Last year, the Garfield County Sheriff’s department confiscated more than 30 horses because their owner had neglected their care. On Saturday, at a horse auction in Rifle, these animals sold for as little as $200 a head. With prices so low, were the horses destined for slaughter in Mexico for a menu item in France?A 20-year-old bay mare, Number-16 on the auction flyer, already had led a troubled life before she ended up in the horse sale. Her previous owner, a 71-year old man from New Castle, had collected too many horses and could no longer care for them. Some had even died from starvation before the sheriff’s department impounded the mare and about 30 others.
“We spent over $42,000 of taxpayers’ money taking care of the animals this past year,” explained Lou Vallario, sheriff of Garfield County. “Unfortunately, some of the animals were in such poor shape, we had to put them down. The 28 horses today are in good health and hopefully, we’ll get a good price and recoup some of our expenses.”
A horse auction in the dead of winter isn’t exactly a prime time. In addition, it doesn’t matter if you have a $100 or a $10,000 horse, the overhead is going to cost about the same. In Western Colorado, hay is going for at least $6.50 a bale, if you can find it, and training a horse for riding can cost thousands. Chalk up monthly boarding fees, tack, and shoeing and veterinarian care, and horse ownership can quickly become an expensive proposition.
In another scenario, within 48-hours a horse can be transported to slaughter houses in Mexico or Canada. Ironically, the county could spend thousands of dollars for upkeep to improve the health of these horses only to have them destined for the dinner plate in Europe.
“There really isn’t a way we can prevent anyone from buying these horses for killing,” Vallario said, quickly adding, “we sure hope that isn’t the case today.”
A local, Robin Fritzlan, came with her daughters to view the horses before the auction. Her interest in the sale was going to be cost. She was deliberating, “I might buy if prices are low, but I also have to consider it costs $500 a month to train a horse.”
Another potential buyer, Jace Christopher from Rifle, had several horses already. “What the hell, what’s one more?” he said, shrugging. However, Christopher wasn’t sure if he was going to buy since most were “project” horses, young and green-broke.
About a quarter of the 200-person crowd had signed up to bid before the auction started. Were there any known horsemeat traders on the list? No one from the sheriff’s department or from the auctioneer service thought so.
Silt resident, Trudy Ore, stopped to calm a nervous paint mare, Number-11, before it entered the sale pen. Ore wondered, too, if some of the auction buyers included horsemeat traders.
“I’ve worked around horses a lot and I admit, not every horse should be alive,” she said. “So, I remain open-minded about the issue of horse-slaughter. It serves a purpose.”
Phil Ambrose, a well-known horse trainer from Grand Junction, thought there would be little profit at a slaughterhouse for these particular horses. “It would be too costly to feed and ship the animals right now,” he noted, “and many of these horses are young and underweight.”
The sheriff wasn’t going to recoup his expenses from the auction either. The 2-year-old colts and fillies sold at $200 to $450 a piece, the older horses for a little more.
“What else can you do in a situation like this?” Vallario queried. “At least I can tell the taxpayers the horses are going to good homes.”
The horses in Rifle were lucky. All the buyers appeared to be local and many were women with young girls. The horses were going to be part of a family or trained to work on a ranch.
The old bay mare was perhaps the most fortunate of all. Pamela Walter, a new Rifle resident, bought the mare for her, and her children and grandchildren to ride. Walter’s impatience with her cell phone contradicted her beaming smile. She couldn’t reach her husband to announce the new family pet.
It had been 30 years since Walter owned a horse, so she was looking for one that was tame and steady. “When the auctioneer’s 4-year-old daughter rode bareback into the sale pen on her, I knew that horse was for me.”
Photos by Leslie Robinson: Top, Lloyd Wonderly of Rifle keeps track of the sale prices on his auction sheet; Mare # 9 awaits her fate; Robin Fritzlan ponders a bid on #12; the horse auction attracted over a 100 people; if a little girl can ride #16….