End-of-life and euthanasia options for horses

This article focuses on what the end-of-life options are for horses, and the advantages and disadvantages of these options. It further discusses some of the welfare problems associated with slaughter and how some of these could be addressed.

For an article about how to make an end-of-life decision for your horse, click here.

Article Highlights

  • There is an array of welfare issues associated with unwanted horses, including neglect, mistreatment and inhumane deaths
  • A large number of horses are killed in abattoirs and knackeries and may suffer extreme fear +/- pain prior to their death
  • Euthanasia (a ‘good death’) comes with some unique challenges in horses
  • Methods of euthanasia include lethal injection, shooting with a firearm, and shooting with a captive bolt – all methods have advantages and disadvantages
  • Slaughter in abattoirs or knackeries presents a range of risks to horse welfare
  • More research is required to identify what horses end up being slaughtered and why, and where the knowledge gaps and hurdles lie in ensuring good welfare at the end of horses lives
  • Improvement in slaughter standards and regulation is also required

The shocking numbers of unwanted horses

Most horse lovers shudder at the thought of horses being slaughtered, and the recent ABC 7.30 report will have confirmed their worst fears. Horses arriving at an abattoir terrified and often injured after long distance journeys, being verbally and physically abused prior to death by captive bolt. While a captive bolt should lead to instant unconsciousness, if it is not accurately placed, it leads to excruciating pain, until a repeated and accurate firing of the captive bolt is performed. The ABC footage captured some of the worst deaths that a horse could possibly endure.

Editor’s update: On 19th July 2021, the BBC raised similar questions in a Panorama documentary. 

The other shocking aspect was the sheer numbers of horses that are being killed in this way. Whilst the documentary focused on ex-racehorses, many horses from many different backgrounds are having their lives ended in this way. In a study in 2008, of around 9000 horses slaughtered in Australian abattoirs each year, around 50% were ex-racehorses, and the remaining 50% were a range of other horses and ponies including about 10% of them being brumbies straight from the wild 1.

Approximately 60% of all of these horses were less than 8 years old. It is likely that these proportions are different today, but unfortunately, we do not have any more recent studies to accurately update this information.

The number of horses being slaughtered in knackeries across Australia is unknown but could be as many as 22-32,000 per year 2. Little is known about the age and breed of these horses, where they have originated from and the reason that they have ended up there 1. One study surveyed 20 Australian knackeries, reporting that horses were either old, sick and injured, or ex-racehorses and young horses from drought affected properties 2.

This clearly highlights an array of welfare issues; from the number of unwanted horses having their lives ended at such facilities, to the terrifying experiences they may endure leading up to their death, culminating in the way in which they are killed frequently being associated with intense fear and pain.

There are many reasons why horses may become unwanted, including overbreeding, inadequate sport performance, dangerous behaviour, poor training, injury or health problems, or for practical or financial reasons when an owner can no longer care for them  3, 4, 5.

More needs to be done to address each of these issues if we are to minimise the number of horses that are being killed.

Nevertheless, all horses will at some point, reach the end of their life whether that is because they are unwell, injured or can no longer be appropriately cared for. Further, whilst most of Australia continues to experience one of the worst droughts in history, the issue of unwanted horses and horses that are unable to be cared for, is certain to continue for the foreseeable future.

Euthanasia in these circumstances is preferable to horses being left alive but neglected.

25 year old Thoroughbred horse grazing. Old horses require special care.

This 25-year-old TB was rescued after a period of neglect. He costs approximately $8,000 per year just in feed. He underwent approximately $3,000 of veterinary dental care in the last 12 months, requiring several tooth extractions. It is unrealistic for most owners to be able to afford to provide appropriate care for these older horses, and euthanasia in this situation is preferable to neglect, selling through sale yards, or being transported and slaughtered.

This article will focus on what the end of life options are for horses, and the advantages and disadvantages of these options.  It further discusses some of the welfare problems associated with slaughter, and how some of these could be addressed.

