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Published April 16, 2013, 02:01 PM

Spain horse breeders face crisis

Financial difficulties lead many to abandon or kill horses.

By: Raphael Minder, New York Times News Service

CHAPINERIA, Spain — Like his father and grandfather before him, Alberto Martin breeds horses, raising them on two farms, one of them here on the outskirts of Madrid. But even as a third-generation breeder, nothing in his experience had prepared him for times like these. Over the past two years, Martin says he has been forced to sell 50 of his 70 beloved mares for about $400 each. That is all the slaughterhouse would pay.

Some of the horses had cost him as much $24,000 when he bought them before 2008, when the financial crisis started. Now, Martin says, "it sadly makes more sense to sacrifice horses for close to zero money rather than continue to pay for their upkeep, knowing that nobody seems to want to buy horses anymore."

"Breeding always has its difficulties," he adds, "but I don’t believe anybody in my family ever faced a crisis like this."

While a horse meat scandal has recently raised concern among European consumers over their food and its labeling, for breeders and others in this horse-loving country an altogether different kind of drama has unfolded: the increasing slaughter of horses that people either do not want or cannot afford.

Many were bought during Spain’s real estate-led boom years, when owning a horse was seen by some buyers as a way to gain social status and join the ranks of Spain’s landed gentry, without always considering the long-term maintenance costs. Now that the economic bubble has burst, many of those same buyers have been offloading horses, often for slaughter.

Other horses are abandoned or killed illegally, animal rights advocates say, their carcasses dumped in remote areas and sometimes even beheaded in order to remove their identification microchip and avoid a possible fine. The police recently unearthed a horse cemetery in the hills near Algeciras, in the south, that contained the unidentifiable remains of around 20 horses.

"Many people who suddenly became rich thanks to property then also went crazy about buying nice horses," says Miguel Alonso, a horse veterinarian. "The major difference is that you can at least shutter a house if the market then collapses, while a horse has to continue to be fed."

Slaughter increase

The crisis has had the unexpected effect of making Spain an increasingly prominent supplier of horse meat to the rest of the continent. The number of horses killed in Spanish slaughterhouses has almost doubled since the start of the financial crisis, to 59,379 last year from 30,563 in 2008, according to Spain’s Agriculture Ministry.

Most of that Spanish horse meat is exported to countries such as France and Italy, where horse meat is a culinary tradition. Spanish horse meat exports rose sixfold in 2011, according to the most recent figures from the Agriculture Ministry. (Spaniards themselves, with the exception of those in the eastern regions closest to France, have little interest in horse meat.)

Spanish officials say that the slaughtering boom has increasingly claimed horses in their prime years, not just those one step from the proverbial glue factory. That trend is welcome if you plan to eat their meat. "There has been a move from slaughtering older to younger horses, so the quality of Spanish horse meat is also much higher than before," says Luis Vazquez, head of the animal inspection department in Seville, Andalusia’s capital. The slaughtering has gathered pace particularly in Andalusia, a southern farming region that is home to almost a third of the country’s horses. In Andalusia alone, the slaughtering activity rose sharply last year, to 16,391 horses from 6,256 in 2011, according to the regional government.

Animal rights advocates warn that the number of abandoned horses is also soaring. "There are hundreds of horses whose lives are under threat right now in Spain," says Virginia Solera, who works for Cyd Santa Maria, an association based in Malaga that rescues abandoned horses.

Underground business

The statistics on slaughter understate the true magnitude of the problem, Solera and other advocates say, because under Spanish law only horses that have been registered can be taken to a slaughterhouse. As in other sectors of Spain’s economy, the advocates claim that a sizable part of the horse business is underground.

The Agriculture Ministry says it had been clamping down on unregistered horses and ranches in recent years, leading to a 14 percent increase in the number of registered horses in Spain, to 748,622 in 2011, according to an official census.

Still, Rafael Olvera, the director general for livestock and agricultural production in Andalusia, argues that the rise in slaughtering should still be seen as "a legitimate business decision that any owner can make." As for horses being abandoned, Olvera says, "There have been some cases, but not on the scale of a major scandal."

Martin, the breeder, would of course prefer to sell his horses to buyers interested in keeping and raising them. This week he was busy grooming some of the horses that he has not managed to sell to buyers since the start of the crisis, including 8-year-old Farruco, who has been earmarked for dressage, and 6-year-old Gallo, a black stallion.

Martin says he had lowered the price for his horses by up to 60 percent. He is now asking $14,000 for Gallo, for instance, compared with an initial price tag of more than $30,000.

"It used to be so easy to find buyers that I had never bothered with any marketing," he says, "But now, even with plenty of advertising, I’m lucky if I can sell one horse a month."

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