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Wild horses gather in a canyon north of Grand Junction in this May, 1, 2006, file photo. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

An attempt to ban the sale of horses for slaughter for human consumption was rejected by state lawmakers Thursday. 

The Senate voted 20-14 to kill the proposal, siding with ranchers and livestock groups who said the legislation was unnecessary and could lead to more horses dying inhumanely of sickness and old age. 

The bill had already been stripped of its original goal during a hearing last month before the Senate Agriculture Committee, where it barely passed on a 4-3 vote. The original version of the bill would have made it a crime to slaughter horses and burros for human consumption, but it was amended to instead establish tighter regulations when transporting 20 or more horses for slaughter. 

The aim was to protect horses from inhumane treatment as they travel hundreds of miles to cross into Canada and Mexico, where equine slaughter is allowed.

The measure has drawn dozens of horse rescuers and mustang advocates to the state Capitol to plead for protection of horses. Meanwhile, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association were against the legislation, brought forward by Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Boulder County Democrat.

Ranchers argued that the bill was pointless because they already have to abide by federal laws governing the transport of livestock, and they said slaughter is sometimes the most humane option for an animal. Also, they worried they could end up facing prosecution if any of their animals ended up at a slaughterhouse, even if that was not their intention when they sold them. 

Lewis said she wanted to crack down on “kill buyers,” who purchase horses at auction and then transport them to Mexico or Canada. The journey can take months, and often results in death and injury along the way, advocacy organizations say. 

Wild horse advocates allege that many of the mustangs gathered in roundups by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management end up in the slaughter pipeline, although it’s illegal to sell a wild horse to slaughter. 

The United States, including Colorado, is sending an estimated 20,000 horses per year to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, according to recent reports from animal welfare groups and the American Journal of Veterinary Research. The meat is exported to other nations that consume horse meat. 

Animal welfare advocates also are lobbying for federal legislation that would end the practice nationwide. 

The last three horse slaughter facilities in the country, two in Texas and one in Illinois, shut down in 2007 as a result of state laws and a congressional amendment that removed funding for inspection of live horses at their plants. 

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...