The drafty green auction barn in Front Royal fills up on the first Saturday of each month with horse traders keen to score a good deal or, even more importantly, unload a bad one. They guffaw greetings across the room and stomp mud from their boots after surveying the pens out back where today's prospects, lot numbers glued to their hides, await an uncertain fate.

The professional buyers quickly crowd the inside rail of the tiny ring, sizing up the horses hustled past. Many of the dealers will likely head over to Pennsylvania come Monday, where the largest horse auction east of the Mississippi takes place in New Holland. From there, it might be on to Maryland to buy retired thoroughbreds cheap.

The auction begins with a skinny old appaloosa, so woebegone that bidding opens at just $10.

"Twenty dollars, twentytwentytwenty," urges the auctioneer.

A silver-haired man in the ring nods almost imperceptibly.

"Twenty dollars. Do I hear thirty? Thirtythirty- thirtythirty?"

An intense woman in the stands raises her hand. The man in the ring turns to meet the competition's gaze. They recognize one another, and there is a tacit understanding that what they're fighting over is not the life of this sorry mare, but her death.

The woman is from a rescue organization. The man sells to a slaughterhouse.

With a slight nod, the meat man lets the appaloosa go.

Now, a similar battle is about to be played out in a far bigger arena, with much higher stakes, in what may be the last roundup for a $41 million industry that most Americans don't even realize exists: The slaughter of horses for human consumption overseas.

Texas prosecutors are threatening criminal charges against the last two equine slaughterhouses in the United States under an obscure 1949 state agricultural statute unearthed by animal welfare activists. Meanwhile, a bill being drafted in the U.S. Senate would make slaughtering a horse for human consumption a federal offense, even if the meat is for export only.

But even within animal welfare circles, there are fears that victory may be bittersweet, a triumph of sentiment over reason by a society that prizes Flicka as friend, not filet.

Of an estimated 7 million-plus horses in the United States, about 50,000 end up each year in the Texas slaughterhouses, where they are stunned by a four-inch retractable bolt shot into the brain, then hung up by a hind leg to have their throats slit so they can be bled out. The method, required by the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, is the same used for beef cattle. At least 20,000 additional American horses are transported to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. Over the past two decades, more than 3 million American horses have been slaughtered for foreign markets.

"The problem is, what are we going to do with 70,000 unwanted horses a year? There aren't enough rescue organizations," said a horse industry official who refused to be identified because the issue is too divisive.

"It's super, super sad," said Hillary Bogley, who bought the underweight appaloosa in Front Royal for her Middleburg Humane Foundation. "Now they'll all go to Mexico, where we have no regulation and the animals will suffer even more. Horse slaughter is not going to go away unless people regulate the breeding industry to stop overpopulation.

"Slaughter is just a necessary evil."

When she can afford to, and has space for them, Bogley, like other equine rescuers, will buy sick, lame, malnourished or blind horses at auction to either rehabilitate them or have a veterinarian euthanize them, with the carcass then hauled away to a rendering plant for disposal. Euthanasia and rendering can cost an owner a few hundred dollars, which explains why some refer to slaughter as "the poor man's euthanasia."

Jesse Austin, a horse dealer based in Louisa whose business includes selling to a Canadian slaughterhouse, views it as responsible recycling.

"I go to maybe four sales a week," Austin said at the Front Royal auction, where he ended up buying four horses for $1,865. He figured two would likely end up at the slaughterhouse.

"I see crippled horses at two or three different auctions a week, the same ones jockeying around. A lot of them are drugged and doctored up so they look good in the ring, then someone who bought them thinking they got a nice riding horse gets home and discovers that the horse is lame, or 30 years old, not 15.

"Then some kid rides him to death on the Blue Ridge, beating on him to go faster. That's cruelty."

If the horse was going to be put down anyway, Austin argued, and the method of slaughter has been federally sanctioned as humane, then why shouldn't the meat go to feed people rather than to "a big hole in the ground?"

In Fort Worth, the prosecutor leading the legal battle against horse slaughter sees it differently.

"In this country, you don't eat your dog, you don't eat your cat, and you don't eat your horse," asserted Ann Diamond, the assistant Tarrant County district attorney.