For an article about when to make an end-of-life decision for your horse, click here.

It should also be noted that many owners find it understandably challenging to make a definitive decision about the end of their horse’s life and instead may opt to send their horse to a dealer or saleyard (public auction) in the hope that they find a good next home. However, horse owners must be aware that, at public auctions there is no way to assess the purchasers, and their horses could end up in another unsuitable home, an abattoir or knackery. It is therefore, far preferable to make the decision for a humane euthanasia rather than risk subjecting them to a worse fate.

Euthanasia: what’s special about horses?

Euthanasia means a ‘good death’, in other words instant unconsciousness without prior fear or pain 6.

Horses represent some unique challenges in achieving a good death alongside balancing practical issues, such as geographical proximity to veterinary care, the financial considerations associated with the euthanasia itself, and also with the carcass removal and disposal.

Having to balance these other factors likely plays a major role in why many horses end up at abattoirs or knackeries, which may not result in a ‘good death’, for reasons explained below.

The characteristics of horses that contribute to the challenge in achieving a ‘good death’ within practical and financial constraints include; their unique behavioural characteristics, that they are a flight animal, and are sensitive to changes in their surroundings.

They also have a wide range of differences in their previous life experiences and training which strongly influences how they react in different situations, and whether they can be effectively handled or not without causing them distress.

Their large body size contributes to transport challenges, and challenges with carcass disposal.

Combined, this all means that different methods may be better suited to different individuals. Choice of method should include safety, ability to appropriately restrain the animal and skill of the person performing the procedure, in addition to welfare considerations.

Methods of euthanasia (end-of-life options)

There are three main methods of euthanasing horses; chemical euthanasia (lethal injection), shooting with a firearm (rifle) or shooting with a penetrating captive bolt, followed by exsanguination (bleeding out by severing a major blood vessel) or pithing (placing a metal rod into the bullet hole to destroy the brain tissue).

The horse is also preferably sedated or anaesthetised prior to any of these methods, to further reduce risks of pain or fear prior to death, in addition to improving safety for personnel involved.

  1. Chemical euthanasia/lethal injection

This end-of-life option must be performed by a veterinarian and involves the intravenous injection of a barbiturate. Sedation should be administered prior, to reduce anxiety, and increase safety of the procedure. The horse will collapse gradually, and will lose consciousness, followed shortly by cardiovascular arrest.

In unhandled or poorly handled horses, anxiety prior to sedation is likely.

The main disadvantages of lethal injection is the need to be carried out by a veterinarian, more limited options for carcass disposal, and consequently higher cost.

Burial or cremation is required following lethal injection, due to the drug residues. There are specific requirements for burial including depth and location of burial site, and burial in some locations (e.g. water catchments) is prohibited.

Therefore, discussion with the local council is required beforehand to ensure that this is a feasible option.

Obviously, the location where euthanasia is performed should be as close as possible to the burial site. If the carcass is collected for cremation, or an excavator is required for creating a burial site, these can both be costly options.

  1. Gunshot

Although many owners may not like the thought of euthanasia via gunshot, when performed properly, this actually results in a very rapid and painless death, due to rapid, widespread brain destruction.

It does not require close contact with the animal and so, is the most appropriate method for horses that are anxious and/or not used to being handled.

In handled horses, particularly those that are anxious, sedation (or anaesthesia) prior to gunshot is ideal to reduce any anxiety and assist in keeping the horse very still. Sedation would however require a veterinarian and is not essential.

Euthanasia by gunshot can be performed by trained and experienced operators with a gun license. This is often a practical, more accessible and cost-effective end-of-life option, and enables more options for carcass disposal, including use of the carcass as pet food or composting material, or disposal at a licensed landfill.

It is a method commonly used by knackeries, and some knackers will visit private properties to perform the euthanasia at the horse’s home, and remove the carcass afterwards. The main disadvantages with firearms use are the safety issues associated with potential penetration and/or ricochet. As a result, it is not suitable for use in all environments.

