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Among the countries worst hit by the financial crisis in Europe, Spain. Construction fueled the Spanish economy for years. And the construction boom fed a demand for luxury goods, including purebred horses. That demand collapse during the crisis, which has been perilous for many of those horses.

Lauren Frayer traveled to horse country in the south of Spain and she sent us this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSES GALLOPING)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Spanish horses once carried the conquistadores into battle in the Americas. Since then they've 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND HORSES)

FRAYER: Jose Manuel was one of them. Ten years ago, he bought a ranch in eastern Spain, and started filling it with so-called PRE's - pura raza espanolas - Spanish purebred horses. I found him in the classified ads, he's trying to sell his horses now.

JOSE MANUEL: (Through Translator) I was never a horse expert. I just liked riding, he said. Everyone was buying up horses back then. But I don't ride anymore. I'm trying to sell them.

FRAYER: ...for a fraction of what he paid.

MANUEL: (Through Translator) This horse, around seven years ago, was worth $40,000, he says. But not anymore. Now he's worth less than half.

FRAYER: In Spain, it can cost about $400 a month to house and feed a horse. Jose Manuel has five. He won't say what he'll do if he can't sell them. But last year, more than 70,000 Spanish horses were sent to slaughterhouses - more than twice the annual average before the economy here tanked.

Concordia Marquez tries to save them.

CONCORDIA MARQUEZ: Ola.

FRAYER: She runs a shelter in Andalucia, taking in horses that might otherwise end up in the food supply.

MARQUEZ: What we call the PREs, the pure Andalusian breed, it was for ages an expensive horse and very difficult to find. But the problem is, that the owners, the good breeders, prefer to send those horses to the slaughterhouse, than to devalue the price.

FRAYER: Concordia 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 we chat, Concordia strokes the nose of a recent rescue.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE)

MARQUEZ: This is a PRE. And I found him abandoned. We adopt him here because he's got a problem in his hind legs. He's very beautiful. He's a stallion.

FRAYER: She describes where she found him - a massive ranch, filled with animals, abandoned by its bankrupt owner.

MARQUEZ: When we arrived there that day with the police, we found all skeletons everywhere - horses, dogs, cats, ponies - I mean everything everywhere, it was like amazing. And he was surviving there, with another group of 10 really skinny, really a bad situation. But we couldn't save the other, I think there was more than, 50 or 60 that who died there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR)

FRAYER: Driving across southern Spain, you can see horses grazing lazily next to the road. It's unclear who owns them.

VIRGINIA SOLERA GARCIA: They are completely alone. They don't have water, they don't have shelter. It rains or it's really sunny.

FRAYER: Virginia Solera Garcia is Concordia's sister, who helps rescue those horses from the roadside. She says the economic crash has exposed a dark side to a longtime Spanish tradition of caring for horses.

GARCIA: But now, because of my experience, it's not really about really love horses. It's because they want to have a horse because it's something luxury, that you can show to your friends and say, yay, I have horses because I'm rich and I'm an important person.

FRAYER: The number of Spaniards who can still say that though, has dwindled. And many of their horses are now here, in this stable, being cared for by these two sisters.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Andalucia, Spain.

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