Project Sage Founder Brittany Rostron purchased Rex at New Holland Horse Auction in Pennsylvania Monday, a notorious, hectic operation rife with "kill buyers" who sell horses for their meat. Rostron attends the auctions regularly to rescue, rehabilitate, and re-home horses headed down the slaughter pipeline.
According to the Humane Society, in Mexican and Canadian slaughter plants, horses are stabbed multiple times in the neck with a “puntilla knife” to sever their spinal cords. They are hoisted, bled out, and dismembered, often while still conscious.
Horse slaughter is legal in the United States, but the industry was effectively quashed after 2006 when Congress stopped funding agricultural inspections necessary to sell the meat. Since President Obama re-funded the inspections in 2011, a New Mexico meat plant owner hopes to become the first plant to process horse meat since 2007.
New Holland has been the subject of numerous undercover investigations by animal welfare groups for its treatment of horses and other livestock. In 2007 the auction was found guilty of three counts of animal cruelty and, in 2001, it was convicted of 31 counts of animal cruelty against horses.
Rostron and Project Sage Volunteer Coordinator Cadence Kennedy purchased five horses that day to bring back to their Northport barn.
"When walking down the aisle you are bombarded with horse’s behinds," Kennedy wrote on Project Sage's Facebook Page. "Rex was one of the only horses that turned around and gazed at us as we walked by. When examining him and his neighbor, now named “Johnny,” we realized that these horses were not meant to be there. Compared to the others, they were well groomed, shoed and extremely friendly, but a little banged up from shipping."
Rex was presented in the ring by Long Island horse dealer Billy Littleton. Rostron said Littleton is known in the horse community by the nickname "Billy Bang Bang."
"Basically you call him if you have a lame horse to get rid of," said Rostron.
As Rex rang through the ring at auction, Littleton announced that the gelding bay throughbred was from Thomas' in Long Island with bute in his system. Technically, a horse with bute, short for phenylbutazone, a common inflammatory drug, could not be sent to slaughter that day. A kill buyer would have to wait until the drug was out of Rex' system.
Rostron missed the bid on Rex as he ran through the ring and was purchased by Virginia horse dealer Jesse Austin. Rostron approached Austin and offered to buy Rex for $100 over the selling price.
Austin buys and sells livestock out of Virginia and has sold horses for slaughter. A 2003 Washington Post article on the horse slaughter industry quoted him as saying that an aging, lame horse faces a less cruel fate at a slaughter horse than it does being ridden into the ground as an unfit lesson horse.
When Rostron purchased Rex, she put his picture on the Project Sage Facebook page and received an overwhelming response.
"The next thing I know I have a hundred phone calls, a hundred emails of people saying 'holy crap, my kid rode that horse two weeks ago in a lesson, we know who that horse is,'" said Rostron. Many wanted to know how Thomas could have allowed one of their horses to be sold at New Holland.
Thomas' School owner Nancy Thomas did not say if she knew that Rex would end up at New Holland when she sold him to Billy Littleton. She did say, however, that Rex was never in any danger because she requested that he be returned if he could not be sold as a lesson horse.
Thomas sold Rex, she said, because not enough children could ride him.
"Rex has plenty of life left and I knew he would find a good buyer," she wrote. "He was not ready to be retired, he needed a home. Thomas School has never sold a horse for slaughter. And never will."
Rostron retorted, "In my opinion when you give a horse to a man named 'Billy Bang Bang' you damn well know it will not end up in the hands of a good person."
Rostron and Thomas have not spoken to each other on the issue although Thomas said she has tried to reach out. Rex is at Project Sage's main rescue barn in Northport.
"Everyone in my organization is just so disappointed to find a Long Island horse at such a low-end horse auction," said Rostron. "People pay thousands of dollars to attend the Thomas horsemanship camp, and the horses can't even be given a nice retirement? This was the retirement he got? To be sent to an auction?"