Daniel W Gade. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
The horse represents one of the most successful outcomes of animal domestication, but for a variety of reasons it has not been widely used as a source of human food. Very little of the exacting attention given this creature over the past 5,000 years has been directed toward developing its latent meat or milk potential. Artificial selection of this nonruminant herbivore has focused on speed, strength, and configuration.
Long before their domestication, wild horses roamed the Eurasian grasslands. They were a favorite subject of the Paleolithic cave art of western Europe, which suggests their status as a major prey species. Certain Upper Pleistocene kill sites, such as that at Solutré, France, have more horse bones than those of any other animal. Human intervention into their breeding came later than with other herd animals. Two wild horses, the tarpan (Equus ferus gmelini) and (Nikolai) Przhevalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalski), were the ancestors of the domesticated Equus caballus. Present knowledge places horse domestication in the grasslands of Ukraine around the fourth millennium before Christ. At Dereivka, a site of the early Kurgan culture, evidence of bit wear recovered archaeo-logically indicates that people rode horses (Anthony 1986). They also ate them, which is not surprising as the predecessors of these same people were avid consumers of the wild species.
Assuming present-day Ukraine to have been the center of horse domestication, the use of the animal spread westward during the next 500 years to eastern Europe, as well as eastward to the Transcaucasus and southward to Anatolia and the Mediterranean. Horse bones recovered at the site of Malyan (in Iran) that have been ingeniously analyzed reportedly show evidence of horse riding (Anthony and Brown 1989). By 2500 B.C. horses were well established in western Europe. Their main prehistoric role was as pullers of wheeled conveyances and as riding animals, and S. Bökönyi (1984) asserts that horses were used to pull carts before they were ridden. Horses were also eaten; in fact, the flesh of equids was an acceptable food in most societies that adopted them during the first 3,000 years of their domesticated state. Bronze Age sites in eastern Europe have yielded limb bones broken for the marrow and brain cases cracked open to extract the brain.
The Kurgan people, along with other early IndoEuropeans, also sacrificed horses to honor the dead and propitiate the gods (O’Flaherty 1987; Dexter 1990). This practice was widespread from Europe to South Asia, where the Aryans of India made a strong religious place for the horse. Its role as human food was not very important, although horseflesh was consumed in connection with the asvamedha, a sacrifice of horses borrowed from an ancient Indo-European fertility rite (Bhawe 1939). It is especially intriguing to consider that the horse gained ascendancy as a useful and ritually significant animal with the migration of Indo-European people. The Hittites of Anatolia, for example, introduced a higher level of horse keeping than had been there before, and Mediterranean antiquity extended the high prestige of the horse, but with much less ritual killing. The ancient Greeks offered horses in sacrifice to Poseidon, the god of horses, but did not generally consume the flesh. The only Roman horse sacrifice honored Mars.
In the modern world, most people and cultures have rejected the flesh of horses (and its equine relatives, the mule and the donkey) as unfit to eat. But the reasons for avoidance are not necessarily the same everywhere. In some places, the horse is a rare, even absent, animal, so that people have had little opportunity to find out what they were missing. Aside from Iceland, few horses have been kept in the Arctic or Subarctic, primarily because of the large effort needed to store a sufficient amount of fodder to get the animal through long winters. The tropics have not had big horse populations, either. Tropical forests neither suit the horse’s food requirements nor favor its physiological well-being. Moreover, in much of Africa, the presence of trypanosomiasis has excluded horses from large areas.
In most parts of the world where the horse is found, neither its meat nor its milk is used. Part of this avoidance can be attributed to religious injunction. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and, at one time, Christians have all proscribed horsemeat from the diet as a badge of their faith. Orthodox Jews include it as one of the forbidden items in their Levitical list of animals because horses neither chew the cud nor have cloven hooves. Muslims are enjoined in the Koran to eschew this flesh, a prohibition that, perhaps, grew out of the social context of Arab desert oases, where the horse was a luxury animal owned by sheikhs. Horsemeat is not eaten by most Hindus (except for untouchable groups) because it is a flesh food in a primarily vegetarian culture.
