The massive black horse restlessly circled the crowded feedlot while trying to avoid others’ teeth and hooves; he alternately stood strangely silent with his head hanging low.
THE KILL PEN
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Upwards of 150,000 U.S. equines are slaughtered annually in Canada and Mexico for human consumption in Europe, Japan and elsewhere. Far from humane euthanasia, slaughter is a many decades-long, lucrative industry with a singularly brutal outcome.
Intentional or unintentional complicity lies with commercial and “backyard” breeders, apathetic owners, breed racing industries, summer camps, dude ranches, horse dealers/traders, horse thieves, slaughterhouses, low-end horse/livestock auctions, government regulations’ loopholes. Regardless a slaughter bound equine’s age, gender, condition, training or use, someone consigned it to auction or directly sold it to a slaughter middleman.
Middlemen known as “kill buyers” (KBs) continuously scour auctions and sale ads for animals to meet their Mexican/Canadian slaughterhouse contract quotas. Don’t comply and penalties are assigned.
KBs warehouse horses and ponies on feedlot properties known as “kill pens”, usually set up as a series of overcrowded dry lot enclosures without shelter. Stressed animals fight, incurring injuries ranging from superficial to crippling; viral and bacterial disease outbreaks are equally frequent. Bred mares often abort or give birth on the unsanitary lots where young foals are highly prone to potentially fatal conditions.
The majority of hapless kill pen occupants spend days to weeks so-confined prior to transport to slaughterhouses. Many are terrified, dazed or depressed, having previously only experienced kind handling, regular feed and water, and expert training. In return, they loyally obeyed by winning competitions, racing their hearts out, toting happy children around, reproducing, or plowing Amish fields.
Being shipped to slaughter is a long haul in over-crowded semi-trailers that travel up to thousands of miles without provision of feed, water or rest. Urine, manure and sometimes blood blend into slippery sewage on trailers’ metal floors; individuals that fall are trampled by others.
A very few lucky ones are rescued from this agonizing fate by individuals or non-profit rescue groups.
In mid-June 2014, Amber Herrell traversed a Northern Colorado kill pen. As owner of Shiloh Acres Horse Rescue (SAHR) in Ault, Colo., she hoped to save at least one that week.
Herrell retold that day’s events, “I caught sight of this particular black gelding and was immediately captured by his majestic presence. But then I saw the bucking stock brand on his hip (signifying he was a ‘rough stock’ bronc used in rodeos) and my heart fell because, in my experience, that meant he was off limits. Every other bucking stock horse I’d ever come across on slaughter feedlots had been extremely fearful or aggressive towards humans… not surprising considering what they’re used for.
“But, as I went about my business of evaluating the other horses, I noticed that this boy was trailing along behind me and seemed VERY interested in what I was doing. I tried to slowly approach him, hoping that maybe I was wrong and he was tame after all. But he wouldn’t let me near let alone touch him.
“I turned my back but watched him intently from the corner of my eye. He continued to inch closer and closer to me while my back was to him. I talked softly the whole time.”
Herrell continued that, simultaneously, the horse’s kind but nervous eyes were intently observing her. She again stopped, extended her hand behind her back, and waited. Suddenly, his nose softly touched her palm. Then his upper lip gently dusted up her arm and onto her shoulder, exploring as he breathed in her scent. She fell in love with him at that moment, for his foal-like innocence and curiosity. Herrell reluctantly left the lot after finally convincing him to accept a cookie.
She couldn’t stop thinking about him, that he’d be shipped to a Mexican slaughterhouse within days. SAHR didn’t have funds for a 16 hands high (64 inches at the withers) burly draft cross that wasn’t halter broke or used to people. However, another rescue organization generously offered to pay his bail.
Breathing a huge sigh of relief, Herrell arranged to purchase him and see where things went from there. When she arrived a few days later to pick him up, he astoundingly trotted up to the fence to greet her!
The grand black beauty proved to not be halter broke or really touchable but did exhibit an inquisitive mind and gentle demeanor. Herrell hoped that, although bred as bucking stock, perhaps he’d never actually been bucked or, if he had, that he was dumped at auction for being really bad at his job!
An initial step was naming the big horse. Herrell had temporarily dubbed him “Toothless”, a character in the animated feature “How To Train Your Dragon”. As nicknames often do, this one stuck— to the utter dismay of some folks unfamiliar with the movie who worried that poor Toothless was… toothless. Nope, all choppers happily intact!
