Dozens of kids at Tyler Mountain Stables in Kanawha County have learned how to ride, on the back of a gentle giant named Duncan.
He is a 16 year old Saddlebred horse that carefully carries children on his back, as a lesson horse at the stable.
"We use him for all of our camps and our little kids at the horse shows and it is just neat," said trainer Marlena Thornton.
The stable adopted Duncan from a Saddlebred rescue group that out bid a kill buyer at an auction.
"Every time he goes in the ring it crosses my mind you know, where he would have been," Thornton said.
In 2007 the United States ended domestic horse slaughter by cutting funding for USDA inspections. But that didn't stop horses like Duncan from ending up in slaughter houses. Every week horses are sold at auction, bought by kill buyers and shipped to Canada and Mexico. According to the USDA as many as 138,000 horses are shipped out of the country for slaughter every year.
"They go through the kill pen then they are run through the chutes into the ring and out the other side of the door," described Julie Copper, from Copper Horse Crusade. "It is mostly kill buyers that are buying horses that are in those pens."
Copper started Copper Horse Crusade when she realized what was happening at the local auction house in Sugarcreek, Ohio. She goes to the auction every Friday and buys horses from the kill pen, rehabilitates them and then places them in new homes.
"People have the misconception that these are all sick, blind, old or injured horses," Copper said. "That is so far from being the case."
The owner of Sugarcreek Livestock Auction, Leroy Baker, has been fined several times by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the USDA. Baker is a known kill buyer. A complaint was filed by the APHIS in 2008 accusing him of many violations including transporting blind or injured horses without consideration or vet care and even failing to take action as some died on long trips to Texas.
"There are dealers that just don't care," Copper said. "You see these horses cheap on Craigslist and they go and they pick them up and they can take a load up to Sugarcreek and make a couple hundred bucks doing it."
Each week the kill pens are packed full of healthy, sometimes purebred horses. Copper says the situation is a product of irresponsible owners, over breeding and the economy.
"There are too many horses and not enough homes," Copper said. "Everyone says ban slaughter, ban slaughter. Slaughter isn't really the problem. It is the result of the problem."
Some have argued that ending slaughter in the United States would lead to more suffering among horses whose owner could not or would not care for them.
Horse lover Gena Nicholas says there are better solutions.
"The minute that door closes on that slaughter truck I go home and grieve for every horse on that truck," Nicholas said.
She is a volunteer with the Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue near Huntington.
"You need to know that your horse is not leaving your residence or the person you sold it to and going straight to a slaughter factory."
The United States Government Accountability Office is a nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. The agency looked into the issue of horse slaughter last year.
Their report recommended that Congress either restore domestic slaughter houses to end the long trips out of the country and allow for better supervision or entirely end both horse slaughter in the United States and their export out of the country.
In November 2011, an appropriations bill passed allowing domestic horse slaughter facilities to reopen.
"This horse is worth more right now in our economy dead," Nicholas said when describing the horse market today and the value placed on horse meat by kill buyers.
These days horses at local auctions that used to sell for hundreds of dollars can barely fetch $25.
Which is why Copper says, desperate owners are taking desperate measures.
"Getting 50 bucks is a lot more feasible for them than spending hundreds of dollars putting their horse down," said Copper. "That is unfortunate but that is the reality."
Some progress has been made when it comes to the treatment of slaughter horses. Revised regulations for the types of trailers and manner of transport have helped. But Nicholas says it isn't enough.
"Every horse on that truck deserves someone to shed a tear for it. Every horse on that truck deserves somebody to stand and say they don't agree with this," Nicholas said.
Horse advocates even recommend gelding clinics to keep horses from reproducing or euthanasia clinics for horse owners that can no longer care for the animals. It is seen as a preferred alternative to the horror of slaughter.
Even those who aren't animal lovers believe selling backyard horses for meat could be a public health issue. Especially since medicines like worming medicines and pain medicines routinely given to horses are clearly marked as not intended for animals used for human consumption.
"That is especially true with horses going to the European Union. The horses are tainted because they weren't intended to be food animals," Copper said.
And as she watches Duncan work with the children at her barn, with a gentle spirit and patience, Thornton can't imagine what could have been.
"He'll be at the barn forever," Thornton said. "I am never going to agree with the fact that they need to be slaughtered."
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends alternatives to taking your horse to auction. Including finding a new home for your horse on your own by checking referencing and adopting to someone you know. They recommend donating your horse to a therapeutic riding program or other group that works with horses or finding an approved rescue group that may have an opening.
Rescuers themselves say calling auction house to complain will not help. Instead they recommend getting horses gelded, breeding responsibly and educating yourself and those around you about horse slaughter. Since the issue has been considered by Congress, you can also contact your representatives.