  1. Penetrating captive bolt

The major difference between shooting with a firearm and a captive bolt is that a captive bolt causes localised brain trauma and concussion, and to achieve this effectively, very accurate placement and positioning of the captive bolt gun is absolutely critical, and the gun needs to be held firmly over the intended site.

If there is any error in placement when the gun is fired the results are disastrous as the bolt may cause extreme pain without inducing unconsciousness, and a further shot is immediately required.

The brain of the horse is surprisingly small (about the size of a grapefruit), within a large skull, which makes it challenging to achieve accurate placement, especially if there is any movement of the head. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the position and angle of the captive bolt required to make an accurate shot.

When fully conscious, most horses will have a tendency to raise their head if they are anxious or an unfamiliar object is advanced towards their head, and this makes correct height and angling of the captive bolt even more challenging (Figure 3).

Therefore, to aid accurate placement, either appropriate head restraint is required, or prior sedation (Figure 4) or anaesthesia. Sedation requires a veterinarian.

(Please note all the images have been specifically taken for illustration purposes with horses that were undergoing veterinary procedures. No horses were euthanised.)

Heavy sedation or anaesthesia followed by a penetrating captive bolt shot is a very good option for euthanasia by veterinarians and allows more options for carcass disposal than euthanasia by lethal injection.

The brain trauma caused by destruction of brain tissue is often sufficient to cause death if placement is very accurate. However, sometimes, it may only result in unconsciousness with the possibility that the horse could regain consciousness.

For this reason, it is always advisable that, once the horse is unconscious following a captive bolt shot, this is immediately followed up by exsanguination (‘bleeding out’ by severing a major blood vessel) or pithing (inserting metal rod into the bolt hole to extensively destroy the brain tissue).

Captive bolts are much safer for personnel and a firearms license is not required. They should, however, only be used by trained experienced operators due to the requirement for such accurate placement.

Captive bolt placement on horse front view. End-of-life options

Figure 1: Recommended guidelines for placement of the captive bolt can be difficult to interpret and, if placement is slightly low, it may result in the bolt entering the frontal sinus cavity and missing the brain. The author recommends placing the captive bolt slightly higher on the skull. The surface of the skull begins to curve at this level, so it is slightly harder to position the captive bolt firmly against the skull.


Captive bolt placement on horse side view. End-of-life options

Figure 2: The red line indicates the position for the captive bolt according to most published guidelines, but as this diagram shows, the captive bolt fired at this location will only penetrate the front part of the brain. There is therefore a high chance of missing the brain if positioning is even very slightly lower on the head, which could commonly occur especially on larger horses. For this reason, the author recommends placing the captive bolt slightly higher on the skull, as indicated by the green line on the diagram. The surface of the skull begins to curve at this level, so it is slightly harder to position the captive bolt firmly against the skull.

Slaughter at an abattoir or knackery

Whilst many horse owners shudder at the thought of killing horses for food, this can also theoretically be a ‘good death’ if the horse is not experiencing fear or pain and the firearm or captive bolt is appropriately placed resulting in immediate unconsciousness.

However, the practical reality is that it is very difficult to achieve this with horses within an abattoir or knackery environment, resulting frequently in a death at best associated with fear, and at worst associated with intense fear and pain. This is why I have classed this end-of-life option separately to euthanasia.

Let’s explain why a ‘good death’ in horses may be difficult to achieve in these environments, and what changes would be required to increase the prospect of a ‘good death’.

What is the difference between an abattoir and a knackery?

Abattoirs are licensed to slaughter animals for human consumption, whilst knackeries slaughter animals for pet food, and other by-products such as hides and bone meal.

Since the market for horsemeat for human consumption is small and based overseas, all horses slaughtered for human consumption are processed at abattoirs licensed for exporting meat, of which there are two in Australia (Queensland and South Australia).

In 2004 there were thought to be 33 knackeries across Australia that were licensed to slaughter horses 2, but the current number is unknown and has likely reduced.

