An alarming number of Florida’s former prize-winning horses – including animals in the Tampa Bay area – end up abandoned, starving, neglected and bound for the slaughter in Canada and Mexico, an ABC Action News review found.
“This phenomenon in Florida doesn’t happen anywhere else because there’s not this many horses concentrated anywhere else in the United States,” said Morgan Silver, executive director of the Horse Protection Association of Florida.
About 100,000 horses, including retired show and racing horses, are sent to the slaughter pipeline through Mexico and Canada each year – killed and shipped to the European Union for human consumption, according to the U.S. Humane Society.
In all, an estimated 1.9 million American horses have been shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter since 2001 and there is no U.S. law to stop the practice.
“We’ve created this cheap meat source for them,” said Silver. “It costs $300 to $500 to have that horse euthanized. It’s going to cost them nothing if they have somebody come pick it up.”
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, is co-sponsoring federal legislation to ban the export of American horses for slaughter.
So far, that bill is stalled in committee, but Buchanan’s spokesman told ABC Action News his office is working to “continue building support and co-sponsors for our bill.”
Close call for one slaughter-bound horse
Meanwhile, Silver said she recently almost lost a horse named Chic Soho Ardente to foreign slaughter.
The Arabian stallion was adopted by a family Silver trusted to care for the horse, according to Silver, whose Marion County horse rescue has been operating since 1990.
“About a year later, the horse had been found at the New Holland auction in Pennsylvania, which is one of the most infamous kill auctions,” said Silver. “He had a microchip, so he was found and we brought him back.”
Experts in the industry told ABC Action News there are many ways horses end up sick, starved, abandoned or abused, but also blamed owners who underestimate the high price tag that comes with caring for a horse.
Peggy Womack, who runs Turkey Creek Stables in Plant City, said her business is serving more and more as a rescue.
“‘Please come and get this horse. I can’t feed it no more,’” said Womack, reciting an often-heard line she hears from horse owners.
‘There is no feed’
Womack said some owners can’t afford to buy food for the horses they bring to her stable – citing the story of one family who brought a horse named Hometown Diva to her stables last year.
The arrangement was a “partial board” – Womack supplied the stall and the family was responsible for feeding the mare, according to Womack.
“They were pretty good for the first week or two. Then I noticed them not coming in, not coming in,” said Womack. “I go down and look. There is no feed. There is no hay. I’m feeding Diva lunch plus breakfast and supper. She’s gaining no weight. She’s almost too far gone.”
ABC Action News traced Hometown Diva’s history and learned her former owner retired the horse from show horse competitions in 2017 and then gave the animal away to a 15-year-old girl.
In August 2018, that teen posted to Facebook she was giving away Hometown Diva for free to anyone who could take care of her “the way I cannot.”
From healthy show horse to ‘significantly underweight’
Angela Mirabole, who used to work with Hometown Diva when she was a show horse, said she was in shock when she saw the photos of the horse on that Facebook post.
“This horse was unrecognizable from the Diva I knew, I used to ride and show,” said Mirabole. “She was significantly underweight.”
Mirabole said she offered to buy Hometown Diva after she was retired, but her offer was refused by the woman who owned the horse during her show competition years.
When Reporter Michael Paluska contacted that former owner, she told ABC Action News she now regrets the decision to give the horse to the teen but said at the time, she thought the horse was going to a good home.
“She did not do the right thing,” said Womack. “She didn’t talk to the parents to see if the parent could feed that horse.”
The family of the teen who adopted Hometown Diva told ABC Action News they didn’t do anything wrong and deny claims they stopped feeding the horse.
Hometown Diva is now with her new owner, Mirabole, who purchased the horse from Turkey Creek Stables.
Mirabole said she’s happy to be reunited with Hometown Diva, who she credits with helping her through a difficult time after her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“She is probably one of the kindest, appreciative, honest mares that I’ve ever known,” said Mirabole. “My mother saw me show this horse about nine months before she passed, and we have pictures today, and they are cherished photos.”