Step two, after he settled in and relaxed, was halter training and beyond. Funds were raised and area horse trainer Sean Davies agreed to take on the sizable project even though his barns and corrals were already brimming with other trainees.
Gentling began with ground work. Over many months, Davies progressed to saddling, weight bearing, mounting, saddle training and trail riding. Sweet Toothless proved to an avid anti-bucking advocate!
Eventually, a second trainer added some polish to the green-broke gelding’s growing resume. Now Herrell finally posted Toothless as ready for adoption; she waited for just the right inquiry.
HOME AND A FUTURE
Seana MacGregor was scouting area rescue organization’s Facebook pages for a horse both her mom and 6-foot 5-inch step-dad could ride. The prime candidate had to be large, laid-back, love trail riding, and…. up popped Toothless, nobly gazing at her from SAHR’s Available page!
Although her parents eventually adopted through a Castle Rock rescue, MacGregor learned Toothless was still available and at another trainer’s barn where, in mid-April 2018, she went “just to look”.
She recalled, “He was standing in the arena all by himself and my first impression was, ‘Holy s!#t, he’s big‘! (his head is about the size of my entire upper torso.) My second thought was, ‘He’s coming home with me.’ It was absolutely love at first sight.”
“He has a way of looking into your soul,” MacGregor proclaimed. “I was offered a trial period to make sure he would be a good fit, but I knew I didn’t need it.”
She waited to go fetch Toothless until the first week of May, when she’d have her own property. Now all hers, she renamed him: Thor.
MacGregor’s equestrian interest began at age two atop a Clydesdale mare called Chloe; skills expanded at age nine when she and her sister took lessons from a sergeant at the local police department. MacGregor loved to barrel race in local weekend rodeos.
At 18, she moved to California where she worked for San Diego and Camp Pendleton dude ranches. She eventually became an assistant to a reining trainer in Valley Center, and then worked with San Marcos trainer Lou Roper, who specialized in Trail and Western Pleasure competitions.
MacGregor is a Detentions K9 Deputy with the Weld County Sheriff’s Office. The divorced single mom has three children: son Dyllan, age 14, and daughters Reese, 13, and Avery, 9. So, logically, more horses occupy her barn. Red and Bow are Thoroughbreds; Doc is a registered AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association) gelding adopted from Colorado Horse Rescue Network.
MacGregor rides with the Weld County Sheriff’s Office Mounted Posse but, sadly, her previous horse died in 2016. Could her new guy fill Samson’s big shoes? She took him— and Doc, in case Thor balked— to Spring Training.
Amazingly, the steady Percheron X Quarter Horse with a prominent bucking stock brand on his hip didn’t spook at anything, including a helicopter landing and taking off directly in front of him!
He equally excelled at the obstacle course that included a wooden bridge, water pit, teeter-totter, air/smoke machine, tarps, a mattress and a huge mountain of tires. Thor methodically traversed it all. Plus, he learned crowd control while walking in tight formation with other horses, and calmly circumvented a fire truck with sirens, air horn and lights going off. MacGregor hopes to earn Thor’s posse certificate by spring 2019.
She does, however, admit Thor is a goober. “The silly giant follows me everywhere!” declared MacGregor. Including once into her Tough Shed that serves as a tack room. After smooshing his way in, he halted and stared at her as if to ask, “Uh, now what? I’m stuck.” Since his pet peeve is backing up when he can’t see behind him, he pivoted tightly around in the tiny building without knocking anything over or stepping on her. “’Scuse me please, I’m outta here!”
MacGregor adores Thor. But what does he think?
“I think he knows that he was saved when Amber saw him at the feedlot, and I think he knows he’s loved beyond measure and safe for the rest of his life,” MacGregor emphatically stated. “I think he also knows that he filled a huge void in my life; so we kinda rescued each other.”
December is a month of holiday generosity; Christmas celebrates an infant King born in a stable full of animals; Hanukkah commemorates a miraculous event of light and salvation.
This year, one throwaway bucking horse destined to die a dreadful death at slaughter will safely spend the season (and many beyond) in a cozy barn with herd mates, all treasured by his special person and her children.
To help slaughter bound or otherwise neglected/abused equines, please donate to or volunteer with a reputable rescue organization. If you have room in your heart and barn, please consider adopting so these wonderful groups can save even more critically endangered horses, donkeys and ponies.