"Free-roaming horses cost the Navajos $200,000 a year in damage to property and range, said Ben Shelly, the Navajo president. There is a gap between reality and romance when, he said, “outsiders” like Mr. Redford — who counts gunslinger, sheriff’s deputy and horse whisperer among his movie roles — interpret the struggles of American Indians.
"The horses, tens of thousands of them, are at the center of a passionate, politicized dispute playing out in court, in Congress and even within tribes across the West about whether federal authorities should sanction their slaughtering to thin the herds. The practice has never been banned, but stopped when money for inspections was cut from the federal budget.
"In Navajo territory, parched by years of unrelenting drought and beset by poverty, one feral horse consumes 5 gallons of water and 18 pounds of forage a day — sometimes the water and food a family had bought for itself and its cattle.
"According to the latest estimates, there are 75,000 feral and wild horses in the nation, and the numbers are growing, Mr. Shelly said. They have no owners, and many of them are believed to be native to the West. The tribes say they must find an efficient way of reducing the population. Although it is common to shoot old and frail horses — and more merciful than a ride to the slaughterhouse — there are too many of them to be dealt with, and there is some money in rounding them up and selling them at auction.
"The United States has never fostered a market for horse meat, a dietary staple in places like Belgium, China and Kazakhstan. It does have a history of horse slaughtering, though; at one point, there were more than 10 such slaughterhouses in the country. The last three, one in Illinois and two in Texas, closed in 2007, after Congress banned the use of federal money for salaries for personnel whose job was to inspect the horses and the facilities where they would be slaughtered. (One thing inspectors look for is evidence of drug use on the horses, not uncommon among those once used for racing.)
"In their last year, the three plants slaughtered a total of 30,000 horses for human consumption and shipped an additional 78,000 for slaughter in Canada and Mexico, according to statistics by United States and Canadian authorities. Congress’s subsequent unwillingness to finance inspections made slaughtered horse meat ineligible for the seal of inspection it needs to be commercially sold, effectively ending the practice.
"Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit and one of the groups lobbying Congress to end horse slaughter, said its efforts were focused on preventing the killing of horses for human consumption “to avoid creating an industry that would turn horses into a global food commodity.”