Story and Photos by Steven Long
HUNTSVILLE, (Horseback) – One of the most genetically perfect herds of horses in North America was hit hard by the selloff of 61 animals at a public auction, their most likely destination, a Mexican slaughterhouse notorious for unspeakable cruelty. The herd of Texas prison horses that were sold had been part of a contingent of animals so remarkable, and even historic, they were subject of a February 2004 cover story in Horseback Magazine’s predecessor publication, Texas Horse Talk.
The horses were part of a herd of 1,600 owned by the State of Texas and managed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville, according to Michelle Lyons, chief TDCJ spokeswoman.
“These were what we call cull horses,” she told Horseback Magazine.
The horses that prison livestock managers call “culls” boast some of the purest blood lines in the nation dating back to the mid nineteenth century. The state’s captive herd is subject to the most advanced breeding techniques and is held to exacting standards that are world class. The livestock managers are products of the renowned schools of agriculture at Texas A&M University and the nearby Sam Houston State University. Only the finest bloodlines are introduced into the herd, and that is done rarely. The horses are primarily Quarter Horses with substantial Percheron blood.
The information that the horses had been sold at auction came to Horseback Online Monday night when a confidential source who was at the Huntsville cattle auction called and said that a large number of prison horses had been sold to slaughter and had been loaded on a truck south heading down I-45.
“People who work at the prison are really upset about this,” the man said during a phone call to the magazine’s offices.
The Texas prison system holds “Premium Auctions” of horses only rarely where the public is invited to bid after extensive advertising of the sale. No such ads were placed for the 60 highly blooded horses sold Monday. The were quietly sent to auction where a large truck was already waiting, according to the source who said the horses sold for about 40 cents a pound.
Lyons confirmed the prison system auctions 90-100 “cull” horses each year from its program.
Livestock auctions are the primary sources of horses sent abroad for food. Yet Lyons categorically denies the Huntsville prisons sent their horses to auction with the knowledge they would be sold for slaughter.
“We have had calls from a woman who claims this very thing, and probably is the same person who claims to have witnessed this,” Lyons said. “She alleged that 70 horses went to one bidder. We only had 61 horses in the auction – we don’t know how many non-TDCJ horses was also part of the auction.”
“The fact is that we participate in these public auctions as a way to keep the horses (from) going to a slaughterhouse – we don’t condone the sale of our horses for slaughter,” Lyons said.
The primary source for horses going to slaughter is public auctions.
Lyons was asked to provide the name of the buyer of the large number of TDCJ horses that went to auction on Monday. She said prison livestock managers didn’t know who bought the horses. Asked by Horseback if they would call the auction house to ask the name of the buyer, she said the men declined.
Horseback Magazine called Huntsville Livestock Services, Inc. and spoke with manager Tommy Oates who declined to name the buyer of the TDCJ horses, saying “I don’t have to tell you a damned thing, ask the state,” before slamming down the phone on the reporter.
The Texas prison system breeds big horses, big enough to hold a 300 pound guard for an eight hour shift in the fields, hence the draft horse bloodlines brought into the herd. The stout corrections officer is known in prison parlance as “The Boss.” The horses and their human counterparts guard men dressed in white garb as they work fields with a garden hoe called by the derisive name, an “aggie.” The horses are bread for Texas’ 176 prison units which boast approx. 75 mounted guards or more.
There is one boss for each 25 inmates.
The prison horses are almost as wide as their bellies are deep. They hold saddles made behind the walls. The animals and men herd the system’s 20,000 cattle that are sold on the open market by the state. None of the meat is kept by TDCJ. The cheaper cuts fed to prisoners are bought at market price for the institution’s commissaries. Officials are quick to point out that prison inmates don’t eat steak but consumers may be lucky enough to eat beef raised behind prison walls.
Besides security and agriculture duty, the horses follow dogs chasing escaped convicts.
The state’s ideal prison horse is three quarters Quarter Horse and one quarter draft horse. Throughout his life a prison horse is freeze branded so that extensive records can be maintained in the system. The markings include a tattoo on the inside of the lip, a Texas star, the birth year, and ID number on the back left, and an additional identification on the horses left cheek near the anus. Like their fellow inmates, the horses have no name, only their number to identify them. The records are so extensive that a manager can track the record of a 20 year old horse and know every significant event of its life just by looking up his record.
The auction buyers Monday didn’t get the records of the horses they bought. When a horse leaves the prison system, only its Coggins certificate and ID sheet follow.
While most of the horses aren’t registered, some boast the bloodlines of pure Texas equine royalty including pedigrees from the famed Waggoner Ranch. TDCJ has also bought other Foundation Quarter Horse stallions as well. Other bloodlines go back to the days when the state first built prisons. The Walls unit in Huntsville dates to 1849 shortly after the end of the Republic of Texas. The state’s prison captive breeding program is indeed, very, very, old. The prison herd has been steadily improved for nearly 162 years, and dramatically improved in recent years.
The state has achieved its ideal confirmation of broadness, horses that have hardly any withers, and are short of back – no long backed high withered horses such as a Thoroughbred are allowed.
The horses are tough, powerful, and as potent as the 300 pound guards who ride them.
And when they go to an auction where the public is given notice, prison horses sell for considerably more than 40 cents a pound.