A federal appeals court says slaughtering horses for meat is illegal in Texas, where the animals symbolize the Old West and where two of the nation's three processing plants are located.
The decision, issued Friday by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, overturns a lower court's ruling last year on a 1949 Texas law that banned horse slaughter for the purpose of selling the meat for food.
The lower court said the Texas law was invalid because it had been repealed by another statute and was pre-empted by federal law.
However, a panel of three judges on the 5th Circuit disagreed, saying the law still stood and was still enforceable.
The 5th Circuit decision also cited more than the law.
"The lone cowboy riding his horse on a Texas trail is a cinematic icon. Not once in memory did the cowboy eat his horse," wrote Judge Fortunato Benavides.
The ruling involves the Dallas Crown Inc. slaughter mill in Kaufman and Beltex Corp. in nearby Forth Worth. The nation's third plant is in Illinois, run by Cavel International Inc. at DeKalb. All three operations are foreign-owned.
A bill pending before Congress would shutter all three operations.
The plants ship the meat overseas, since it is considered a delicacy in parts of Europe and Asia.
About 88,000 horses, mules and other equines were slaughtered in 2005, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
While proponents such as the American Veterinary Medical Association say slaughter is a kind way to deal with old horses and a better alternative to abandonment, opponents including Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens and country music star Willie Nelson have argued that the killing of equines is un-American - and that many young horses are killed as well.
The Humane Society of the United States, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, applauded the 5th Circuit decision.
"This is the most important court action ever on the issue of horse slaughter," Wayne Pacelle, the society's president and chief executive, said in a statement. "When this ruling is enforced, a single plant in Illinois will stand alone in conducting this grisly business."
There was no immediate response to calls seeking comment Saturday from representatives of Dallas Crown and Beltex.