Virginia Solera Garcia helps runs the CYD Santa Maria shelter with her sister, Concordia Márquez, adopting horses that might otherwise end up in the food supply.
Cured sausage meats from horses hang in a horse butcher in Camas, Spain.
Concordia Márquez, founder of the CYD Santa Maria shelter, poses with two horses she adopted.
It's been four years since Spain's construction-fueled economy collapsed, leaving 57 percent of young Spaniards out of work. Noisy protesters occupy Madrid's streets every weekend, demanding jobs and an end to punishing austerity.
But there is another, voiceless victim of the country's economic crash: Spanish horses.
They once carried the conquistadores into battle in the Americas. Spanish purebred horses have long been the choice breed for royal equestrians across Europe and for cowboys in Hollywood films. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Spanish construction barons began buying up horses, a status symbol for newly minted millionaires in Spain's heady boom years.
José Manuel was one of them. Ten years ago he bought a ranch in eastern Spain and started filling it with so-called PREs (pura raza españolas), Spanish purebred horses. NPR found him in the classified ads. He's trying to sell his horses now.
"I've got five horses left. I used to have more," he says. "I was never a horse expert. I just liked riding, and everyone was buying up horses back then. But I don't ride them anymore."
He has put his prized horses up for sale for a fraction of what he paid for them.
"This one horse, around seven years ago, was worth $40,000. But not anymore," Manuel says. "Now he's worth less than half, around $17,000. Prices have fallen so much. These are tough times."
In Spain it can cost about $400 a month to house and feed a horse and pay veterinary bills. Manuel has five. He won't say what he'll do if he's unable to find a buyer.
But last year, more than 70,000 Spanish horses were sent to slaughterhouses, more than twice the annual average before the country's economy tanked. Some of those are exported to France and Italy, where there's less of a stigma against eating horse meat than in Spain. But others erroneously ended up in the food supply, sparking scandal last year.
Concordia Márquez tries to save horses from that fate. She runs a shelter in southern Spain, just outside Malaga, called CYD Santa Maria. It adopts horses that might otherwise end up in the food supply.
"What we call the PREs, the pure Andalusian breed, was for ages an expensive horse and very difficult to find," Márquez says. "But the problem is, the owners — the good breeders — prefer to send those horses to the slaughterhouse than to devalue the price."
Márquez offers them another option: donate the horses to her ranch, where she'll take care of them for free. The facility survives on donations. As she talks, she strokes the nose of a horse named Teide, whom she rescued.
"This is a PRE. I found him abandoned, and we adopted him here. He's got a problem in his hind legs, but he's very beautiful, a stallion," Márquez says.
She found him on a massive ranch filled with animals, abandoned in 2010 by its bankrupt owner.
"When we arrived there that day with the police, we found skeletons everywhere — horses, dogs, cats, ponies. It was amazing," she says. "He survived with another 10 horses, all really skinny. But we couldn't save 50 or 60 other horses who died there."
Experts say that while tens of thousands of Spanish horses are sent to the slaughter, untold thousands more may be shot by their owners, or freed and left to starve. There are no records for horses who perish outside slaughterhouses or veterinary clinics.
For The Love — Or Not — Of Horses
Driving across southern Spain, you can see horses grazing lazily next to the road. It's unclear who owns them.
"If you pay attention, you're going to see that they are completely alone," says Virginia Solera García, Márquez's sister. "They don't have water, and they don't have shelter if it rains or it's really sunny. They appear in the middle of the roads here in Andalusia, all the time."
Solera also works at CYD Santa Maria, helping to rescue those horses from the roadside. She says the economic crash has exposed a dark side to a longtime Spanish tradition.
"It's true that here in Spain, there is long history of loving horses. But now, because of my experience, I realize it's not really about loving horses," she says. "Some people want to have a horse because it's something luxurious, that you can show to your friends and say, 'Yay, I have horses because I'm rich, and I'm an important person.' "
These days, the number of Spaniards who can still say that has dwindled. And many of their horses are now here, in this stable, being cared for by these two sisters.