The differences between abattoirs and knackeries is important because of the way in which  they are regulated.

Export abattoirs operate under both, federal legislation and the requirements of the importing country, which includes European Union legislation that incorporates some animal welfare regulations.

There are specific requirements for export abattoirs under EU legislation such as requiring a veterinarian to be on site and a designated animal welfare officer to be present when animals are unloaded on arrival.

Conversely, knackeries are regulated by the states, there are no requirements for a veterinarian or animal welfare officer, are audited much less frequently (if at all), and have no requirements for specific animal welfare audits. 7,8,9

What is the difference in welfare standards between an abattoir and knackery, and what are the potential welfare issues throughout the slaughter process?

Due to the different legislation they operate under, theoretically, it would be expected that there would be a greater potential for animal welfare standards to be higher in the export abattoirs. However, there are several reasons why this may not be the case and several steps in the process where things can go wrong for the horses.

  1. Longer distance travel

Since there are only two export abattoirs Australia wide, transport to the abattoir usually involves very long distances, with some horses travelling up to 3,000km 10.

Typically, a large number of horses that are often unfamiliar with each other, will be travelling together and a range of potential stressors have been reported, including isolation from herds, and/or exposure to new and possibly aggressive horses, temperature extremes, food and water deprivation, and novel surroundings 11.

Some transporters may have little experience handling and transporting horses, and injuries during transport may be common.

In a Texan study of over 1,000 horses being transported to slaughter, between 11 and 45 horses were transported in each truck, and 7.7% had severe welfare problems both, from prior to transport (e.g. neglect, laminitis, bowed tendons, weakness), and during transport, predominantly related to injuries from fighting with other horses 12. Conversely, much shorter distance travel is likely for horses going to knackeries.

  1. Potential 6-month ‘holding period’

For horses being slaughtered for human consumption, a medication history is required for the six-month period prior to ensure no drug residues will be present in the meat. This means that if horses are not coming directly from the person who has owned the horse for that time, they need to be ‘held’ for six months prior to slaughter.  This may be in a paddock near the abattoir or with a dealer that regularly supplies horses to the abattoir.

This is a period of time where there is more potential for welfare issues related to inadequate care. There is very little knowledge or research available on the welfare of horses arriving in abattoirs, but one study that assessed hoof condition of horses arriving at an abattoir found that 80% of horses had hoof issues related to being overgrown, suggesting at least some neglect in husbandry prior to slaughter 1. Horses going to a knackery will be slaughtered soon after arrival, so care prior to slaughter is the sole responsibility of the most recent owner.

  1. Higher numbers of horses being processed at the same time

An export abattoir may be processing up to 300 to 400 horses in one day, which is inherently more likely to lead to extreme fear and subsequent mistreatment. Knackeries on the other hand might only process a handful of horses in any one day, which is more conducive to a less stressful environment.

  1. Captive bolt stunning followed by hanging and exsanguination is routine in abattoirs

Captive bolt stunning the conscious horse is the method used in abattoirs; use of a firearm for so many horses in such a big facility would be unsafe.

Sedation cannot be given to horses destined for human consumption. As explained earlier, it can be very difficult to accurately position the captive bolt in a fully conscious horse, particularly one that is anxious and/or head shy and is moving its head.

Attempting to restrain a horse’s head results in more anxiety and fear, and their long neck makes complete head restraint almost impossible to do safely.

This is further hindered by slipping and falling within the stunning box as the horse panics.

Combined, this leads to a high risk of inaccurate placement of the captive bolt when it is fired resulting in intense pain prior to an accurate repeat shot. In some cases, there is a risk that the horse may be hoisted and the neck severed before it is fully unconscious.

Extreme fear and the high risk of inaccurate placement would most likely be worse for unhandled horses not used to human proximity or confinement, such as brumbies.

One review of 150 horses killed at an abattoir in Quebec found that 40% of horses were not rendered unconscious with the first captive bolt shot 13.

