It's not a popular American dish but horse meat is considered a delicacy in European and Asian countries.
That's where some U.S. slaughterhouses found a market for the meat until 2006, when Congress banned funding for horse meat inspections, effectively preventing the use of horse meat for human consumption.
But last month that ban was lifted as part of spending legislation signed into law by President Obama, although no funding for inspections was included.
Still, the move has fostered some controversy.
"It's a very divisive issue and there are strong opinions on both sides," said Arden Sims of Beverly, president of the Washington Chapter of the Ohio Horsemen's Council, Inc.
Animal rights groups and others say removal of the ban will result in the opening of more slaughterhouses to process horse meat bound for dinner tables. And they believe it will make it easier for owners to get rid of unwanted horses at a slaughterhouse instead of finding other locations where the animals may be cared for.
By the numbers
Approximately 138,000 horses were transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010.
About the same number of horses were killed in the U.S. before a ban on funding for inspection of horse meat for human consumption became effective in 2007.
The funding ban was lifted as part of a spending bill signed into law by President Barack Obama Nov. 18.
The current U.S. horse population is estimated at 9 million.
Source: Associated Press and U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Supporters of lifting the ban say it brought about an increase in abandoned and neglected horses over the last five years and opening plants to process horse meat for human consumption would generate economic activity. Most of that meat would be exported to foreign locations.
Kim Cole, equine extension specialist at The Ohio State University, said it's not likely that horse meat will become part of the American diet anytime soon.
"I don't see people eating horse in the U.S., but some countries actually breed horses for the meat," she said. "From what I understand it's a lean, red meat with not a lot of fat."
Cole said without another alternative, horse meat is a high source of protein.
"The ban on inspections has affected the industry. There's a huge potential for export business in horse meat from this country," she said. "But right now horse meat can't be processed here, so the horses are being shipped to plants in Canada or Mexico."
Sims said the decision is up to the owner on what to do with a horse that's grown too old or is no longer wanted.
"Some would ship to a slaughterhouse but others take a more long-term view and see owning a horse or any other animal as more of a commitment," he said. "Horses can provide companionship and recreation but they will grow old and may develop medical needs that can be expensive. And if an animal has to be put down, it should be done in a humane way."
Rick Coley, of Lowell, has mixed feelings about the issue.
"When I first read about it I felt righteous indignation-it was revolting to think that horses would be slaughtered for humans to eat," he said. "But then you read about how horses were being neglected and dying in fields and pastures, which is also revolting.
"We have plenty of cattle, hogs and pigs to eat, but in some cultures horse meat is something they consume regularly," Coley added. "I guess I'm torn both ways but it seems like a sad commentary on how we treat our animals."
Cole said in the past year she's had more calls at OSU on animal neglect and abandonment than in previous years.
"It's often hard to adopt out an animal that may be at the end of its career but many still have 12 years or more to live," she said. "And many families have good intentions-buying a horse for the kids, for example-but then dad is laid off from work and they can't afford the horse. Kids have to be fed before the horse.
"In those situations it can be a tough decision what to do with an animal," Cole said. "It's nice to have some options."
She said euthanizing an animal can cost between $75 and $100 but then the horse has to be buried according to state regulations.
"Lifting the ban on funding for slaughterhouse inspections won't solve the entire problem but it may give people another option when they can't keep an animal," Cole said. "And one thing we can do within our borders is regulate the plants that process the meat."
Connie Abbott, of Waterford, has worked with horses for 40 years and has been able to rescue some animals when owners no longer want them.
"I just rescued two on Saturday," she said. "The people couldn't afford to keep them. I take some horses in and then place them with people who can take care of them.
"But some horse owners will just turn their animals loose when they can't afford them," Abbott added. "That's why there are some wild horses running in the Caldwell area now."
Although she believes many unwanted horses can be rescued and given to good homes, Abbott agrees that slaughterhouses should be able to process some animals for the meat.
"There are a lot of horses, some thoroughbreds, for example, that are adopted out, but they're just not safe to ride and they can be dangerous," she said. "Others may have injured legs or other physical problems."
Abbott advised anyone buying or adopting a horse should have the animal checked first by a veterinarian for health and temperament.