EL PASO, Texas - A temporary ban on slaughtering horses for meat in the United States will expire in October. The ban has led to thousands of horses being sent to Mexico and Canada for human consumption. The horse meat is often sent to countries like Belgium, France, China and Japan.
Some Borderland legislators are part of a push to make the ban permanent and prohibit the export of live horses to Mexico and Canada for the same purpose.
But critics worry the lack of slaughterhouses in the U.S. and the potential ban on exports could intensify a problem in the Borderland.
At a recent horse auction in east El Paso County, there were about one hundred horses up for sale. While there were many differences between the horses, they all had one thing in common. Their next stop will not be the slaughterhouse.
The horses were being sold as working horses.
Alice Witherel traveled to the auction from New York to buy 20 horses for her horse farm which supplies summer riding camps.
As an experienced buyer, Witherel is aware an estimated 100,000 unwanted horses are being sold at U.S. auctions every year, taken across the Mexican and Canadian borders and slaughtered for human consumption.
Witherel wishes owners would look at other options.
"If it has been a family horse and people don't know what to do with it, or the children have outgrown it, (bring it) to a place like this and someone from a therapeutic place will buy it and they have a home for life," Witherel said.
The proposed Safeguard American Food Exports Act, or SAFE Act, would create a permanent ban on the slaughter of horses in America and ban the transportation of horses to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso and U.S. Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico are co-sponsors.
"Horses are magnificent creatures who have been roaming the west for hundreds of years. They are a beautiful symbol of western independence. Most of Americans find the idea of slaughtering horses for human consumption repulsive," said Udall.
But critics, like horse owner and retired Hudspeth County Judge Becky Dean-Walker, ask the question -- if we don't slaughter the unwanted horses-- who is going to care for them and who is going to pay?
"I never like it, but I don't know what else to do. It doesn't seem like there is anything else to do. It's a really sad situation and (especially) when you see them loading them on the trucks and stuff," Dean-Walker said. "But I don't really know that there is another solution. You know, something has got to be done with them."
While the SAFE Act does not identify funds that could be used to care for the animals, supporters recommend that owners sell to a vetted, private owner, lease to another horse enthusiast or donate to a therapeutic program or a mounted police unit.
"If you purchase an animal you have undertaken a responsibility for that animal -- both humane treatment while that animal is alive and then dealing responsibly with its death. And it seems to me a pretty brutal act if you really cared about the animal to then sell it to someone who knows that they are going to take it into Mexico or Canada to be slaughtered," Udall said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture so far in 2018, 21,160 horses have crossed U.S. borders for slaughter. That's nearly 3,000 more than during the same time period in 2017.
Horse rescuer Victoria Hall is working to save animals and educate owners about their options. "If people feel that they need help, try to (get help), before it leads to a position where they are having to take the horses to such drastic places," said Hall.
Many of her rescues at the Unlimited Rescue and Education Center are horses that have been abandoned in the desert.
"A lot of these horses came in extremely skinny , some of them we have had to pick up with a tractor because they weren't even able to walk and now they are doing great. People are able to ride them," Hall said.
But it takes a lof of donations to run a rescue like Hall's and without a plan in place to handle our country's unwanted horses, the question remains -- what do we do with them once we "save" them?
The education resource ThoughtCo.com compiled arguments for and against horse slaughter.
Some view horse slaughter as a necessary evil, to humanely dispose of unwanted horses.
Animal rights activists do not believe in killing any animals for food, but there are several arguments that apply specifically to horses.