Since their domestication nearly 6,000 years ago, according to the American Museum of Natural History, horses and humans have been intrinsically connected. There have been poems written about them, paintings made of them, songs sang in honor of them, and statues created capturing their versatility from the battlegrounds and wheat fields to rodeo rings and race tracks.
Throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s, horses who were no longer able to perform their duties due to old age or injury were put down and their hides were transformed into horse blankets which would be used by the family to keep warm during the winter months, said Darrell Dorgan, executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, adding that because of the strong horse-rider bond, the blanket became a treasured object that was passed on through the generations.
Although the tradition of the horse blanket faded with the passage of time, others have not. While not a part of the traditional North American diet, Europeans have long considered horses as a food source, and throughout much of the 20th century, horse slaughterhouses operated in the United States, exporting the meat to Europe for human consumption or selling the byproducts for use in dog food or other products.
Whitney Pandil-Eaton/MDN --
A paint horse enjoys a sunny day in January at the Bearman Ranch, located a few miles south of Minot.
As the animal rights movement gained momentum in the latter part of the century, activist groups pressured state and federal governments to abolish these facilities, which some experts predicted were slaughtering up to 500,000 horses per year.
Although there have been numerous federal legislative measures drafted to confront the issue, none to date have been passed by Congress except the The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971 that protected the nation's feral horses from being sold and slaughtered for human consumption.
Throughout the decades, activists groups did manage to persuade state officials and governments to intervene in the long-standing debate. By 2000, only three horse slaughterhouses - two in Texas and one in Illinois - were operating in the U.S. Seven years later, all facilities had closed down their operations.
HISTORY OF HORSES
Horses were first introduced into North America in the 1500s by Spanish conquistadors, who brought with them Spanish mustangs. Throughout their travels the Spaniards sold or traded horses for goods with the different American Indian tribes. Over the next 200 years, both the population and the knowledge of horses grew as American Indians learned of their unsurpassed agility in battle and mastered the art of bareback riding as their use spread across the land.
Making their way inward from the coastal edges of the continent, horses began to appear on the Great Plains by the early 1700s, brought by buffalo hunters, trappers and early settlers.
From then on, "horses were a key part of the culture, the economy and the lives of the people," said Darrell Dorgan, executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. Dorgan added that although no concrete figures exist, he estimated hundreds of thousands, if not millions, lived on the Plains during those times.
Although the first horses were reported in Mandan in the 1840s, it wasn't until the Texas Traildrivers brought large herds of cattle into North Dakota by horseback in the 1870s, spurring the ranching boom, that horses became vital to the livelihood of state residents.
As agriculture and ranching expanded throughout the centuries and spread across the land, horse breeds were developed to accommodate different roles, Dorgan said, with Arabians being bred for speed, Quarter horses for herding cattle and Clydesdales and other large breeds for pulling heavy farming machinery and wagons.
"Horses were how you plowed the ground, tended the cattle and traveled," Dorgan said."The horse was the engine of the day."
As a result of their immense importance, horse theft became a major concern during the 1880s in the Plains.
"Horses became very valuable, important commodities. (Today) it's like having a Cadillac parked in your driveway," he said.
Criminal horse rings sprang up throughout the Great Plains spanning from Canada to Wyoming with criminals who ranged from petty thieves to mayors, Dorgan said, citing a former North Dakota mayor who was arrested for his connection to one of the criminal rings.
During the same time, the relationship of the rider and horse took on a new meaning.
"Every town had somebody on the ranch or the farm that thought they were the best rider, roper, herder," Dorgan said.
Out of that competitive spirit, the rodeo was born in Mandan in the 1880s and is still the oldest continuous rodeo. Even in this new sport, horses were key, and were used for everything from trick riding and barrel racing to roping calves.
Even as the Industrial Revolution transformed the way and speed at which objects were made or done during the 19th century, "horses were still a staple of everyday living, especially on the farm until the 1920s," Dorgan said. "They still pulled the farm machinery and the wagon to the crusher."
But by the 1940s, with advancements in farming equipment, automobiles and other technology, the role of the horse began to change from being seen as a work animal to one of companionship and form of entertainment as rodeos and racing increased in popularity.
Now in the 21st Century, horses are still a vital part of North Dakota culture.
"We are a little bit unique in that we still have a big ranching community and the state has a huge rodeo heritage and is involved in horseshow events, but there is an ever-growing population of people who view them as companions," said Carrie Hammer, an equine specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service.
"Like dog owners, people who have horses can tell you about every horse they ever had," Dorgan said. "They are part of the family."
Just as the U.S. population has shifted from rural to urban, so has the horse ownership demographics, Hammer said.
"There's something majestic about a horse and people in the urban areas want to have them, but they don't have the space, so they board them," she said.
As horse ownership changed from work to companionship, so did the views as to how they should be treated.
