Captive bolt placement demonstrated on a sedated horse's head. This was a demonstration only. The horse was not killed.

Is the captive bolt a humane death for horses?

Is using a captive bolt to kill a horse just as humane, or perhaps more humane, than say killing a horse with chemicals — or chemical euthanization?

This issue is at the forefront yet again because a horse rescue is reportedly killing unadoptable horses with the captive bolt and incinerating their remains (the “horse rescue”). Unadoptable we hear is by definition at said rescue, a horse who cannot be ridden.

But let’s stay on point. That’s another story for another day.

What the Vets Say

Here’s a collection of professional opinions concerning the use of the captive bolt “gun” as a form of euthanasia for horses.

“I have seen it used hundreds of times on cattle and horses and know in my mind that it is very humane and much more instantaneous than (chemical) euthanasia. The animal literally knows nothing.–Jerry Black, DVM

“I would equate captive bolt with gunshot and consider both as humanely superior to lethal injection when performed properly. The public’s perception of lethal injection as being the only humane procedure parlays to the standards of the veterinary profession in this country–we simply do not teach instanteous lethal trauma.

“I do not randomly shoot my patients, but select gunshot for those where lethal injection is cardiovascularly inappropriate as a means of euthanasia or when horses and handlers are placed at risk by the less efficacious lethal injection.”–Doug Byars, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVECC

“In the UK (United Kingdom), the captive bolt is never used for horses. The only weapon designed for humane destruction of horses is the Cash humane pistol single shot. Intravenous agents are always preferred in the UK, but at equestrian events or racing there are circumstances that shooting with a free bullet may still be necessary. The captive bolt is used extensively and apparently quite safely for slaughter of farm animals, particularly cattle.–Leo Jeffcott, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, MA, DSc

“Captive bolt in the hands of an experienced person is completely humane because the horse is immediately rendered unconscious. It has the same effect as a gunshot when placed properly. I believe that it is more humane than chemical injection for two reasons. If you watch horses that are euthanized with an injection, many of them experience a period of bewilderment or confusion just before they lose consciousness. There is no doubt that they are aware that something strange is occurring. Second, many of the horses following chemical injection do not die quickly and require a second or third dose. With gunshot or captive bolt, the horses is rendered unconscious immediately.–Tom Lenz, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT H

“I practiced veterinary medicine from 1956 until recently, and I administered lethal doses of barbiturates for euthanasia countless times. This technique is much slower than captive bolt euthanasia, and frequently required additional injections.

“I had clients who would prefer a quicker method. On several occasions I used a pistol to euthanize horses. Aside from the danger of gunshot to bystanders (or administrators), the results are infinitely better with the pistol than with barbiturates.

“Also, I don’t buy the ‘fear and apprehension’ problems that the activists claim. There is no wild-eyed anticipation or screaming when the environment is managed correctly.”–Woody Asbury, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM.

“Both euthanasia by captive-bolt and lethal anaesthetic overdose have their pros and cons. A lot depends on training and skill. There can be disasters with either technique. A handgun equipped with a captive bolt, instead of a bullet, can wound instead of kill and produce a grisly result. However when placed properly the bolt enters the brain, destroys it in an instant and the horse falls dead to the ground. Although the horse is brain dead and insensible its heart beats for a while and its legs paddle–this can be very upsetting for people who don’t understand the physiology of what is going on. I’m certain that death by captive bolt, performed by a competent operator, is humane for horses. In the slaughter house the major blood vessels at the base of the neck are opened for meat quality reasons. There is no technical difference between a bullet and a captive bolt except there is more risk with the former should a miss occur. The very stringent gun laws in Australia limit ownership of handguns (a captive bolt pistol is classed as a handgun here) to very few people (although veterinarians are eligible) so not many horses are killed this way. Mismanaged lethal injections can be disastrous, too, but that’s anther story.–Chris Pollitt, BVSc, PhD

Please Note

A captive bolt pistol or gun (also variously known as a cattle gun, stunbolt gun, bolt gun, or stunner) is a device used for stunning animals prior to slaughter.

The goal of captive bolt stunning is to inflict a forceful strike on the forehead with the bolt in order to induce unconsciousness. The bolt may or may not destroy part of the brain.

By definition it was not and is not designed for end of life use, and certainly not a form of euthanasia.