Some knackeries also use captive bolt stunning with the risk of similar welfare issues. Others may use a firearm, shooting the horse within a paddock, and this is more likely to result in immediate loss of consciousness without pain and less fear.

Without sedation captive bolt stunning is difficult.

Figure 3: Too low. Attempting to accurately place a captive bolt in a conscious horse is very challenging, as when their emotional level is high horses move and raise their head. Consequently, the captive bolt in this image is being placed too low and would miss the brain. (Note: Photo for demonstration purposes. This horse was not euthanised).


Sedated horse with head lowered, allows for more accurate placement of captive bolt.

Figure 4: Under sedation, horses are calmer and less likely to move, their head drops enabling much more accurate placement of the captive bolt. (Note: Photo taken for demonstration purposes using a horse that was sedated for a veterinary castration).

  1. Abattoir facilities are designed for cattle

Horses are behaviourally very different to cattle and require different handling and different environments to minimise distress. However, abattoir facilities in Australia are not specifically designed for horses (e.g. Meramist abattoir in QLD is designed for cattle), and abattoir staff may not have appropriate training in horse handling.

Horses also vary significantly in size as well as in their previous experiences with humans and other horses. For example, some horses are used to being led and may become distressed at being driven from behind within a group, whilst other horses may be completely unhandled and distressed if separated from their group.

One review of horses in an abattoir found that about 20% of horses were terrified and shaking with fear and making attempts to escape wherever possible. The majority of horses were at best anxious, with the noise of the abattoir environment contributing to this. 13

  1. Regulation challenges 7,8,9

The difference in legislation between abattoirs and knackeries were highlighted above. Problematically, there are no horses-specific welfare standards for the slaughter of horses.

Horses are included under the Australian Standard for the Slaughter of Livestock but the standards are dated and have very minimal animal welfare requirements.

Despite a requirement for one veterinarian to be at the facility during processing of animals at export abattoirs, these facilities are large, process multiple species, and the abattoir veterinarian’s role is largely focused on animal health and meat safety.

Auditing of animal welfare practices is performed monthly, but it is challenging to enforce animal welfare when detailed and specific standards are not in place.

Should horse slaughter in abattoirs and knackeries be banned?  

Despite all the current welfare issues with the slaughter of horses that have been highlighted in this article, simply banning horse slaughter without feasible, more humane alternatives, would be likely to lead to even more detrimental impacts on horse welfare 14.

The numbers of horses being killed at abattoirs and knackeries demonstrates the number of unwanted horses, where for whatever reason, a more humane method of euthanasia may not have been accessible to their owners.

Until the number of unwanted horses is reduced and more humane methods of euthanasia are more practically, and financially accessible then, without the option of slaughter, many of these horses would face serious neglect or be illegally killed, which is likely to be associated with even worse welfare outcomes.

For example, since horse slaughter was banned in the US, it is widely known that horses are trucked long distances to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, where animal welfare standards may be much lower with less regulation, than they had been in the US. There is also an argument for utilizing carcasses of deceased horses rather than them going to waste.

For an article about how to make an end-of-life decision for your horse, click here.

What could be done to reduce the numbers and help ensure that all horses experience a ‘good death’?   

Solutions to these problems require a multi-faceted approach and may include the following:

  • Implementation of a national horse register to increase traceability which would also enable further research into what horses are ending up at slaughter, and why. This information could direct further research into how to reduce the numbers of unwanted horses. Further, this would enable different owners of the horse throughout its life to register to ‘opt out’ of slaughter.
  • Improvement in existing abattoir facilities such as suggested in Box 1 15
  • Improvement in horses-specific welfare standards, regulation and welfare auditing within both, abattoirs and knackeries.
  • Improved access to alternative euthanasia methods such as home slaughter (after shooting with a firearm), easier to access network of licensed knackers that may perform home slaughter, subsidized euthanasia, and horse euthanasia centres.
  • If slaughter of horses within abattoirs or knackeries is to continue into the future, further research into optimal facilities for horse slaughter with the aim to develop state-of-the-art horse-specific slaughter facilities is required, as ultimately, this would be the only way of achieving and ensuring humane slaughter of horses within abattoirs and knackeries.
  • Detailed monitoring and record keeping regarding horses entering abattoirs and knackeries is also required, with transparency in access to records, to more accurately identify issues so that they can be subsequently addressed. Many of the studies cited in this article are dated because there simply hasn’t been more recent studies to provide more up to date information and this needs to be urgently addressed.

