More than 100,000 equines enter the U.S. slaughter pipeline each year, snapped up at auctions or off of Craigslist by kill buyers who ship them to meat processing plants in Canada and Mexico.
Many are healthy horses, ponies, mules and donkeys that landed there through cruel twists of fate: an owner's death, divorce, illness or financial crisis. Others have been discarded by families whose children have outgrown their novel pets.
The Amish saddlebreds that find their way into the pipeline have a different story that begins in the priciest zip codes of the horse world.
Bred for high-level showing and mostly born into great wealth, American saddlebreds that don't fulfill lofty expectations are culled by breeders and trainers who begin evaluating youngsters still at their mothers' side.
"Those babies better trot a hole through the wind or they're going off to auction," says Erika Gilbert, who worked at a Kentucky saddlebred farm before founding Lakeland's Grune Heidi Farm Rescue
Even the cream of the crop -- saddlebreds that have performed well on the show circuit -- are subject to the whims of competitors who may or may not know what happens to their discarded 3-gaited saddleseat mount when they decide to pursue the ribbons in Country Pleasure, 5-gaited classes or some other equestrian discipline.
Because they are often trained to harness before they are ridden, saddlebreds are prized in Amish country as road-ready transportation, possessed of the grit and temperament to trot 50 or more miles a day, every day -- until they simply can't.
"The Amish will pay thousands for a saddlebred advertised as 'ready for miles'," says Gilbert.
By the time they reach their teens -- middle-aged by horse standards -- many can no longer maintain the grueling pace and distance required. They are driven to a local auction, unhooked from the buggy and traded in on a younger road-ready model.
The kill buyers snap up the exhausted road warriors for a few hundred dollars, to be re-sold by the pound.
Pursuing another way
Some Amish are unconcerned about what happens to transportation that has outlived its use to them. Others don't like the idea of sending a faithful family servant "to the butcher," as they say. But this is how it has always been; it is a fact of Amish life.
Saddlebred rescues around the country are working to change that view, and to offer the Amish an alternative to discarding hard-working, versatile horses that can be repurposed and given a second chance at life.
"Word is starting to get out in the Amish community that they can sell their horses to us rather than send them off to auction," says Nealia McCracken, founder of Saddlebred Rescue, Inc.
, a New Jersey nonprofit that operates out of North Wind Stables
, a renowned show stable based in rural Warren County.
McCracken offers free seminars in nearby Amish communities, where she explains the importance of proper feeding and care.
"Many of them don't know much about horses other than what was passed down from their father or grandfather," she says. "They ask a lot of good questions."
The informal gatherings are well attended and serve the dual purpose of improving the horses' current lives, while letting their owners know there is an alternative to slaughter when their buggy days are over.
"We have a waiting list of Amish who are willing to hold their horses until we have room," says McCracken.
These horses will be spared the trauma of being run through auction and sent to crowded kill pens teeming with disease, where they can be bullied, injured or infected by other horses.
Social media has facilitated networking among rescues to share photos and videos of about-to-be-discarded road warriors that can be purchased directly from the Amish; but there is often a short window of time to act before they are sent to auction.
For now, far more Amish horses end up in kill pens -- still wearing their borium road shoes and the telltale marks made by long days in ill-fitting harnesses.
"Imagine how many more horses we could save if we didn't have to pay the kill buyers' markup," says Gilbert.
To find more information, including how you can be donate to the cause, visit the Grune Heidi Farm website. Writer Jan Hollingsworth lives in north Florida with eight horses. Two are former Amish road warriors.