packing plants, effectively keeping them shuttered. No such restrictions against the shipment of animals to slaughter exist, however, and an estimated 15,000-20,000 horses are transported to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada each year. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, most of that meat is then shipped overseas to Europe and Asia for human consumption. Some, the AVMA noted, also feed zoo animals.

Comanche, a gleaming black draft horse mix, had been scheduled to ship out to Mexico in May from a pen in Bowie, Texas. A 6-year-old white and brown paint mare and her 1-month-old colt in the same facility were set to be sent to slaughter in late April. Using donations from rescue groups and supporters of the sanctuary as well as her own funds, West was able to cull those three, plus five other horses and a mini donkey from that kill pen. In addition, a rescue group sent West five wild mustangs from a kill pen in Colorado with three more on the way.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trevor Howard works with horses, at Liberty Sanctuary, on Monday, July 3, 2023.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Debra West stands in front of a pen of rescued wild horses while she talks about Liberty Sanctuary, which she started this year on her 80-acre Heber Valley ranch, on Monday, July 3, 2023.

Each animal costs from $400 to a couple of thousand dollars to buy. They undergo inspection and treatment by a vet and have their hooves trimmed (while they are sedated) before they are shipped to her 80-acre ranch at a cost of about $1,000 apiece. West estimates it will cost about $160,000 per year to run the rescue and advocacy operations. So far she has paid most expenses out of pocket (she previously worked in the entertainment industry with Mark Burnett Productions, which makes reality television shows like “Survivor” and “The Voice”). Soon, though, she plans to ramp up fundraising efforts to cover the nonprofit’s costs. That includes off-site bashes like the “Night of Liberty” fundraiser West has planned for the Lakehouse at Deer Creek on July 27. She also wants to offer tours of the ranch and is initiating a program that allows donors to sponsor a specific animal’s care.

The final three wild horses in this year’s sanctuary herd are expected to arrive the day of the fundraiser. Stuck to each will undoubtedly be a thick, bright, rectangular sticker printed with a series of numbers.

“That’s how they identify them, sort of like prisoners,” West said. “So one of the things I like to do is rename them right away. It helps to give them a new identity.”

West typically knows little about their past. The wild horses have freeze brands to help identify them, and sometimes the domestic ones are branded as well. She gleans what she can from those markings and information on the kill pen websites, which offer the animals up for sale before they “expire.” Sometimes, the horses themselves offer clues.

Comanche, Axel and Chief most likely had been handled early in their life, head trainer Trevor Howard said, though they currently shy away from human touch. Strawberry Shortcake, a 15-year-old pony, was taken to auction by an owner who couldn’t afford to keep her, West said. The owner, a young veterinarian technician, didn’t realize she had been purchased by a kill buyer until, distraught, she saw her pony being loaded up after the sale.

Meanwhile, West said one of the wild mustangs, Dakota, was shipped to three different kill pens before ending up at Liberty Sanctuary.

Wild horses technically are not ever supposed to be sent to kill pens. The Bureau of Land Management requires anyone adopting a wild horse to sign an affidavit promising not to resell the horses to a slaughterhouse. Yet an investigation by The New York Times revealed the agency has no power to enforce that ban. And after the BLM began offering $1,000 to anyone who would adopt a wild horse as a way of clearing out holding pastures for herds whose numbers were deemed unmanageable, people began “flipping” the animals — collecting the BLM money and then selling the animals at auction.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scott Horner interacts with burros at the shelter.

Part of West’s objective is to bring attention to that loophole. In addition to adopting horses, she has been advocating for the Save America’s Forgotten Equine (SAFE) Act. Introduced in Congress last month, the bipartisan bill would add horses to a law that permanently bans the sale of dog and cat meat for human consumption in the U.S. and the exportation of animals for the same purpose.

“Utah is a horse-loving state. We would like to see this issue elevated to a higher level so people understand,” West said. “That’s really what we’re trying to do is share this message so the public understands really what’s going on and what they can do about it.

“We wouldn’t export a dog or a cat for slaughter,” she added. “Horses are raised as companion animals.”

West acknowledged, however, that the only way for the bill to work is to give horse owners an alternate way to relinquish their animals. She would like to see a toll-free number or a drop-off location that owners can turn to if their horse comes up lame or they can’t care for it any longer. Without an easy alternative, she acknowledged, owners of unwanted horses could feel cornered and end up neglecting their horses or setting them loose to run with the already rapidly growing wild herds.

“It has to be a healthy pipeline,” West said, “not a slaughter pipeline.”

The sanctuary has its own pipeline of like-minded horse admirers who help West with her quest to give the refugees a chance at a new home. Among the roughly 25 of them is Eric Kraut, an equine therapy and rehabilitation specialist, and West’s husband, Scott Horner, who counts fixing fences and giving treats among his roles. Then there’s Howard, the head trainer whose job is to get the horses docile enough to be handled and possibly ridden.

Howard worked with Comanche on a recent Monday morning in a wide pen with an equally wide view of the southern Wasatch Mountains. Using a long lariat from atop his own horse, Brekken, he tried to lay a foundation for both trust and respect in the wide-eyed animal. While West has committed to rescuing a new band of horses each spring, Howard said he has no timeline for when the horses will be ready to find new homes. Nor does he feel it’s up to him to decide what their roles will be.

“You’ll never really know until you give him a shot” what he’ll become, Howard said, glancing over at Comanche. “He may need 20 sessions before you know that or he may need 200 sessions.

“And that’s essentially what these horses will get here is a fair shot.”

Because at Liberty Sanctuary, the horses have no expiration dates. In fact, if anything, they prefer them spoiled.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Horses at Liberty Sanctuary, on Monday, July 3, 2023.

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