They eat horses, don't they?

In Japan and much of Europe, they do, and that's presenting the old gray mares of America with a delemma: How can they stay down on the farm after their owners discover what they'll bring in the butcher shop?

Europe's hunger for horseflesh is revolutionizing America's billion dollar pleasure horse industry, driving up the price for horses tenfold in the past 10 years and presenting many horse owners with an apparently irresistible temptation.

What's more, it's not just the old nags that are ending up as overseas steaks, hamburgers and puree. "It isn't necessarily the crippled or the inferior or the blind. It's the healthy horse now," says John Heyl, manager of a Northern Virginia Livestock exchange.

Europeans, he says, "like thoroughbred horses because they've been eating grain all their lives."

Heyl, who fancies himself a horse lover, presides over one of two monthly auctions that send hundreds of horses, many of them young and healthy, to slaughter for the sake of food.

"I'm addicted to horses the way an alcoholic is to booze," says the 60-year-old Heyl, who has profited from, if not totally appproved of, the boom in horse meat sales that last year took 327,000 American horses from pasture to platter. "You've got to take the bitter with the sweet."

The foreign taste for equine steak has driven the horse flesh from five to fifty cents a pound. A steed that sold for $50 a few years ago now brings $500.

It has also created controversy.

"We think it is absolutely appalling that the horse industry has so little interest in preserving young, healthy horses and will sell then at auction, knowing the majority are going to horse meat killers," complains Joan Blue, the president of the American Horse Protection Association, a national, nonprofit organization with headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Ron Corn, the president of M&R Packing Co. of Hartford, Conn., one of three slaughterhouses which buy Virginia horses, argues that the overseas market actually benefits horses.

"Most of your horses are well cared for because they're bringing premium market prices," says Corn, who adds that the great majority of the horses sold for meat are old or infirm.

Wayne Freeze, co-owner of the Front Royal, Va livestock exchange agrees. "If they weren't killing them, there would be all kinds of horses lying around suffering. A human might as well eat them as a dog," says Freeze. He dismisses critics of the horse meat slaughter as "people that bitch about anything."

One thing that both sides will agree on is that the lucrative foreign market has priced many potential backyard horse owners out of the field.

"It's becoming an enormous problem," says Blue. "The price of a (unregistered) horse has been pushed up astronomically. Children wanting a good horse to learn to ride will have to be millionaires to afford it."

Heyl says he is also worried about the effect the overseas market will have on pleasure horses. "A pony that went for $20 a few years ago, today goes for $100," said Heyl during last week's sale of 175 horses and ponies. "If people don't take a little thought and breed more horses, we're going to be in real shortage."

Just as soaring metal prices led to more gold and silver thievery, so has the increased market for horseflesh been accompained by a rash of horsenapping. t

"Valuable horses have been kidnaped out of pastures for the meat market," says Peter Winants, editor of Chronicle of the Horse, a national magazine with headquarters in Middleburg. "It came about the same time as the value of meat went up."

But for all the negatives voiced by horse lovers, there are other horse people who say the new market has done inexperienced horse buyers a service.

"They cleaned up a lost of garbage." said a buyer for an Orange County, Va., horse farm at the Fauquier auction. "People used to go out and buy a horse, then get home and find out it was a killer after it broke a kid's back.

"Or they bought a $200 horse, then spent a couple thousand dollars on vet bills and still had a lame horse."

Sandy Bickel, an Orange County housewife and part-time horse trader, stands somewhere between the two sides in the controversy. She does not like to see a good horse go to a slaughterhouse, but she realizes the new economics of horse raising.

"If you want to make money you have to alloy some horses to go through the meat market," she says.

Last week Bickel took a chestnut yearling stallion to the Fauquier auction.It was a healthy, well-mannered horse, said Bickel, but because it was still too young to be ridden, a buyer from Cavalier Inc., a Virginia-based meat exporter, made the final bid of $280.

"There's no crying or sobbing," said Bickel, pointing to her two daughters, aged 8 and 11. "They know the horse is going to the killer. It hardens them rather early, but it teaches them the realities of life, too."