A list of design and management requirements for humane horse slaughter, as proposed by Temple Grandin 15

  1. The management of the abattoir must care about having high standards of animal welfare.
  2. There should be measurement, recording and auditing of welfare indicators, such as:
  • Percentage of horses rendered unconscious with one shot from either a captive bolt or a firearm. Minimum score should be 95%, aim is 99 to 100%.
  • 100% rendered unconscious before hoisting.
  • Falling score 1% or less body touches the ground during handling.
  • No electric prods should be used.
  • There should be no acts of abuse, such as beating, slamming gates on horses, or poking sensitive areas.
  1. Video monitoring over the Internet by a third-party auditing company.
  2. Non slip floor in the stunning box.
  3. A level or almost level floor in the stunning box.
  4. Solid sides of the stunning box to prevent the horse from seeing activity on the slaughter floor.
  5. A well-lit stunning box will facilitate entry.
  6. Eliminate distractions such as reflections on a wet floor or shiny metal, air hissing or banging metal.
  7. One person should move the horse into the stun box and a second person should shoot it, to enable shooting to be performed immediately on entry of the stun box.
  8. Do not use mechanical head restraint devices.
  9. Handlers should be observant to determine which horses should be led instead of being driven.
  10. Only one horse at a time should be put in the stun box.
  11. An adjustable side on the stun box is recommended to ensure that it is not wide enough for horses to attempt to turn around
  12. Handlers should be trained in the principles of flight zone and point of balance. The installation of solid sides on races is recommended.

Article References

  1. A Doughty (2008) An epidemiological survey of the dentition and foot condition of slaughtered horses in Australia Report for Master of Animal Studies, The University of Queensland
  2. Hayek AR (2004) Epidemiology of horses leaving the racing and breeding industries. Bachelor of Science (Veterinary Science) thesis, University of Sydney.
  3. DP Leadon (2012) Unwanted and slaughter horses. A European and Irish Perspective. Animal Frontiers 2 (3); 72-75
  4. DP Leaden, D O’Toole, VE Duggan (2012). A demographic survey of unwanted horses in Ireland 2005-2010. Irish Veterinary Journal 65, 3:
  5. TR Lenz (2009) The unwanted horses in the United States: An overview of the issue. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 29 (5); 253-258
  6. Shearer JK, Nicoletti P. Humane euthanasia of sick, injured and/or debilitated livestock. University of Florida IFAS Extension
  7. Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. Quick Reference Card. Animal Welfare Regulatory Management, 2018
  8. Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Livestock at Slaughtering Establishments, 2001. CSIRO Publishing
  9. Horsemeat production in Australia and New Zealand. Humane society international
  10. A Wright (2001) Injury, stress and dehydration – research and regulation in the commercial transport of slaughter horses. In. (University of Sydney)
  11. TH Friend (2001) A review of recent research on the transportation of horses. Anim Sci. 79, E32-40.
  12. T Grandin, K McGee, BS Lainer (1999) Prevalence of severe welfare problems in horses that arrive at slaughter plants. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association 214, 1531-1533.
  13. N Dodman (2011) A review of horse slaughter footage from Quebec
  14. Animal Welfare Institute Horse slaughter
  15. T Grandin (2012) Answering Questions about Animal Welfare during horse slaughter

This article was published in Horses and People January-February 2020 magazine.

For an article about how to make an end-of-life decision for your horse, click here.