What We Say

A serious point to consider concerning the euthanasia of large animals especially in the horse rescue’s scenario is this:

Is it ethical and humane to have workers and volunteers skilled and unskilled killing horses with a captive bolt, especially in light of the statements made above by licensed, practicing professional veterinarians. Attempting to accurately place a captive bolt in a conscious horse is very challenging. Horses are highly sensitive and intuitive animals. When their emotional level is high horses move and raise their head.

In the meantime, hearsay is that the horse rescue at the center of the current storm have a large animal incinerator at one of its premises.

What Do You Say?

Hearsay can be a dangerous thing. What is your take on all of this? Are you for or against the use of the captive bolt as a form of euthanasia? Do you think it can be a peaceful death? We look forward to your comments.

Fund for Horses Logo

FEATURED IMAGE: Horses and People Australia. No animal was harmed in the taking of this image. The horse was not about to be put down via the captive bolt. He had been gently sedated for castration and used to capture this image showing where the captive bolt must be placed to achieve its ultimate goal — instantaneous death.


FROM OUR WEBSITE: Insure Your Horse for a Humane End

Updated 2/27/2020 11:20 am

47 thoughts on “Is the captive bolt a humane death for horses?”

  1. There are over 900 pages of FOIA Documents from the former equine slaughterhouses which prove that the captive bolt is not humane for use on horses. As mentioned, it was designed for cattle slaughter not equine euthanasia. Cattle and equines have different skull structures. It almost always never kills upon first shot, they are struck over and over again while thrashing about, striking out their eyes, etc; sometimes they temporarily lost conciousness only to awaken as they were hung from their limbs in agony, fully aware that they were being vivisected. So this so called “rescue” may very well be incinerating live horses that have regained conciousness. Regardless, any rescue that disqualifies an innocent creature from life simply because it is not rideable, brutally kills (or maybe just knocks it unconscious), and incincerates them is NOT fit to be defined as a rescue.


    1. Amen to all the above Lisa. Thank you for taking the time to educate people on the essential points, especially for the ones who may be hearing about this for the first time.


  2. There is a lesson here for all animal rescues. Be very transparent with how you run your rescue. Per Tennessee law and AAEP guidelines, captive bolt guns and firearms are legal methods of killing livestock. However just because the law says you can do it, it doesn’t mean you should do it. Horse rescues are dependent on donors to fund their operations. As a result, the donor’s opinions matter and when donors discover that a rescue they donate to is not operating in a manner that is acceptable to them, there will be backlash. In the future please be transparent. Say what you do and do what you say. I will not donate money or time to any rescues that use captive bolt guns or firearms to “euthanize” horses indiscriminately but some people might and that is the donors that need to be pursued. Otherwise it just ends up a big mess and as usual the horse and other such animals without a voice or without choice are the ones that suffer in the end.


  3. Adoption of horses without a home is always preferable to euthanasia. That said, euthanasia is sometimes necessary because of incurable illness or failure of placement of a horse despite maximum effort. In these cases, chemical euthanasia is the way to go. In properly trained hands, chemical euthanasia is rapid and pain free. The lights just go out. A 2-step process is the best approach in my experience. First the horse is anesthetized with a sedative-dissociative anesthetic combination to produce unconsciousness and immobility. Horses given such a combination sink to the ground with no struggling. Then a barbiturate is given intravenously to cause cardio-respiratory arrest. A captive bolt gun (CBG) is a crude and inaccurate tool with uncertain consequences and should never be used. Correct placement of a CBG is not easy when you consider the flighty nature of horses and the fact that you are aiming at a brain the size of a grapefruit inside a skull the size of a trash can. Not an easy task especially when a horse provides a moving target. Failures of correct placement of CGBs lead to horses struggling in panic as they flail around in mortal distress. In one of the many cases of CBG slaughter I witnessed on video, a calm Warmblood calmly walked into a kill pen only to receive no less than 9 shots from a CBG. The horse went down, then came up again. Was shot again and then rose again an so on until the dastardly deed was done. The whole procedure took several long minutes and was hard to watch. Horse owners would never opt to have their horse “put down” using a CBG. Lethal injection is the preferred approach for euthanasia of horses – and murderers who receive the death sentence. No one would argue that a CBG should be used for the death penalty in humans so why is it acceptable, as some declare, in horses. You be the judge.


