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Horses occupy a unique place in American law, as well as the national narrative that informs that law. They are used as beasts of burden on farms, displayed for their beauty at competitive shows, and treated as companion animals by many families around the country. Because of the variety of roles horses play in our society, the law's treatment of them covers a wide spectrum of often competing goals. Some laws treat them as mere livestock, while others describe them as precious national symbols and mandate significant protections for them.
The evolution of the modern horse has occurred over a period of 45 to 55 million years. Modern domestic horses have a life expectancy of between 25 to 30 years and can vary greatly in size, as demonstrated by a comparison of a Clydesdale draft horse, 72 inches, and the Falabella miniature horse, 30 inches. They exhibit a diverse array of coat colors and patterns. Their senses are generally considered to be superior to those of humans, especially their eyes, the positioning of which allows them to see a range of vision over 350 degrees. Horses are prey animals, i.e. they do not prey on other animals but are themselves preyed upon, and have a keenly developed flight-or-fight response. Usually, their immediate response to a threat is to startle and flee; however, they will stand their ground if given little alternative or if they are protecting their young. Though historically considered unintelligent, more recent studies suggest that horses excel at simple learning and are also able to solve advanced cognitive problems. Horses are social animals, able to form companionship attachments to their own species and to other animals, including humans.
Domestication of horses is believed to have begun around 4,000 B.C.E. and been widespread by around 3,000 B.C.E. The genus Equus, to which modern domesticated horses belong, probably originated in North America around 4 million years ago, and then spread to the Eurasian land mass over, presumably, the Bering Strait. Interestingly, however, the late prehistoric North American horses died out around 11,000 years ago. The horses that populate North America today are the descendants of domesticated horses brought over by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. This means that the wild horses that still roam North America are actually the descendants of escaped domesticated horses that eventually spread out over the continent. Though this observation is of little biological impact, because domestication has done little to alter horse biology, it does have some legal relevancy. Wild horses are usually labeled as a non-native species by federal wild life agencies, whose mandate is to protect “native” species. However, a strong argument can be made that wild horses in North America actually are a native species based on their origin in North America and the degree to which they have co-evolved with the North American habitat.
As domesticated animals, horses have been used in wide variety of roles. The most sensational role historically has been their use in warfare, where they have often proven to be decisive strategic factors due to their speed and strength. However, their most lasting role has been as a means of human transportation, engendering the expansion of various peoples across vast tracts of land. Indeed, to many in America, including the United States Congress, horses are a proud symbol of westward expansion and development.
Though horses are utilized far less today than in the past, they still play varied and important roles in human society. Police officers often use horses in urban areas for patrol duties and crowd control and cattle ranches use horses to round up cattle on rugged, distant terrain. In many cases, horses offer the best means of completing a task while balancing environmental concerns, such as avoiding damaging delicate soil or disrupting nature preserves with gas powered vehicles. Horses are also commonly used for entertainment and sports purposes, such as historical movies and horse racing. Though uncommon in America, horses are used as a food source in some parts of the world. Finally, horses are often brought into families as companion animals, enriching human lives through the reciprocal formation of meaningful social bonds.
Like any animal, horses are affected by multiple legal regimes at the state and federal level. The largest horse specific legal regime at the federal level is the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. Passed by Congress in 1971, the WFRHBA was implemented to address the drastic decline of wild horses and burros on America’s plains (16 U.S.C.S. §§ 1331-40). At one point numbering in the millions, by the time this legislation was put into force the wild horse population had shrunk to around 17, 000. Declaring wild horses to be “living symbols” of the west and a “national aesthetic resource,” the WFRHBA charged the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture to protect, preserve, and manage wild horse populations. Presently, more than 37, 000 wild horses and burros roam government managed land.
At the state level, horses may be protected or otherwise affected by any number of laws, including anti-cruelty, anti-soring (a process whereby a horses gait is surgically, and painfully altered for purposes of presentation at show), and anti-slaughtering laws. However, the degree of protection varies widely. General animal cruelty statutes may provide no protection at all because they define horses as livestock, which are sometimes exempted, or they may provide unique protections, such as prohibitions against “soring” and “tripping.” Where animal cruelty statutes do make a distinction between “livestock” and other animals, horses are almost invariably classified as livestock. Still, it can be hard at times to discern exactly what laws and protections are applicable to particular horses in any given statutory scheme. In New York, for example, the animal cruelty laws make a distinction between farm animals, defined as “any ungulate, poultry, species of cattle, sheep, swine, goats, llamas, horses or fur-bearing animals” raised for commercial or subsistence purposes, and companion animals, defined as any dog, cat, or any other domesticated animal normally maintained in or near the household of the owner or person who cares for such other domesticated animal, but excluding “farm animals.” It is unclear, given these two definitions, if a horse that is not raised for commercial purposes could qualify as an animal that is normally raised near the household, and therefore as a pet.
The ambiguity in the New York definitions is typical of the general tension in the law’s treatment of horses. Unlike many companion animals, dogs and cats in particular, horses are expensive and resource intensive, and are likely just as often treated as financial investments as companion animals. Because of this, horses are treated as livestock by some laws and companion animals by others, often with results that are difficult to reconcile logically. The most salient example of the tensions among the law’s competing descriptions of horses is the growing movement to formally prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption.
The slaughter of horses for human consumption is an area of horse law that has received increased national attention over the past decade owing to the growing number of states that ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption. While few Americans have ever contemplated eating horsemeat, let alone actually purchased horsemeat, prior to 2007 horsemeat was a significant national export to countries such as Belgium, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, Mexico, and France. In 2007, Illinois passed a prohibition on the slaughter of horses for human consumption, effectively closing down the last horse slaughter plant in the United States. While there are no horse slaughter facilities currently operating in the United States, it is important to note that only four states have explicitly banned horse slaughter or the sale of horsemeat for human consumption, five if you count Mississippi which has declared horsemeat to be unfit for human consumption. Horse slaughter facilities can still legally operate in most states.
It is hard to definitively identify what drives the specific prohibition of horse slaughter for human consumption, while allowing the slaughter of cows, pigs, and virtually every other type of livestock. Certainly one part of the explanation is simply popular disgust at divergent and foreign dietary norms. But another, more specific explanation, is the unique place horses occupy in the American imagination and the variety of roles horses play in American society. Congress eloquently captured the importance of horses to our national narrative when it described wild horses as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” in the Wild Horses and Burros Act.
Horses in America are inextricably woven into our national narrative, recognized even by Congress as symbols of the “pioneer spirit.” Livestock or not, they are often treated as companion animals by families, as aesthetic objects by connoisseurs, and as protected wild animals by the United States government. If the current political capital being expended on behalf of horses at both the state and national level is any indication, then the arc of horse welfare certainly seems to be bending away from their traditional role as beasts of burden and towards there absolute admission into that pantheon of treasured American animals, next to dogs, cats, and bald eagles.
For an in-depth, legal analysis, see the Detailed Discussion.