With a booming real estate and building market leading up to the Spanish economic crisis in 2008, horses were bought by many Spaniards as a symbol of their wealth. Since then, though, many owners have been unable to sustain the costs in keeping the animals and have been forced to sell, abandon or kill their horses illegally, or send them off to be slaughtered.
“Back when the economy was on both its feet and people had substantial incomes, owning a horse was still a luxury but one could still afford it,” said María Jesús Alcalde Aldea, a professor of animal production at the University of Sevilla. “But when income starts to go down, horse maintenance quickly becomes costly, which is why people try to sell them off. Horses exchange hands, and those that didn’t end up in private owners’ farms were sent to be killed.”
Since 2008, Spain has been in a period of economic turmoil marked by a deflated real estate bubble and as much as 26 percent unemployment. The country is slowly regaining ground, with the Bank of Spain announcing in March that economic growth would be 2.8 percent this year. Also, unemployment has hovered at 23 percent since February. But many are still struggling.
“The economic crisis is still cutting very deep and it will be a long time before people feel better,” said Jill Rogers of the Andalusian Rescue Centre for Horses, or ARCH, in Málaga, which is in southern Spain. As a result, she said, “the animals will have to suffer.”
In 2009, the Ministry of Agriculture for the country’s equine sector reported a horse population of 138,744, with just over 40 percent, or 56,386 horses, classified for private use. Five years later, according to figures released in 2014, the number of horses for private use had dropped by 23.3 percent to 31,053 horses.
At the same time, the slaughter numbers were on the rise: In 2012, 69,500 horses were slaughtered, almost double the number of yearly slaughters between 2002 to 2010. According to the ministry’s economic report on the horse sector, just over 13,380 of those horses were specifically classified for meat.
“It’s been an exceptional phenomenon that the crisis has brought about,” Aldea said.
And one that has not gone unnoticed across Spain and through the EU. “People now have found it simply unaffordable to keep the animals, and instead [have decided] that they can essentially make a quick buck and instead send the animals to slaughterhouses,” said Joe Moran, the project leader for companion animals within the European Union lobbying group EuroGroup for Animals. A typical horse can fetch 60 to 200 euros, or about $68 to $222, for its meat, he said.
The Ministry of Agriculture requires slaughters to be reported and outlines appropriate ways to either stun or kill an animal. For horses, a firearm, lethal injection or a captive bolt pistol is viewed as an humane means of stunning or killing.
A government bulletin released by the Ministry of the Presidency on Feb. 1, 2014, states that owners must register a slaughter and indicate the method of “stunning or killing used” and whether the carcass will be consumed or not if it is an “emergency killing” outside of a slaughterhouse.
“If a private owner decides to sacrifice one of his animals in the fields, that can’t be controlled,” Aldea said. “There’s no way of knowing or controlling that, but slaughterhouse rules are very strict.”
Despite the increased slaughter numbers, there is a limited market for the consumption of horse within the country. Aldea’s research on the current acceptability of horse meat through consumer surveys in 2013 states that more than 93 percent of participants do not consume it. However she does note that there is a greater consumer market in northern Spain within the Catalonia, Navarra, Valencia and Castile-Leon regions.
Aldea notes that the majority of meat is exported to France and Italy because there is a higher demand. Spain exported more than 4,391 horses or donkeys within the European Union in 2013, with almost 87 percent destined for Italy.
Breeders such as Melín Farriols and Marian Alonso of Horseway Farms, located 23 miles outside Barcelona, have noted that sales of their Pura Raza Española horses have been concentrated as well, mainly in France, Germany and England. Alonso notes this is largely because those countries are horse-friendly and haven’t had drastic blows to their economy.
The Farriols family has bred and raised historic Pura Raza Española, or PRE horses, for 35 years. The breed, which dates back to the stables of King Philip II, features Hollywood status flowing manes and was originally known for its prowess as a war horse. Out of the 19 breeds tracked by the Ministry of Agriculture, Pura Raza Española make up the majority of the population, accompanied by other breeds such as the regionally bred Galicia and Navarra ponies as well as other breeds such as Arabians, English Thoroughbreds and Spanish Trotters.
Currently, the Farriols’ barn has 45 horses, but Alonso noted that the economic climate in the country has reduced the number of horses they’ve been able to keep.
Farriols said that the economy has also reduced the prices of their horses and have forced them to only birth three to four colts a year rather than the typical eight to 15.
Despite their setbacks, Alonso and Farriols strongly believe that slaughter is the last resort.
“We only sell horses to private owners who enjoy horse riding and domesticating horses,” Alonso said. “We’ve never sold horses for their meat. It goes against our philosophy: love for all animals.”
One barn owner wishes everyone had that kind of attitude. But she knows that’s not the case.
“There’s just too many horses and nobody wants them,” said Sue Weeding, of Easy Horse Care Rescue Center, in the town of Rojales in the province of Alicante, Spain, where more than 90 horses, ponies and donkeys have been rescued and now live.
Weeding, along with her husband Rod, British nationals who moved to Spain in 2001, have seen up close the impacts of a punishing economy on some of the country’s most vulnerable inhabitants. And they, too, are not immune to the effects of money woes at their farm.
For example, it costs the Weedings about $4,500 a week to take care of the animals – money they must sometimes beg for from donors and horse enthusiasts who, like they, cannot stand to see the animals suffer for the lack of resources of their owners.
The Weedings believe this was in part the case with their first rescue horse, Luceiro. The 3-year-old male was found by them at the start of the financial crisis, in 2008, in a dark stable near their town in the southwest of Spain. “He was never let out and had a rotten, injured eye,” Sue Weeding said.
The horse’s owner had, for the most part, stopped feeding him, she said, which, if managed correctly, would have cost a couple hundred dollars a month. Instead, “They were going to send him to meat.” Luceiro still lives at their farm today.
Many of the horses at their facility now have been rescued or brought to them through the local police, a practice that has only recently begun. At least four of their most recent additions are a direct result of the economic crisis in Spain, Sue Weeding said.
“If any horse or donkey abuse is reported to [the police], they contact us,” she said. “Before, nobody ever got involved in this. The police didn’t know and the public looked the other way. Horses are just shut away so people aren’t aware of how many horses there are.”
Aldea predicts that the horse population will eventually stabilize in accordance with people’s economic status, but will not reach the high levels the country had seven years ago.
Also, the increased public awareness in the treatment of unwanted horses marks a turning point in animal welfare within Spain.
Rescue efforts have been gaining media coverage and some instances of abandonment and abuse have also been brought to trial as a result. The EuroGroup will also be presenting a report at the next session of the EU Parliament on June 11 on the state of animal welfare within the EU that will specifically focus on equine welfare.
The recent explosion of attention to the matter has given many hope. “There is a big difference between cruelty and ignorance,” said Weeding on a recent blazing hot spring day.
She took time to come in from the farm to talk about her hopes for the future of the animals she loves. “Ignorance is when you can make a difference through education,” she said. “Cruelty is when there is no hope.”
This piece was originally published by NU Journalism Abroad.
Chronicling my journalistic endeavors.
All ocean conservation/biodiversity posts are my own original thoughts. All other posts are my work for other publications.