"The status of the horse is a moral and cultural dispute," she acknowledged. "Should these animals be considered purely livestock, purely companion animals, or a combination of both?

"Remember, the killing is not illegal. What's illegal is the possession of horse meat or the sale of it for human consumption."

Diamond is quick to note that her own mother is from Belgium, one of the biggest horse meat importers, and although Diamond has never eaten horse herself, she said she respects the rights of other cultures to do so -- as long as they're not American horses.

France, Belgium and Italy are among the most voracious consumers in Europe, where fears of "mad cow" disease and an enthusiasm for free-range over factory-raised protein make horse meat a delicacy. Raising a horse to maturity is costly, especially in Western Europe or Japan, where open space is scarce; it is cheaper to feed the niche market with imported horse meat from the United States, Mexico or South America.

Recipes posted in German on the Internet include horse meat goulash and filets in burgundy sauce. Its proponents describe horse meat as sweet, tender and reminiscent of elk.

Both the Fort Worth-based Beltex slaughterhouse and the smaller Dallas Crown plant are European-owned, and while the rump roasts, T-bones and sirloin steaks intended for human consumption are all shipped overseas, both companies also sell meat to U.S. zoos, whose endangered carnivores, they contend, are dependent on horse meat.

The horse's pericardium -- a thin, membrane sac surrounding the heart -- can be used to make human heart valves and patches used during open heart surgery. Parts of the carcass are also sold by the slaughterhouses to make products including violin bows, art brushes, baseball covers, fertilizer and pet food.

In a lawsuit challenging Texas's right to prosecute them, the slaughterhouses argue that they are federally regulated and that cultural intolerance is the real reason they are coming under fire after nearly 30 years in operation.

"We also slaughter wild boar, ostrich and bison, and nobody asks about them," notes Dick Koehler, manager of Beltex, which processes about 500 horses a week, most of them bought at out-of-state auctions. The going rate right now is 30 to 40 cents a pound, with the average horse weighing around 1,000 pounds. The huge Belgian draft horses that turn up after outliving their usefulness on Amish farms fetch only a nickel a pound because they are considered too tough and sinewy.

Beltex and Dallas Crown said they will shut down if the lucrative human market for horse meat is closed to them, though the laws would not prevent them from continuing to slaughter as many horses as they wanted, in the same manner, for premium pet food or other byproducts.

Because Americans have never developed a taste for horse meat and there is no market for it here, the slaughterhouses contend, the only rationale behind the current zeal to enforce the 1949 statute is to protect the public "from the possible offensiveness arising from knowing foreigners are eating horse meat processed in Texas."

In 1998, Californians voted by a 62 percent majority to make it a felony to sell a horse for human consumption. Now Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is drafting legislation to stop the slaughter trade on a federal level, recognizing the horse's "significant role in the history and culture of our country."

"This horse meat is not used to feed starving people," Feinstein said in a written statement. "Rather, it is sold as a delicacy in Canada, Europe and Asia for almost $15 a pound."

Advocacy groups are planning to hire lobbyists for the horses, which already have a political action committee called HoofPAC geared up from the California battle.

At the Beltex plant on a sunny morning this month, the pens behind the killing floor were filled with horses young and old, beautiful and bedraggled, standing or sometimes slipping and falling on the slick cobblestones beneath their feet. Beltex does not allow outside observers to witness the slaughter, or the arrival and unloading, of animals from the dealer trucks.

This morning, a young gray gelding has come in, brought, plant managers say, by his weeping owner. The horse has an incurable bone deformity in a foreleg, meaning he will never be fit to ride, the owner reportedly explained. Now the horse sticks his nose through the pen rails to nuzzle one of the men preparing him for slaughter. The worker strokes his nose. Dick Koehler's cell phone rings, playing the theme from "The Lone Ranger." The meat man regards the gray horse.

"We're providing a service," he says.

Buyers at auction in Front Royal, including Jesse Austin of Louisa, in brown jacket at far right, size up horses being sold.Hillary Bogley of the Middleburg Humane Foundation, who bought the goats she is carrying, tries to buy horses to save them from human consumption.