(CBS News) Wild horses that roam America's prairies are the very heartbeat of the old west. While some see majesty in their freedom, others see profit. Not in what horses bring to wranglers and ranchers, but to slaughterhouses for their meat.
Rick de los Santos of Roswell, New Mexico has spent tens of thousands of dollars to retrofit his slaughterhouse hoping to become the first meat plant since 2007 to butcher horses and export their meat.
The tough economy took its toll on de los Santos. He and his wife Sarah run this family business together. They've lost more than $200,000 over the past two years.
But they saw a new opportunity. Upon the recommendation of its accountability office, Congress reversed a five-year-old ban on American horse slaughter, agreeing it had made conditions worse for the animals. Many of them were trucked over the border to Mexico for slaughter under horrible conditions as documented by the Humane Society.
"So, these horses are going into Mexico to be slaughtered there," de los Santos said. "And all we want is to take care of 'em here."
De los Santos applied for a license and began to retrofit his plant to meet the new USDA requirements. He was delighted to learn his would be the first American slaughterhouse cleared to sell horsemeat to Mexico, Belgium and a host of other countries where it is considered a delicacy. Now relief has turned to frustration.
"It's cost us about $75,000, that's what it's cost us, just to get ready to slaughter horses," de los Santos said. "It's sitting idle."
Believing he's fulfilled the USDA requirements, he's been anxious to get his final government inspection and license. But it's been nearly four expensive months of waiting for the USDA to pay a visit. "It's very frustrating for when, when you send your paperwork to the USDA and get it back, and we get, "It's incomplete.'"
De Los Santos thinks the delay is deliberate since he's become a focal point in the anti-horse slaughter movement. A bill has been introduced on Capitol Hill to ban horse slaughter for good. And even the governor of New Mexico released a statement about his business, saying "...creating a slaughterhouse in New Mexico is wrong."
Over a hundred thousand of these animals are already rounded up every year and slaughtered across the border - the meat shipped to Europe and Asia. It's a thriving international business, but still barely making a dent in the U.S. horse overpopulation problem. Domesticated horses are abandoned and wild horses simply left to breed unchecked.
Still, animal rights advocates insist more regulated and supervised horse slaughter here in the U.S. is not the answer. "Horse slaughter can never be done humanely, partially because of the nature of horses," said Lisa Jennings of Animal Protection of New Mexico. "When you have an animal that's what is called 'fractious,' where they wanna run, they wanna be safe, you can't humanely slaughter them."
Advocates say there are other ways to manage horse overpopulation - including finding more funding for places like The Horse Shelter - a non-profit that takes in, treats, and occasionally euthanizes abandoned animals. The shelter's Jennifer Rios says Americans have an emotional bond with horses making it impossible to think of them simply as livestock.
"I think they represent freedom," Rios said. "You see a horse running, and there's nothing more freeing-looking than a horse."
But to De los Santos' horses represent economic freedom. They point out there are too many unwanted horses to be sheltered. Besides, they just want to put their employees back to work.
"Why continue to outsource," Sarah de los Santos asked. "I mean, this whole election is gonna be about jobs."
The USDA says it's not preventing the de Los Santos' from providing jobs. The agency just needs more time to train inspectors. Now the couple is also being threatened with fines for alleged improper composting and both fear the threat they face from activists who have targeted them.
"They yell and scream and picket and do everything else," Rick de los Santos said. "And, for a small voice out here, in Roswell, New Mexico, you know, how loud can we scream? You know, those organizations are very powerful, very wealthy. And you know, how long can we go on?" But he has faith. "And I believe things will work out. I really do."
De los Santos knows it'll be easy selling horsemeat to foreign markets. But it'll be much more difficult to sell the American public on a simple idea: Horses can be your friends, but they can also be your food.