The most haunting part of the sad, gruesome, middle-of-the-night scene on Interstate 44 was how quiet things were.

A double-decker horse trailer en route to an Illinois slaughterhouse had crashed and was perched on its side. Forty-one horses were trapped in the mangled wreckage. Yet when Earlene Cole arrived, there was little noise beyond the clattering of a few hooves.

“I just said ‘Oh, my God’ three or four times,” Cole said, “and then I got to work.”

The work began around 3:30 a.m. on that grizzly night last September. Using huge straps attached to a tow truck winch, workers lifted and moved horses that were pinned on each other and within the confines of the thin, sharp, flesh-slicing aluminum shell of the trailer.

Six months later, this survival story is being played out at the Longmeadow Rescue Ranch – the rehab facility Cole runs – where 25 of those horses have been given the most unlikely of second chances after their trip to the slaughterhouse took an unexpected and, some say, miraculous detour.

The story of the Miracle Horses – among them, a spunky thoroughbred named Stan, a pregnant mare named Mama and a horse they call Willie because of his will to live after being trapped beneath four dead horses in the trailer – offers a sad and uplifting reflection on the world of horses and horse racing.

It’s a speculative industry that has, over the years, become overrun with animals that risk being left behind if they don’t help the bottom line.

Mostly, it’s a business with no easy answers, as breeders and trainers, traders and rescuers, recreational riders and lawmakers try to come up with solutions to an overpopulation problem that shows few signs of abating.

All those parties had a stake in this trailer wreck in rural Missouri, and half a year later, the aftermath is still being felt in big ways and small.

“It was something where you close your eyes at night and all you could see was horses laying on top of each other,” said Tom Adams, who trims and treats horses hooves for a living and was called to the scene. “It’s something I hope I never have to go through again.”

Too many horses

Standing at the ranch, watching these horses nickering and playing, many of them fully restored to health, the first question is, why were they heading to a slaughterhouse – to be processed and sold for people to eat in Europe – in the first place?

They certainly weren’t all old, which punctures one myth about the slaughterhouse business – that only the old horses get sent there. Among those saved were a yearling thoroughbred, a 4-year-old Appaloosa named D.D. and a young quarter horse mare named Karma who recently took sixth place at a local riding show.

They certainly weren’t all decrepit – one look at Willie playfully harassing his corral-mates on a sunny spring day at the ranch would put an end to that thought.

In almost every case in which a horse is sent to a slaughterhouse, it has outlived its usefulness to the owner. In some instances, that means a horse was bred for racing or show, but never flashed the speed or beauty to become a star. More often, horses are bred or bought for recreational purposes by people who later lose their love for the animal or don’t have the money and patience to deal with it.

Dogs or cats might be given to a friend, taken to a shelter or left on the street in a situation like this. Unwanted horses aren’t as easy to dispose of.

They can be turned loose in the wilderness. They can be euthanized and buried or cremated at the cost of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars. Often, they are simply taken to an auction, where sellers try to salvage a few bucks and might even hope a good home will be found for their horse.

Of course, nobody can ever be sure.

“The problem with the slaughter industry is that the people who buy to sell to the slaughterhouses aren’t always honest with the people they buy from,” Cole said. “I’ve heard stories where people sold their horse to someone who said they’d find a good home for it, and it ended up on a slaughter truck.”

There are an estimated9.2 million horses in America, including about 37,000 registered thoroughbred foals and 144,000 newly registered quarter horses in 2006. The majority of these registered horses often become expendable when they fail to find glory on a racetrack or showing ground, but they account for only a fraction of all horses.

“It’s not the bigger breeders doing most of this,” said Don Treadway, an executive with the American Quarter Horse Association. “At the bottom end, it’s hard. You can’t regulate it. You get ol’ Joe down the road who has a stud and someone else who has a mare and they want to raise a baby. You get a lot of unwanted horses that way.”

Almost everyone involved hopes that eventually the market and plain, old common sense will serve to diminish the excess numbers. Among the good signs is that breeding in the thoroughbred and quarter horse industries has flattened out over the last two decades.

Still, there are thousands of horses out there with lots more being born each year, and they can’t all have homes forever.

Legislation isn’t perfect

Sparked by a powerful lobbying group that includes nearly 100 Hollywood stars and 40 horse industry groups, a bill that bans horse slaughter for human consumption passed in the House last year by a 263-146 vote. But a companion bill was never passed in the Senate, which means the legislative process has begun again for the 2007 session.

Former Texas Rep. Charlie Stenholm, who lobbies on behalf of the slaughter industry, said not every law and regulation is 100 percent enforceable.

“But 99.9 percent of horses that go to processing plants have their lives ended humanely, as certified by a federal veterinarian,” he said.

About 90,000 horses were processed at the three U.S. slaughterhouses last year – one in Illinois and two more in Texas that are currently not slaughtering for human consumption and could be shut down permanently depending on the outcome of ongoing legal and legislative maneuvering. Those who favor keeping slaughter as an option wonder where those 90,000 animals would go if slaughter were made illegal.

The American Quarter Horse Association, the biggest horse association in the nation, is among those that lists slaughter as a viable alternative for unwanted horses.

“We don’t recommend or prefer slaughter,” Treadway said. “But is it AQHA’s business to find a home for every member’s horse when they’re done with them? I don’t think it is.”

Looking for solutions

Longmeadow is certainly doing its share. After the accident, the horse population on the 165-acre ranch, about an hour west of St. Louis, rose past 130. Add the pigs, llamas, goats and other animals to the mix, and the eight full-time employees and handful of unpaid volunteers have plenty of work on their hands.

The Humane Society of Missouri needs about $800,000 a year to run the ranch, bought in 1988 with money given by a generous donor. The cost of rehabbing the horses from the accident has reached well into six figures. But the accident, in a strange way, has helped because of the publicity it has generated for the ranch, widely recognized as the largest of its kind in the United States.

Longmeadow already has adopted out five of the rescued horses. Several more are available, and interest is high in the adoption days the ranch hosts every other week.

After some negotiating, Longmeadow gained custody of these Miracle Horses. Many are still looking for homes. A couple still aren’t completely out of the woods in their recovery.

But irony of ironies, they are in a better place than if that truck had not crashed. They have been given the rarest of second chances, and their story has offered an uplifting respite from the harsh realities of the world of horse slaughter.

“A lot of people ask me why I do this,” Cole said. “It’s the animals that reward us. When you get a horse that can barely walk, or a horse like Stan, then you see them out there running like that, that’s all the reward I really need.”