Tens of thousands of thoroughbred horses are sent to slaughterhouses each year after suffering from injuries far less serious than Barbaro's fractured ankle, according to the Humane Society.
About 15 percent of the slaughtered horses are thoroughbreds, and many end up as meat for human consumption in other countries, including France, Belgium, Holland, Japan and Italy.
Animal rights activists and horse lovers say those horses don't have to be killed, instead they should be rehabilitated. Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro injured his right hind leg during Saturday's Preakness Stakes. Doctors say that Barbaro's condition is getting better, and that he is eating well and taking his first steps after the surgery.
"Horses that end up in slaughterhouses have very little wrong with them. Typically they can be rehabilitated and the horse can be useful as a show horse or a riding horse. These are 2- or 3-year-old horses," said Priscilla Clark, general manager of Tranquility Farm in Tehachapi, Calif., a 40-acre farm that rehabilitates injured horses and finds them homes.
Clark says the main reason thoroughbreds are killed is because people don't want to pay to have their horse go into rehab and wait for someone to adopt it. She says it's time for the government to address the issue.
California passed a law in 1988 that made it illegal to slaughter horses for meat, but the law hasn't been enforced. Clark is hoping the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, currently in the House and Senate, will pass and finally make it illegal to slaughter horses for human consumption nationwide.
Some injured horses are transported from the United States to slaughterhouses in Japan, Canada and Mexico. Clark says the trauma and cruelty to the animals aren't worth it. "It's $6 million a year. That's it. A small blip," she said.
Not Just Thoroughbreds
Clark would also like to see the slaughter of broodmares come to an end. Some broodmares, horses used specifically for breeding, are sent to slaughterhouses after producing pedigree that isn't considered "good" quality.
"It's unconscionable, but it happens all the time," she said.
It doesn't just stop there. Laurie Lane, president of Rerun, a nonprofit operating out of New York, New Jersey and Kentucky that helps give former racehorses adoptive homes, doesn't like what's happening to many standard breeds.
Tranquility Farm is now trying to address the business-minded horse owner, who just cares mainly about the bottom line. About three times a year, the farm sends a representative out to a major breeding sale and offers thoroughbred owners a tax deduction if they sell the horse to Tranquility Farm.
"When people are in business, sometimes they don't see it as an ethical decision. They look at their horses as overhead, production and value. We take the horse and give the seller a tax deduction," Clark said.
Meanwhile, Lane is putting together an accreditation list for rescue organizations. "Nonprofit status takes nothing to get it and the government doesn't even check on you. They just make sure you aren't stealing from Uncle Sam, but no one looks at how the organization is treating the horses," Lane said.
She said even if horses weren't sent to a slaughterhouse, owners could be unwittingly sending their horse to an abusive environment.
"Make sure you know where your horse is going," she said. "Sometimes people think they're giving their horse to a nonprofit, but that 'nonprofit' is really just posing and they turn the horse around at an auction for 27 cents a pound. That's the going rate now, so they end up getting $300 of the horse."
Clark and Lane said people who were concerned about the fate of injured horses could volunteer for programs that rehabilitated them or donate money to organizations.
"It's amazing to me that this is still happening," Clark said. "American people hold horses so dear in their hearts. It's just unimaginable to slaughter horses for meat. We won't even put it in our dog meat."
The only way Clark and Lane say change will happen is if the doors of these slaughterhouses slam shut.