Local Spotlight

Liberty Sanctuary: Saving America’s Young and Healthy Horses from Being Slaughtered for Food

Liberty Sanctuary’s mission is to rescue and rehabilitate horses and donkeys that would otherwise go to slaughter while educating about their plight and inhumane circumstances.


It’s a warm spring morning in Bowie, Texas. A beautiful painted mare is in the final stage of labor. At six years old, she is healthy but terrified, which is understandable given her surroundings. Stuffed in a dirty, uncomfortable stall, she must give birth to her baby on her own. After a final push, the front hooves of the newborn come into view, then the nose, head, neck, shoulders, and hindquarters. The mother gently licks her baby’s face and soon the colt is walking around the crowded pen. 

While the birth was a success, outside perils persist. Sadly for mom and baby, the pair have been given a death sentence in a Texas kill pen. If not rescued, the two will be shipped to a chevaline (horse meat) plant in Mexico.

Luckily, during this same time, a Utah-based nonprofit had just opened its doors. Founded by Debra West, a longtime equine owner and lover, Liberty Sanctuary has a mission to rescue and rehabilitate horses and donkeys from the slaughter pipeline, and to share their stories and create awareness of their plight and inhumane circumstances.

Founder, Debra West, nurtures a young American mare on the Liberty Sanctuary ranch. Photo courtesy of Debra West.

In April 2023, Liberty had just performed its first rescue mission from that same Texas kill pen. They were quarantining and vetting the rescues nearby when West learned of the painted mare and her newborn colt. “We had to go back and rescue them immediately so care could begin,” said West. 

“All the horses arrived with USDA stickers glued to them, so providing them with names and true identities was important,” West explained. She wanted their names “to protect them for their courage and value.” 

Accordingly, West bestowed the name Gemma — meaning treasure — to momma mare, and the colt was dubbed Jasper — a precious stone. 

West explained what motivated her to create the nonprofit. “My husband and I have owned horses for years but we were unaware of what happens during the kill pen process. Contrary to the common belief that only sickly horses are sold for meat, 92% of the equines slaughtered are healthy young animals. Owners take the horses that they love to be traded at an auction, but they don’t realize that often the horse is bought by a ‘kill buyer’ that contracts with a slaughterhouse.” 

For the next 7 to 14 days, the auctioned animals are gathered in a US kill pen. Shortly thereafter, the horses and donkeys are stuffed into trailers and transported to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada.

Rescues, Comanche and Brecken. Photo by Debra West.

This entire experience is obviously traumatizing, so it’s no surprise the rescued animals arrive at the sanctuary extremely fearful and sometimes physically hurt or ill. Fortunately, Liberty has Eric Kraut on board as Director of Equine Wellness. Eric is a dedicated equine physical therapist. Known as ‘the baby whisperer’, he gives special care to the youngest residents, ranging from one month to a year, and also provides medical supervision to all sanctuary animals. 

“Trevor Howard runs our training program and is one of the most talented and authentic horsemen I have met,” West said. “Honestly, I may rescue the horses, but it’s Trevor and Eric who really save and rebuild their lives.” 

Additionally, none of this could happen without Liberty’s dedicated and caring volunteer staff managed by Alesia Valentine.

Once the rescues have had time to settle in, they are carefully introduced to rehabilitation and training techniques geared to build trust with humans. The ultimate goal is to find them permanent, secure homes. So far, four of the rescues have been adopted and more will follow. 

West knows she will add Gemma and Jasper to the adoption list soon, but it won’t be easy. “Momma and baby were pretty fearful when they first arrived, but Jasper is now 7 months old and thriving. He is the perfect example of the success of our program. Our belief is that he will be a wonderful, adoptable horse with little to no memory of his negative experiences. Gemma is more shut down than some, but we will absolutely reach her, too.” 

Creating awareness is paramount for West. “No American equine deserves to be sold out to a meat plant. We have solutions and homes right here in the United States.” 

Liberty Sanctuary’s ultimate mission is to ensure that no equine will be exported for slaughter again. This goal can be reached through the passing of the Save America’s Forgotten Equines (SAFE) Act. This bipartisan bill, introduced to the 2023-2024 Congress, would permanently ban horse slaughter in the United States and prohibit the exportation of horses for slaughter. As written, the SAFE Act amends the Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act of 2018 by simply adding the words “or equines,” thus protecting our nation’s top three companion animals from slaughter. Disgustingly, there are opponents to the bill, including the meat lobby and other groups.  

To become law, the SAFE Act needs to pass in the House of Representatives, and then in the Senate. Liberty Sanctuary, along with other animal advocates, plans to continue their fight for these majestic creatures until they are federally protected.

If you would like to support the SAFE Act, you can email your legislature at democracy.io. You may also donate toward the care of Liberty Sanctuary’s 28 equine rescues here.

Feature image by Peggy Spear, courtesy of Liberty Sanctuary.


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