Quarter horse, known for its versatility and good disposition, is the most popular breed in U.S. and is often used in both the rodeo and ranching atmospheres.
According to a 2005 population report by the American Horse Council, there are roughly 9.2 million horses living in the U.S.
More than one-third of horses are categorized as recreational, 2.7 million are involved in horse shows and roughly 844,000 are involved in competitive racing.
According to the 2002 agricultural census, there are roughly 43,000 horses in the state, although the figure is disputed by some horse organizations.
4.6 million people are involved in the horse industry which generates $39 billion in direct spending and $102 billion in indirect and induced spending per year.
- Figures courtesy of Carrie Hammer
The two Texas facilities, located in Kaufman and Fort Worth, were closed after a New Orleans federal court upheld a 1949 Texas law that banned the sale or transfer of horse meat for human consumption. That May, outgoing Illinois Gov. Blagojevich signed a bill prohibiting the slaughter of horses for human consumption, effectively shutting down the last slaughterhouse facility in the country, although it fought the law in court until it ran out of legal options in June 2008.
While the closure of the last horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. was a huge victory for horse advocates, it left a growing problem in its wake.
"Before the legislation was passed, the slaughterhouse was always an option for the "unwanted horse" whether it be a physical or behavioral issue," said Carrie Hammer, an equine specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service. "The question now is what do we do with the unwanted horses?"
John Bearman, who runs Bearman Paint Horses in Minot with his wife Tricia, and has been involved in the horse industry for more than 40 years, agreed.
"It has really changed the complex of the horse world. People who would normally buy older horses are afraid to buy them because they don't know what to do with them," he said. "PETA meant well, but it backfired. They took the only approach they could, but it's mayhem right now. The irony of it is that PETA came out to stop this, but it will go down in history as the cause of the most slaughters in history."
With horse slaughterhouses still in operation in Canada and Mexico, Hammer said there have been numerous reports that U.S. horses are being shipped beyond either border to be "disposed of." For owners who could not afford to send them or simply chose not to, Hammer said there have also been reports of horses being shot or abandoned by their owners.
"The sad part of this is that there are people in France that don't eat cattle or swine, but have always eaten horsemeat," Bearman said. "Horses are livestock whether (people) want to believe it or not and it has been a part of their diet for a very long time."
The debate has resulted in a rift throughout the industry.
"People don't want to get involved. If an organization takes a stand either for or against PETA, half of their members will be mad so it's a delicate balance of power," Bearman said. "I would like to see the two groups (PETA and horse associations) sit down and rationally discuss what has happened to the equine industry in the U.S."
Hammer added, "In North Dakota and the U.S., we need to deal with the unwanted horse population and figure out what we need to do to bring back the value of horses."
In light of the slaughterhouse debate, the value of horses has been impacted, reflected by the current market situation.
Unlike other livestock, horses are not sold on the "per-pound" basis, but are instead judged by personal preference and performance. "Prices are very subjective and fluctuate heavily with the economy and industry conditions," Hammer said.
"The last year to two years, things have really tightened up on the medium horse market," Bearman said, explaining that medium horses were used most often for trail riding and companionship.
In years past, "people would raise two or three colts to see if they can cut the mustard (become rodeo/entertainment horses, trailriding, etc.,) but now people are scared to get involved if there's no market," Bearman said. "If they don't make the grade, what do you do with them? They can't go to sale."
As a result, he said, the solid market right now is the broke riding horse, which can sell for $2,500 to $6,000, while the foal market has imploded.
"Most foals sold for anywhere from $300 to $700 dollars a few years ago, but now, they go for as little as $5 or $10 Some producers are now even trying to give them away. It sets me back and scares me. Never in my life have I seen that," he said, adding that he has gone to horse sales where there would be a crowd full of people, but not a single bid.
With the increase in travel due to rodeos, horse shows, sales and breeding services, Hammer said there is a threat of a new disease emerging and in the same realm, imported horses also pose a threat to the overall health of the industry.
Among the biggest concerns is the occurrence of Viralarteritis, a viral inflammation of the arteries, and Piroplasmosis, a tick-borne infection that can cause death. Found mostly in tropical climates, the parasite was once prevalent in the U.S. but was eradicated by the 1980s, however, there was an outbreak in a Florida facility in 2008, Hammer said, believed to be the result of an infected horse imported from Mexico.
To help combat these health issues as well as give breeders and owners more control, scientists began to map the genome of a horse about five years ago. Once completed, horse owners will be able to test for genetic diseases before breeding and will also be able to better control a horse's physical characteristics, particularly coat color.
"It's exciting stuff for North Dakota breeders and owners," Hammer said.
As for the current industry concerns, both Hammer and Bearman said something will need to be done to ensure the survival of the roughly $140 billion industry that affects approximately 9.2 million horses, according to the American Horse Council, and the estimated 4.6 million peopled involved in all levels of the industry.