"When a horse is unwanted, something has to happen to that horse," Stenholm said during a talk at the Kansas Livestock Association's convention at the Hyatt Regency Wichita. "We don't believe it should be used for human consumption, and we've made that clear.
"But it's private property. No one should tell you what you should do with a horse except to treat it humanely."
In 2006, the year before state laws in Texas and Illinois closed down the nation's final three facilities that slaughtered horses for human consumption, there was a $65 million export market for horse meat, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Now it has dried up to almost nothing.
Horses are now largely taken to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada. Horse meat is consumed by humans in countries such as France, Belgium and Japan. Part of the proposed federal legislation would ban transportation of horses to the Mexican and Canadian slaughterhouses.
But Stenholm said the economic fallout has gone beyond the loss of the export market.
He said there are more than 125,000 unwanted horses in the United States. Another 33,000 wild horses roam federal land in 10 Western states and have drained the Bureau of Land Management's budget, he added.
"There's a cost to this," Stenholm said after speaking to an audience of about 350. "There's going to have to be money appropriated from states and Congress to deal with unwanted horses.
"What do you do with them when one turns up on the country road and you're the sheriff? Who pays for the feed? Some people are just letting their horses starve."
Stenholm, who spent 26 years in Congress and is now a consultant for various agricultural groups, said it can cost $200 to $2,000 to have a horse euthanized and disposed. In Wichita, the price is closer to $170.
Jason Kaiser, a Wichita veterinarian, said his Equine Surgery and Medicine clinic charges $40 to euthanize and an additional $40 for a trip charge.
Darling International, the only renderer in the Wichita area, charges $87 to haul off a horse. The two solid-waste transfer stations in Sedgwick County said they don't accept dead horses.
Kaiser confirmed Stenholm's concern about increased abandonment of horses.
"It's been a lot more in the last year, especially with hay prices up and the economy bad," he said.
Kaiser said often people will turn horses loose near Hope in the Valley Equine Rescue and Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization north of Wichita.
"Then animal control has to feed them and find what to do with them," Kaiser said. "No one wants them.
"The horse market is down. Cheap horses are free. There have been (livestock) sales where you just hope someone puts their hand to take the horse for free."
He said he believes the cause of the situation is the lack of slaughterhouses.
"There's a base value for a horse if there is a slaughter," he said. "It would be more humane than to let them starve to death."
Ted Schroeder, a livestock marketing economist at Kansas State University, said the situation is an animal welfare "nightmare."
"It's an emotional issue," he said. "It's hard to be for slaughtering horses. How do policymakers sell that?"
But Stenholm said it's an issue that must be tackled.
He said horse slaughter facilities may start to spring up on Indian reservations. He said he knew of one with definite plans.
"This can't be ignored," Stenholm said. "These are issues that need to be resolved in a less emotional way."