Why Do We Not Eat Horses?

The flesh of the horse is nutritious, palatable, high in protein, low in cholesterol, and at present free from disease problems such as B.S.E., scrapie and E. coli. So why then is it not an ideal meat? In Britain and most of the English speaking world, we would not dream of eating horse, and those who we think do eat it are considered to lack culture, taste or sensitivity and certainly to have no respect for animals. The modern reluctance to eat horses has a long and complicated history, although we may not recognise this today, as the horse has simply become a pet. For the majority of mankind's early existence wild horses were hunted as a bulk source of protein. The rise of civilisation found new purpose for the horse, and because it became much more useful in other areas (and probably rarer, and so in demand) horse flesh ceased to be a routine part of the diet. Historical associations, ritual and religion, and the evolution of modern urbanised society have all played a part in the development of not eating horses. The present day abhorrence, with its complex and tortuous origins, is firmly entrenched in modern British culture, reinforced by the present role of the horse as a companion animal. Horses for slaughter as human food is an emotive issue!

This is not really an article as such, but a collection of interesting information on eating horses and our attitudes to them:

Definitive proof of mankind's early interaction with the horse comes with the discovery of hunting spears in Germany, accurately dated to 400,000 years old, and found in association with the bones of a number of prey species, the most common being the horse (Thieme 1997)

The horse frequently features in Palaeolithic art (e.g. at Lascaux in France and Altemira in Spain) though to try and make any modern day interpretation of these pictures would be purely speculative. The horse is not only confined to pictoral representation - at Daruthy, carved horse models have been unearthed in a sanctuary, also containing horse skulls (Bahn and Vertut 1988).

Evidence for the timing and location of the domestication of animals is inconclusive, and there is disagreement amongst authors, with dates for the horse ranging from 4,500 B.C. to 3,000 B.C.

Archaeological evidence from the Black Sea area has been interpreted to indicate that by 4,000 B.C., the domesticated horse was used not only as a source of meat, but also as a ridden animal (Anthony and Brown 1997). The mobility the horse offered became a cultural advantage that transformed Eurasian society. Civilisation promoted the horse beyond the role of a mere source of food, and so adopted a range of activities that could dramatically enhance the quality of life - speed, transport, accumulation of individual wealth and status, territoriality, and the acquisition of land and property through more effective warfare.

The Greeks and Romans were not great horsemen, preferring instead to rely on the equestrian prowess of conscripts or foreign mercenaries.

Galen of Pergamon (129 to 199 A.D.) thought food to be important in developing character (one was what one ate). He wrote with understanding of peasants forced by economic necessity to eat horse and donkey meat, although he considered them to be asses and thoroughly brutish in their nature as a result (Nutton 1995).

The Bible does not specifically mention the horse by name when listing forbidden meats, although clearly it fits into the category of animal which is neither cloven hoofed nor cud chewing, so is unclean (Leviticus Ch.11, v.3 ). Christianity annulled the Old Testament taboos associated with food, and so per se, horse flesh would not be forbidden to a true believer.

The Catholic missionary Boniface (680 to 754 A.D.) wrote to Pope Gregory III for guidance on stopping the Christianised pagan practices that priests had allowed the newly converted Germanic tribes to continue. Boniface's original letter has not survived, but Gregory's reply, dated 732, states:

"Wild horses are consumed a good deal, however, and many also eat domesticated ones. This by no means must continue, brother, but filled with the strength of Christ, you must by all visible and fitting means prohibit it most thoroughly; it is certainly an impure act and also accursed."

Author's translation from Latin text of Tangl (1955)

Boniface's first attempts at enforcing this ban probably met with little success, since papal support was reiterated in 751 by Pope Zacharias in correspondence to Boniface:

"Firstly, as to birds - the jackdaw, the crow and the stork are to be avoided as unsuitable (food) for Christians. Furthermore, beavers, hares and wild horses are all the more to be shunned. This, most holy brother, is extremely clear from the scriptures."

Author's translation from Latin text of Tangl (1955)

The Scandinavian tradition of horse consumption survives in Iceland to the present day (Anon 1998), and derives from the settlement of Iceland in the late 9th century by Norse settlers. Horse flesh is listed as Viking steak on tourist menus, possibly an allusion to pagan origins and possibly survival of the old habit (interestingly, Iceland still officially recognises the Norse religion).

The high price commanded by a suitable riding horse in mediaeval England of half an ounce of gold in 1029 and 61 shillings in 1379 (Dent and Goodall Machin 1988) would have made it extremely expensive meat! It is not insignificant that the English language has no specific word for horse meat, as flesh from the ox, sheep and pig become beef, mutton and pork respectively.

Horses were slaughtered at the funeral of King John in 1216 and that of the Holy Roman Emperor Karl IV in 1378. As recently as 1781 a charger was killed and placed in the grave of cavalry General Friedrich Kasimir at Trier (Brown 1997).

Consumption of horse meat, although not officially accepted, did become expedient when conditions dictated. de Trokelowe (1315), reporting on the great English famine of 1315, noted great scarcity of any meat and "even horse meat became precious", but as if to remark on the extreme abnormality of this he almost immediately informs that "plump dogs were stolen and according to many reports, men and women in many places secretly ate their own children."

