- Runaway hay prices and a spate of new regulations have bridled the trade in draft horses, resulting in a glut of the gentle giants that once carried America’s farms on their shoulders
By TARA MALONE | Tribune staff reporter
A blue-blooded race horse still brings millions. But it seems that few want a draft horse, once the backbone of American agriculture and now an emblem of a way of life that is all but gone.
Gasoline tractors and combines began the draft horse’s decline generations ago. Now runaway hay prices and legislation designed to protect the huge, docile creatures from slaughter have combined to create an excess of horses in a shrinking market.
Older draft horses bred to plow fields, clear logs and pull hitch wagons are selling at a 20-year low. In Topeka, the center of a global trade in draft horses, colts sold at a recent auction for as little as $250.
“It’s like the housing market,” said horse roper Brian Emerick of Rives Junction, Mich. “It’s flooded.”
Traders from Maine to Japan traveled this month to Indiana’s heartland for four days and nearly 1,300 horse showings, one of the largest displays worldwide.
The auction came at a troubled time in the region’s draft horse trade.
With prices down sharply, the excess supply is blamed on court rulings that this fall shuttered the last three American horse-slaughter plants, including one in DeKalb, Ill. — further compounding the glut and prompting dealers to send horses to slaughter in Canada and Mexico.
Strict regulations about how horses may be transported also are challenging the volume and flow of the animals.
In late October, a rollover crash in Wadsworth, Ill., killed 17 horses loaded in a double-decker trailer designed for cattle and swine, prompting a state legislator to propose a ban on the use of such trailers for horses. If the bill becomes law, it would join a growing number of similar rules in other states.
Confronted with such pressures, a yawning price gap divides the horse market.
Race horses and broodmares at equine auctions in Kentucky and Florida fetch millions still. A Belgian mare destined for show competitions sold for $31,500 at this month’s Topeka Draft Horse Auction.
“The good ones will bring good money. But there’s no middle market,” said Bill McGrew of Prairie City, Ill., whose family began breeding Belgian draft horses in 1938. McGrew sits on the board of the Belgian Draft Horse Corp. of America. “It’s either the good ones or everything else, and the market is in a tough state right now.”
In Topeka, owners and auction workers — many of them Amish — led draft horses through the auction, showing off their trimmed forelocks, refitted shoes and shorn whiskers.
Prospective buyers and horse enthusiasts circled the show pen and crowded onto 20 rows of bleachers, drawn to the tiny town by two factors: draft horses bred, raised and worked by Amish farmers come well-trained and in ample supply. And from this barn in northeast Indiana, buyers can easily transport horses nationwide.
“You have all kinds of uses for these horses,” auction owner Bob Bale said. “They want them big. They want them pretty, and they want them to be elegant with moves almost like Fred Astaire.”
The crowd edged closer when a Belgian stallion entered the show corral. Winding Creek Lieutenant, now 6 and sired by one of the country’s top stallions, was the first of Floyd Bontrager’s 21 horses to hit the block. In a trade regulated by word and reputation with few guarantees, Bontrager’s stable is close to a sure thing.
The 64-year-old farmer hoped to hand the reins of his 136-acre operation in Middlebury, Ind., to his youngest son. So Bontrager thinned his herd with meticulous attention to disposition, lineage and aesthetic.
Bidding quickly hit $1,700 “on a stallion that will make you money,” the auctioneer said.
The price climbed to $1,800. A few head nods later, it hit $1,850, then $1,900.
“$2,000, $2,000, $2,000. Sold,” the auctioneer said.
A gavel pounded, closing the sale and paring Bontrager’s herd by one.
Fewer can afford the hay
Twelve miles down the road, sunlight cut through the open-air barn at the Shipshewana Auction and Flea Market.
As many as 250 horses cycle through the web of corrals there every Friday. With an estimated 14,000 horses sold annually, Shipshewana is one of the region’s largest and most varied auctions. Ponies, colts, riding horses, draft horses and show horses sell in rapid-fire exchanges between buyers and sellers that auction co-owner Keith Lambright oversees.
On a recent Friday, few horses had been fitted with new shoes or primped for sale. The nearly 12 dozen horses paraded through served a far more practical purpose.
“I’ve had guys come in, unhitch a horse and drive another horse home,” Lambright said. “That horse is their living.”
A white mare with gray markings broken to ride paced back and forth in the narrow show pen. She was here today for one reason, Lambright told the crowd of 200 prospective buyers. “The hay’s too much. He doesn’t want to pay.”
Such assurances nudged bidding higher. In 30 seconds, the mare went for $360.
Relentless drought followed by flooding depleted the region’s hay supply and ratcheted demand higher. The clamor for ethanol caused many farmers to shift acreage from hay to corn, further reducing supply, said University of Wisconsin forage crop professor Dan Undersander.
Premium hay for working horses currently sells regionally for as much as $200 a ton, up from $140 a year ago. On average, a 1,000-pound horse consumes 4 1/2 tons of hay yearly.
“Farmers can stand one year of drought, but if they have two or three in a row … they are short and have to get rid of animals,” Undersander said.
Horse-slaughterers ridden out
The high cost of hay is not the only factor driving up the supply of horses at auction.
The court rulings in September that effectively shut down the nation’s three horse-slaughtering plants — two in Texas and Cavel International Inc.’s operation in DeKalb — means that some of the horses now taking up stall spaces would previously have been put down. The DeKalb plant operated for about 20 years and slaughtered an estimated 1,000 horses a week.
Animal-welfare advocates lambast the practice as gruesome and inhumane. Breeders like McGrew — “we love horses as much as anybody,” he said — contend banning horse slaughter in the U.S. effectively shifted the practice to Canada and Mexico. A bill that would make it illegal to transport or export horses for human consumption is pending in Congress, and could have further impact on the supply of horses.
For now, the door remains open for unwanted horses destined for slaughterhouses north or south of the border.
The journey often begins in a series of “loose pens,” where sour-dispositioned, weak-legged and unfortunate horses go for sale. In Shipshewana’s loose pen, Lambright ushered through bidding for 69 horses in 17 minutes. Buyers passed on two.
In this barn and dozens of others nationwide, such horses selling for $50 to $200 went for double that six years ago, when concerns about mad-cow disease or foot-and-mouth disease in cattle stoked appetites for horse meat in Europe.
Kevin Kline, an animal science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the lower end of the horse market is struggling with the new realities.
“These are new lows that really haven’t been seen in a long time,” he said. “It remains to be seen, when all this shakes out, where it will go.”