In the summer of 2022, Salt Spring Islander Natascha Wille found herself at the computer, as many of us might, mouse-clicking her way down a rabbit hole of online posts, each tugging a little more insistently at her heartstrings.
But what began as merely an education — learning how “surplus” horses are dealt with in North America — developed into a passion, and then into direct action.
Reached as the run of her photo exhibition Faces of Forgotten Horses entered its second week at the Salt Spring Coffee cafe in Ganges, Wille said this was not the first time she had been moved by the plight of companion animals destined for human consumption — she once rescued a pair of cats from the Indonesian meat trade.
And, she pointed out, she herself breeds lamb — harbouring no illusions surrounding the realities of meat production. But discovering how some horses are treated at the end of their “useful” lives — whether injured or old, too wild or simply unwanted — she turned her attention to what she and others call the “forgotten” horses.
“You Google pictures, you click on the picture, that picture leads you to a Facebook page,” said Wille. “And you suddenly hit the reality of this animal being in a kill pen. And you go, ‘What the hell is a kill pen?’”
The “last stop” for many horses on their way to slaughter is at various kill pen facilities in the U.S. — mostly in Texas, but also in states like Oklahoma and New Mexico. They have evolved alongside a sort of diversion stream in recent years, as a mix of good-heartedness and cold financial calculation, spawning a horse “adoption” industry that runs parallel to one for horse meat.
While arguably an industry in decline, the American Journal of Veterinary Research estimates some 20,000 horses are still slaughtered in Mexico and Canada each year — nearly all of them brought from the U.S., where a patchwork of local laws — and a 2007 de-funding of federal inspectors — has largely shut down American horse slaughterhouses.
In Mexico, where the majority are brought, pet food is the final product; in Canada, it’s a source for human consumption. But it was the journey from auction houses — in states like Iowa, Montana, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — more than their destination that moved Wille to intervene in her very personal, meaningful way.
“It is extremely sobering,” said Wille. “Speaking as somebody who has a farm and raises animals for meat, the horse slaughter industry is a cruel, ugly thing. These horses are bred as companion and performance horses — and once they’re no longer used, they’re discarded.”
Conditions in the kill pens are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the frequency of enforcement varies between states; an animal representing as little as $100 in revenue becomes, as a problem of scale, supported at the strict minimum required. In response, a handful of “rescue” organizations — driven either by compassion or profit, or often some combination — have sprung up online, posting photos and videos of available horses in varying states of health. They can be “bailed out” of the kill pen, and a second industry — transporting and “papering” the animals for adoption — fills in the gap from there.
“The Facebook pages are sometimes set up by meat traders, who pick the horses up at auctions,” said Wille. “If they can sell them on a Facebook page, they would rather do that than pack them into a trailer and do the trip to Canada or Mexico, because there’s just a little bit more profit in it for them.”
The animals themselves are former work horses — largely from Amish communities, Wille said — or were bred for the quarter horse, bucking or racing industries. Auction houses obtain them for as little as $50. Also in the mix are wild horses collected under a U.S. Bureau of Land Management arrangement, where shrewd entrepreneurs receive payment from the government to pasture them, after which they can be sold in as little as one year.
“At my age, you know, you feel when there’s a space to be had, you want to give it to someone that really needs it,” said Wille. “I was turning 50; it’s sort of the half-century mark, where you feel okay, if there’s things you still want to do, you better do them now.”
The decision to adopt one horse, bringing a single animal from a kill pen in Texas to Salt Spring Island, to live out their last days in the peace of Wille’s Three Gables Farm, was simple enough, she said. But after making the commitment, there were fraught moments; at every stage, from the initial “bail” payment to sending money to people she’d likely never meet for transport and documentation, there was always the possibility for fraud.
“You’re sending these funds by PayPal to this person, and you think ‘I’m gonna get scammed, this is a scam,’” said Wille. “But the sums that you’re sending — a few hundred dollars — are within a sort of a limit, where you think if I’m losing this, well, I tried, you know? I put a good foot forward here to make a difference.”
But at each step, she said, her faith prevailed; people did what they promised. The horse Wille “bailed out” was indeed removed from the pen; a second, and ultimately a third were as well — brought through additional donations, as Wille reached the end of her own budget before the end of available space at her Salt Spring farm. All were picked up by the transport company; the quarantine facility came through, and the GST was paid as they crossed the border into Canada. All in, she said, she sent about $20,000.
And finally, the three horses she first saw on a stranger’s Facebook page were standing in her pasture.
“When these horses came, they were skin and bones,” said Wille, “because of their experience and all the stress.”
The youngest horse began to thrive almost immediately, becoming “plump, shiny and playful,” Wille said, seemingly protected from lasting effects of the ordeal by his youth and vigour. The other two are even now still “waking up,” she added, and have continued to be more mistrusting of people.
“They were work horses, we believe from the Amish,” said Wille, “who do use their horses very, very hard.”
Wille compared it to a person’s recovery from trauma, where the attention of people wanting to help is more than the traumatized can handle. The horses were genuinely frightened, she said, by her attempts to be kind to them.
“They have trouble coping with my expectation of wanting to be nice to them, because they’re just not ready to receive help,” she said. “They feel like they would have to show their appreciation for that help, somehow, to avoid punishment. This is how traumatized they are, that they aren’t able to fully enjoy what they now have, that safety, because they’re so suspicious that it’s all going to change again.”
It was unexpected and upsetting, Wille said, and disappointing, particularly at first. As a photographer, she was saddened to discover that just pointing a camera at the horses would frighten them.
“Seeing a beautiful horse like that, and you can see the scars of hard work all over,” said Wille, her voice breaking slightly. “And they’re shrinking away, just from you wanting to look at them. They’re not trusting your intention.”
Wille describes the horses reacting to seeing a piece of harness with terror — turning their stomachs, making them physically ill. There was for her a grieving process as she adapted to life with these animals. Part of her, she said, had imagined adopting a “horse with experience,” one that could practically show her how to drive a buggy.
But instead, she said, they wound up teaching her what charity really meant — how the act could flourish without expectations of appreciation. It was a learning curve, she said, one she wouldn’t trade for anything.
“Horses are great teachers,” she said. “Oh man, does it ever sound corny. But it’s true, the lessons are coming in very unexpected ways.”
Would she do it again? In a heartbeat, she said.
“It’s fulfilled me,” said Wille. “It’s not the way I thought it would turn out, but it’s better. You might have an expectation that your kindness will be received with gratitude, but I’ve learned I need to completely leave it up to them— when they’re ready, they’ll receive that kindness.”
Wille said she’d also gained a profound, practical understanding of the power each person holds to change a life — and if she had room today, she would add more horses. She always has her eye on those websites, she said, and always has another animal picked out.
“They can show you where you’re still lacking,” she said. “If you can take that, and make something good from it, then the lesson was fruitful.
“And I’m hopeful,” she added. “One of these days, the horses will smile into my camera.”
Wille’s exhibition Faces of Forgotten Horses will be on display at the Salt Spring Coffee’s Ganges Cafe and Kitchen through Feb. 12.