ALMONTE, Spain (AP) -- The southern Spanish region of Andalusia, famed for flamenco and Moorish castles, is also home to a legendary breed of horses that carried conquistadors into battle in the Americas, featured in Hollywood epics and more recently became trophy acquisitions for Spaniards during a giddy economic boom.
On his grassy ranch in the territory's heartland, 73-year-old Francisco Mesa breeds these "Pura Raza Espanola" -- Pure Spanish Breed -- horses with a passion that comes from years of pampering the elegant beasts known for their intelligence and affection for humans. He enters a muddy pen and is immediately surrounded by mares and foals who nuzzle him with tenderness, oblivious of their almost certain fate: the slaughterhouse.
Barring an unlikely reprieve, Mesa's purebreds will be turned into horse meat for export come July. They are victims of a wrenching economic downturn that has wiped out fortunes, turned housing developments into ghost towns and left more than a quarter of the population out of work.
The Pura Raza Espanola breed has always been popular in Spain but took off just after the start of the country's biggest ever economic boom in the late 1990s. They had already won fame as war horses and gifts exchanged between European nobility, and have been featured in Hollywood films such as "Gladiator" and "Braveheart." The spike in demand over the last decade triggered a breeding frenzy in which the number of horses in Spain rose by the hundreds of thousands, nearly half of them purebreds like Pura Raza Espanola. Spain's newly minted affluent classes couldn't get enough of them.
Then came the bust of Spain's property bubble in 2008. First demand for the horses dried up. Now, as the financial crisis deepens with no end in sight, there's a new dilemma: Horse owners are increasingly unable to pay for the animals' upkeep. It all means that they face slaughter if owners can't find anybody to take the animals off their hands. Until last year, Spanish law even dictated that rejected horses must be sent to the slaughterhouse. That's no longer the case but most still are turned into meat because there's little alternative if nobody else is willing to take the horses in. Owners who simply abandon horses face steep fines.
The number of horses sent to slaughter in Spain by owners and breeders hit 70,000 last year, more than double the 30,000 recorded killed by the country's Agriculture Ministry in 2008.
Mesa grew up on a farm where horses were the machinery before the machines came in, and has been in the breeding business since 1991. He used to sell his purebreds for tens of thousands of euros each, and is now desperately trying to unload his 25 horses cheap or give them away to save their lives. He is horrified at the strong prospect of them being turned into meat that few Spaniards eat, but is exported to other European countries -- especially France and Italy.
In these lean times, Mesa says he can't justify spending any more of his monthly government pension, supplemented by rent his son gets from another farm, to pay the cost of the horses' upkeep. So he has set a June deadline for finding a new owner for his horses. If he can't, this is what happens: A buyer who sells horses to the slaughterhouses pays about 150 euros ($200) per animal, and sends a truck to pick them up. The horses then remain in a corral until the local slaughterhouse gets through its waiting list of horses slated for butchery.
"We want them to stay alive and we are trying to see if we can get something back of what we have spent on them," Mesa said. "And if not I fear as a last resort, with all the pain in my heart, we will have to send them to the slaughterhouse. But I am begging for help. I don't want to make any money out of this."
Mesa doesn't believe the market for prize horses that Spain enjoyed for years will come back in his lifetime. It's a view that animal breeding experts and government officials agree with.
"Horses were a status symbol and lots of people bought them, learned to ride, and the horse breeders prospered" said Carlos Buxade, an animal husbandry professor and head of the animal production department at the Polytechnical University of Madrid. "What's happening now is that it costs 350 to 400 euros ($455 to $520) a month to maintain a horse and there's a lot of people who can't" afford that anymore.