The kill pen conundrum

What are equine kill pens and should rescue organizations try to help the animals that wind up in these facilities?

horses kept in cramped conditions at an equine kill pen
Image Source: The Paulick Report

Even if you've heard of a kill pen or feedlot, most people who are not intimately involved in the equine world probably know little about the fate of animals who arrive on kill lot grounds or about the business model that supports such a controversial industry.

"Kill Pens are a class unto themselves. No place on earth [with the exception of the slaughterhouse itself] is more terrifying for equines." -

Understanding how this all works requires a background on the economics of horse trading. While it has been illegal since 2007 to slaughter horses for meat in the United States (you can read more about that here), kill buyers circumvent this regulation by shipping equines to Canada or Mexico, where they will then be exported to Asia or Europe for rendering. Of course what that means is that the animals will be taken on a thousands of miles-long journey of terror before they are euthanized.

How horses end up in kill pens

In the suburban area where I was raised, the only horses I ever saw as a child were the well-cared for ponies you would find in a trail riding or lesson program. It was not until I entered the horse world as an adult rider that my passions for animal advocacy and equines would collide. Searching for my own first horse, I was introduced to retired racing horses (which I detailed in my last blog post, "The Realities of Horse Racing") and from there, I began to see the dark side of the entire relationship between humans and horses: one that relies on the servitude of animals which is often repaid in the most horrific terms.

Kill pen equines come from a variety of sources, one of which is private horse owners who no longer have the means or desire to care for their animals. If they aren't able to transfer ownership of an unwanted horse via private sale (for example, if the animal is old, sick or otherwise devalued), they will find a ready buyer in kill pen owners who can and do trade both healthy and sick horses for their price in meat. A more frequent cause of the kill pen trade is the equestrian industry itself, which broadly includes all working horses who are no longer fit for service: racehorses, Amish plow and cart horses, breeding stock, etc. Once these animals are no longer producing utility for their owners, they are monetized one final time in their sale to the kill lot. There is, however, another type of kill pen trading that has been on a steady increase which is the direct purchase of equines from livestock auctions. These animals may be young and healthy with no physical restrictions and still find their way into a feedlot.

Traders called "kill buyers" have realized that they can increase their profits by marketing these at-risk horses to the general public, capitalizing on the impending death of the horses in a system which they, themselves, have created. Private individuals and rescue organizations will pay double or sometimes triple the meat price of a horse to save it from slaughter. Author Natalie Voss writes for The Paulick Report that "Many people and legitimate non-profits raise bail or buy horses from kill lots through gritted teeth, saying they hate the system but feel for the individual animals trapped in it on this particular week. The trouble is, the recurring willingness to raise funds any way possible has given bail lots financial incentive to buy at auction or seek horses privately not based on which horses will most efficiently fill their trucks to fill a contract with a slaughterhouse, but which can be sold at a higher profit margin to a sympathetic public."

The role of rescue

Many equine rescue organizations choose to avoid pulling horses from kill pens so as to not contribute to the profits and self-fulfilling prophecy of traders. This position is completely understandable as unfortunately, there are still plenty of deserving equines who are being starved, abused or otherwise uncared for outside the network of kill pens. I applaud the work of many of these great rescue operations and the animals they serve.

However, it is my personal belief and the position of Red Feather Farm Sanctuary that any animal within our ability to help is one who deserves our assistance, even if that means that we might have to pay for an animal's freedom. To be clear: I detest the kill broker system and the model of horse trading - I do not want to enrich these profiteers nor do we regularly participate in pulling young or healthy animals from kill pens as they are most likely to be purchased by private (non-kill) buyers. All that said, we do not believe that animals who are caught in the crosshairs of a human-made moral dilemma are less deserving of rescue and we know that the kill buyers are not going to stop their unethical trade without legislative intervention, which we are in favor of. Therefore, taking a moral stand does nothing to slow the endless trade of kill pen horses and the trauma they endure as they are passed from auction to auction, buyer to buyer in search of a higher price tag.

Faces from the kill pen

We have a few residents who came from the kill buyer pipeline. Here are their stories.

From L to R: Demi, Sampson, Tater, Paisley and Topanga.

Demi and Sam

Demi is a 20+ year old Belgian draft mare who lived her entire life as an Amish plow horse before being purchased at auction by a local kill buyer. We made the decision to pull Demi from the lot when we learned that she had been accidentally transported to a potential adopter's home instead of the "correct" horse, who may have been her driving partner. She was to be sent back to the kill pen in exchange for the other horse, which was a fate that we would not allow... imagine experiencing freedom only to be sent right back to the lot. We intervened and had her immediately transported to a quarantine facility before she came to live with us as a permanent sanctuary resident.

Amish Belgians are usually kept in pairs and they form close bonds with their working partners. It is highly unethical to separate bonded pairs and many Amish sellers refuse to do so. However, with Demi's recent arrival, we knew we needed to find another Belgian to serve as her pasture mate. Sampson was also a retired Amish plow horse who wound up in the kill lot and being a relatively young fellow (best guess appx 17 years), we intercepted him as Demi's companion as well as to prevent him from being put back into work by another potential buyer. Both Belgians arrived several hundred pounds underweight and are now happily retired at Red Feather Farm Sanctuary.

Tater and Paisley

These were our first donkey and mule residents at the farm and we bailed both of them at separate times from a local feedlot. Donkeys and mules have an increased risk associated with the equine trade industry: they are notoriously stoic and do not show symptoms of illness until it is often too late to treat them. Due to the high transmission of disease associated with kill pen facilities, it is especially imperative that donkeys are pulled as quickly as possible. Additionally, their low trade value means that they are many more donkeys in the pipeline than can reasonably be rehomed, making them at higher risk of slaughter than other equines - although donkeys are usually killed for their pelts instead of their meat.


Topanga did not technically come from a kill lot; instead we intercepted her directly from a broker after a livestock auction. She was already bred and we later learned that she had been passed through several regional equine auctions before winding up in our care. I wanted to mention her specifically because she is a prime example of what happens when rescues do not intervene on behalf of at-risk horses: she would continue to be passed from broker to broker, auction to auction, until she eventually had her foal which would then be sold as a separate profit. Both mother and foal would be in jeopardy of eventually winding up in a kill pen had we not stepped in to end the cycle for her. As of the time of this writing, we are still awaiting her baby and she is happily adjusted to life at the sanctuary.


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