  4. As is pointed out in the first page, “accurately place a captive bolt in a conscious horse is very challenging.” That
    suggests to me that if accurately placed it is acceptable. …..”instantaneous death” was the term and I won’t go on about what is pretty challenging that we do successfully daily. I’m hoping for instantaneous death and what ever the next move is I will care not.


    1. The captive bolt is part of the slaughter process. It was designed to stun for bleeding out. It was never intended to kill. It not for end of life use. Someone may have pointed this out already, but we repeat it so people are clear on that. It was originally invented for cattle slaughter.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have been in private practice for 40 years and grew up with horses and dairy cattle before I went to veterinary school. I have seen and performed countless equine and a few bovine euthanasias, both in equine hospitals and at home, always with the intravenous injection of a pentobarbital solution, and often after the horse has been tranquilized first if he/she is in agonal pain or is nervous. In my experience, the horse invariably passes quietly and the owners are relieved that that their companion is at peace.
    Since their are no more slaughterhouses for equines in the USA , i have never seen slaughter by captive bolt here, but have seen many videos of attempted horse slaughter in Canada by captive bolt or gunshot, As part of my veterinary training, I saw dozens of cows killed by the captive bolt system in upstate NY slaughter houses, and the difference between what the horse and cow experience is very dramatic due to the discrepancy in behavior of these species.
    Cattle, like swine, react to frightening situations by lowering the head slightly and holding still–the better to attack the source of fear by charging to use their heads as battering rams against the threat. They thus present a stationary target. Horses, however, react to fearful stimuli, including the approach of a stranger, with head-tossing and attempts to rear: they are “head shy’,especially in an environment redolent with fear pheromones and strangers. With a half-way competent killer, the bolt can be aimed accurately at the stationary bovine skull, but it is impossible to aim as desired due to the frantic movement of the equine target–thus, repeated gun shots or attempts to knock them out with the bolt are necessary, and are terrifying as well as painful.
    In conclusion, the use of the captive bolt slaughter method without initial tranquilization in equines is inhumane, fraught with error, and terrifying for the victim. It has no place in the 21st century.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your input Dr. Cheever. It answers many questions.

      We were stunned to learn that the captive bolt pistol was invented in 1903 by Dr. Hugo Heiss, the former director of a slaughterhouse in Straubing, Germany.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Just curious as to your thoughts on what that appropriate tranquilizer would be if using captive bolt.


  6. Quoting an Equine veterinarian friend.
    “ Never even taught how to do that in vet school in the 90s. If the captive bolt is done properly what the hell is the exsanguination for?”

    “ I’m disgusted with the profession”
    “ Am not a huge fan of Grandin on horses. I don’t want to abdicate my authority to her. She can stick with cattle”

    “ Yes quote me I’m going to leave the AAEP this year“

    “ I cannot stand layman killing horses”
    “ I’m disgusted with the profession”

    “ I spent my whole career ensuring that euthanasia was humane and compassionate and taught other vets as well as educated clients. It’s all going backwards now”

    “ Lenz is insane!!”

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Far better than having throat slit. Far better than starving to death. And like it or not, every county in this country has horses in bad shape because owners don’t need to own any animal.

    Better question is why the borders weren’t closed to export of horses when they closed slaughter plants here. Better question than that is exactly whose pockets have benefited from slaughter being allowed through export?

    And why is nothing being doing about US tax dollars being used to support the round up of feral horses on reservations that go straight to slaughter while foals not even day old are left behind to starve and die?


  8. I do not believe in slaughter of horses and i do not believe the bolt is humane. As it states in the above article even with a skilled professional the horse moves way to much for it to be humane. Ive been with horses that are euthanized over the past 30 yrs I have only seen one that was horrific and I believe he was feeding off my daughters anxiety and grief of having to let him go. While I still believe it is the best way if the animal is suffering than yes a skilled hunter or marksman should be brought in to shoot if necessary. Ive also had to request that at times. Vets cant always get there in a timely fashion and I hate seeing animals suffer. And in one of the videos of the bolt being used on a horse they had to do it repeatedly and the horse was most def screaming in pain. So there you have my opinion on this subject. That video is public go watch it yourself and make up your own minds


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