The legal ban on human consumption of horse was lifted throughout Europe between 1841 (Germany) and 1866 (France), though such a ban never seems to have been in force in England. Surprisingly (perhaps to the English at least!) horse meat only represents 0.6% of modern French meat consumption (de Laage de Meux 1998).

In 1868 the Society for the Propagation of Horse Flesh as an Article of Food organised a well publicised banquet at the Langham Hotel in London, at which the only meat available was chevaline (horse). The menu comprised dishes with mostly French names, although the buffet carried the rather unappealing dishes of collared horse head and boiled withers (Drummond and Wilbraham 1939). Horse meat butchers opened in London, but did not enjoy the success of their French counterparts, and by 1885 the market had collapsed completely.

In "Gulliver's Travels" (1726), Swift's Gulliver finds himself in the land of the Houyhnhnms (intelligent talking horses), who cannot believe that in human society persons of supposed quality allow their faithful horses to sold into drudgery in their old age, finally to be slaughtered for dog meat.

John Wesley believed that if he rode on a loose rein, his horse would repay his kindness by not stumbling (an anthropomorphic assumption) and thus allow him to study tracts while he travelled (Hattersley1998).

The United Kingdom had developed an active animal rights movement during the 18th century and by 1822 legislation was passed in parliament to prevent the cruel and ill treatment of any "horse, mare, gelding, mule and ass".

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1824, and most large towns and cities had societies for the placing of drinking troughs for cattle and horses.

Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, which condemned ill treatment of horses, met with popular acclaim when first published in 1877.

The horse was a major force in the wars which were fought continuously throughout the 19th century and into the first two decades of the 20th, as it provided transport for heavy artillery as well as forming mobile cavalry units. This was not a new role for the horse, for since domestication its worth to man as a war machine had always been over and above that of an agricultural animal or carcass value.

After the almost total mechanisation of agriculture, transport and warfare since 1930, the horse no longer carried out the traditional duties it had held for at least 5,000 years. Post-war economic recovery allowed more free time and provided greater disposable income. Horse riding and the keeping of horses gained in popularity as a leisure pursuit and the horse came to be considered a companion animal.

A survey carried out for the British Equestrian Trades Association estimated that in 1996 there were 2 million riders using 565,000 horses for leisure purposes in the U.K., and that 6.4% of households have at least one family member who rides for pleasure (Produce Studies Ltd 1996).

The situation in the United States mirrors that of Britain but in greater extreme. In some American states (e.g. Texas) it is illegal to sell horse meat for human consumption and American animal rights groups actively decry the export of horse flesh to "the dining tables of Europe" (Suprynowicz 1997)

The essence of the general feeling against horse meat as human food, and an indication of the popular conceptualisation of the modern horse can be found in these phrases taken from the literature of the American lobby group Save the Horses: Your friend Flicka ends up on the table in France.... The horse is revered and considered a companion animal in today's society. A horse is not a meat animal. (Jennings 1997)

Anon, 1998, Iceland - Basic Statistics, Embassy of Iceland, http://www.iceland.org/stats.html
Anthony, D. W. and Brown, D., 1997, Soft Bits and Hard Questions, http://www.hartwick.edu/anthropology/softb.html
Bahn, P. G., and Vertut, J., 1988, Images of the Ice Age, Facts on File, New York
Brown, D., 1997, Let Them Eat Horses, Institute for Ancient Equestrian Studies Newsletter, No. 4
Dent, A. and Goodall Machin, D., 1988, The History of British Native Ponies - from the Bronze Age to the present day, J. A. Allen, London
Drummond, J. C. and Wilbraham, A., 1939, The Englishman's Food. A History of Five Centuries of English Diet, Jonathan Cape, London.
Hattersley, R., 1998, Creature Discomforts, Books Supplement, The Sunday Times, 5 July
Jennings, D., 1997, Texas law aims to curb slaughter of pet horses, http://www.freep.com/fun/food/qhorses5.htm, Dallas Morning News, 5 November
de Laage de Meux, B., 1998, Consommation des viandes en France 1997 - Evolution de la consommation de boef, veau, mouton, porc, cheval et volailles, MHR-Viandes, La Rochelle, France
Nutton, V., 1995, Galen and the Traveller's Fare. In: Wilkins, J., Harvey, D. and Dobson, M., Food in Antiquity, University of Exeter Press
Produce Studies Ltd., 1996, Horses, owners and riders, Volume I - A study of equestrianism in Great Britain, British Equestrian Trade Association and Produce Studies Ltd., Newbury
Suprynowicz, V., 1997, A pony for Christmas ... all skinned and quartered, http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/97/011197vs.htm, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 11 January
Tangl, M., 1955, Die Briefe des Heiligen Bonifatus und Lullus, Weidmansche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Berlin
Thieme, H., 1997, Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany, Nature, 385, 807-810, 27 February
de Trokelowe, J., 1315, The Famine of 1315, Annates, H. T. Riley, ed., Rolls Series, No. 28, 92-95. (Tierney, B. trans.,) London, 1866, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/famin1315a.html, Internet Medieval Sourcebook