For Carol Brown, breeding Thoroughbreds was more about the hope than the money.
"I thought these horses had an option to have a great job, then they'd have a nice life as broodmares," Brown said.
She never thought about the "after" — about what happens when horses don't end up with happy retirements in rolling green pastures.
"I was in some sort of dream world. I truly was," Brown said. "I'm not there anymore."
Brown and her husband, Don, have bred horses on a small scale (they have about two dozen) for a few years on their pocket farm in Lexington, selling yearlings at Keeneland when the market was good.
In January, someone suggested some of their mares might be good candidates for retraining as riding horses. Carol Brown thought that sounded like a nice idea.
When she was contacted by Jessica Lewis, owner of HorseCampUSA in Frankfort, Brown offered to give Lewis four horses — three Thoroughbred mares and a Morgan pony.
HorseCampUSA's Web site, www.horsecampusa.com, billed it as the place "where horses and happiness go hand-in-hand."
"I thought they were going to a riding camp for kids," Brown said.
Lewis said she and her husband, Rick, both told Brown they planned to sell the horses. Brown said she told the Lewises she would take them back if they didn't work out as riding horses.
"I suppose that was a misunderstanding between the two of us," Jessica Lewis says now. "We don't keep any of our horses forever. They're all for sale."
The Lewises picked up the horses Jan. 24. The trained pony, Ben, sold quickly to a Nicholasville schoolteacher. One Thoroughbred mare was eventually returned to Carol Brown.
But two of the mares, Royal Glowing and Toolern Vale, had a much darker journey.
About Feb. 1, Lewis said, she sold the horses to a woman, whom she would not identify, who said they would be used as broodmares.
But days later, the mares turned up at Sugarcreek Livestock Auction in Sugarcreek, Ohio, where they were purchased by a "killer buyer" to be shipped to a Canadian slaughterhouse.
Sugarcreek owner fined
Sugarcreek is well-known to those who oppose horse slaughter. In 2008, the USDA fined its owner, Leroy Baker Jr., $177,000, with interest, for multiple violations of regulations designed to protect horses that are being transported for slaughter.
Baker, who denies the allegations, is fighting the fine in federal court in Ohio. "The charges are bogus," Baker said, contending they are trumped up by activists.
Baker said "radical" anti-slaughter advocates haunt his Friday horse sales. "We have a lot of these 'saviors' in here," he said.
Slaughter — which is legal in the United States but is not commercially practiced at present (see sidebar on Page A1) — is a deeply divisive issue in the horse community. Many owners and industry stakeholders, including veterinarians' organizations, say slaughter is a necessity, a way to humanely dispose of unwanted horses that otherwise might face neglect and starvation.
Opponents argue that slaughter, at least as it is practiced now, is fundamentally inhumane, particularly for companion animals.
In Baker's opinion, horse slaughter is a good option to end a horse's life, a more humane route than the neglect that many face before they get to his facility, he said.
"These animal-rights people, they got great ideas. But they don't 'save' any of them, they just prolong the agony," Baker said. "A lot of these horses are worn out. What do they think they're saving them for?"
Horses tracedback to Brown
But not all horses that end up at Sugarcreek are old or lame. Brown's were healthy. And heavier horses are desirable there if they are going to be sold by weight for meat.
Brown's horses were found by rescuers who traced them to her using their Thoroughbred lip tattoos after they had already been purchased by a killer buyer.
Brown immediately offered to buy them back and pay for their transport to Kentucky.
She also took in two more Thoroughbreds the rescuers found that day: a Distorted Humor mare and a pregnant mare whose tattoo is illegible. Brown paid $2,730 to buy and ship all four.
Several of the horses arrived bloodied and bruised; one horse's head was scraped so badly that bone showed through the skin.
Baker said he has heard stories like Brown's before and is skeptical of the rescuers' motives. He compares their work to a scam.
"They work their sympathy, trying to get their money, but it's a con," Baker said. "They'll try to get some lady, ... some bleeding heart, to donate or pay $2,000 for it. ... They're just conning somebody."
Deborah Jones, a volunteer in California who helped rescue Brown's horses, denied that.
"If anyone's making money, Baker's making money," she said. "There's no money to be made on my end or for any rescues that are involved."
She said that she and other groups often must pay a premium to get horses back from Baker and from other buyers.
Those horses typically find new homes through a network of rescue groups across the country, many of which train horses for new careers if they are healthy enough.
'There are options'
"There are options for people when they can no longer keep their horses," said Lori Neagle, executive director of the non-profit Kentucky Equine Humane Center in Nicholasville.
"One of them is finding a good reputable equine facility, whether it's a retirement or adoption program or a school or a therapy program," she said. "There's a lot of options out there. ... But all of that takes time to research."
The humane center never turns animals away, although owners might have to wait to surrender their animals until space opens up, she said. The shelter rehabilitates and retrains horses to adopt out, but it is not a no-kill facility.
"Euthanasia is an option for people as well if they have no alternative for their horse," Neagle said. "If the horse is not marketable or that won't have a second career, and they have no option other than to send it to auction, where it could end up in a bad place, then they should consider humane euthanasia."
Disposal of a euthanized horse sometimes can pose problems, but in Central Kentucky services are available from Horse Hearse/Conboy Enterprises. And the Kentucky Horse Council has $50 vouchers available to veterinarians to help cover euthanasia costs.
No easy answers
To Baker, it's just naive of people to think there is a happy home out there for their old horse.
"If they didn't think enough of it to keep it the rest of their life," he said, "if they actually believe somebody's going to give it a good home, they might as well get a check from Santa Claus and have the Easter Bunny deliver it. Because the world's not run the way they think."
Brown said she knows there are no easy answers.
She said the lesson she has learned is that the margin can be slim between a happy, wanted horse and one on its way to somebody's table in Europe or Japan.
"People do need to know that that when they sell a horse and turn it out of their control, they are subject to end up with this treatment," Brown said. "I don't know what the constructive practices need to be. I don't have the answers."
As for the horses she got back and those she took in, Brown said, "We're going to keep them. I'll never breed another horse."