Marginalization of horsemeat in Europe had a religious basis. As Christianity spread through Teutonic lands, clerics regarded hippophagy (eating horseflesh) as a pagan residue that was tinged with barbarism. In prehistoric Ireland, horseflesh was eaten in ritual contexts, a practice that survived into the early Middle Ages. A chronicler in the twelfth century described such an occasion in which priestly sexual intercourse with a mare, sacrifice, and consumption of the flesh were involved (Giraldus Cambrensis 1982). Such behavior, outrageous to Christians, explains why horse-meat had such a bad reputation as the continent became more fully Christianized. Boniface, missionary to the Germans, undertook what amounted to a personal lobbying campaign to, successfully as it turned out, persuade the pope to place horseflesh into the forbidden category. Such a ban was certainly not based on health or scripture, but horsemeat, nonetheless, became the only specific food outlawed in the history of Christianity. Today, although most people in the Christian tradition still avoid the flesh of equines, its rejection no longer has much to do with a religious prohibition. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia makes no effort to recall this old taboo that had been part of canon law. Rejection can now be attributed mainly to fear of the unfamiliar. The status of the horse as an intelligent companion of humans has surely worked against experimentation with consuming its flesh, except in periods of severe food shortage.
Marvin Harris (1985) has argued that underlying these prohibitions was a stark ecological fact: The horse was an inefficient converter of grass to meat, and when compared to cattle, horses have a higher metabolic rate and a gestation period lasting two months longer. However, as H. B. Barclay (1989) points out, horses also have various advantages over cattle. They enjoy a longer life span and have greater stamina and endurance. In winter pastures, horses, unlike cattle, can paw beneath the snow to graze. Moreover, in central Asia, mare’s milk yields are as high as those of cows.
In spite of early religious and later social reprobation, Europe did undergo a hippophagy movement that to some extent changed attitudes toward this meat and, as such, represents a notable case of how a food taboo broke down. Hippophagic experimentation in Europe was widespread around the middle of the nineteenth century, when conscious efforts were made to break with the old prejudice against selling and eating horseflesh. Denmark legalized its sale in 1841, as did the German state of Württemburg; Bavaria followed in 1842, and Prussia in 1843. Other countries (Norway, Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland) also legalized its sale. Russia, where horsemeat has had a historic culinary role, never banned the sale of horsemeat in the first place.
Horsemeat Consumption in Europe
In the European history of horsemeat consumption, France and francophone Belgium stand out. There the cultural barrier to selling and eating horsemeat was more successfully breached than in any other part of Europe. As with so many French attitudes, it began with elite exhortation, but it also occurred in a national culture charmed by culinary diversity and invention. Its beginnings can be traced to governmental decisions that French people should eat more flesh foods. By 1850, the opinion was that the French person’s ability to perform industrial work was hindered by insufficient quantities of nitrates in the diet. Ireland was pointed to as a negative case of how dependence on the potato and little or no meat had led to physiological degeneration. In 1853, dietary regulations set a minimum daily intake of 100 grams of meat for a small adult and 140 grams for a large person. In 1889, a government medical commission increased these thresholds to 120 and 200 grams, respectively. In the French Army, the meat ration was increased in 1881 from 250 to 300 grams per day. Regulations about meat also affected institutions. In 1864, hospices and hospitals were directed to provide meat at meals twice a day, preferably roasted, which was judged to be the most nutritious form of preparation.
As meat consumption in France rose, provisioning became an issue. Since horseflesh was then much cheaper, it was judged by the authorities to be especially worthy of adoption among lower-income groups. A group of distinguished French intellectuals and scientists, led by Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, made a conscious effort to integrate horsemeat into the French diet. Their aim was to show that chevaline (as it was called) was nutritious and that the old prejudices had no rational basis. Even the hierarchy of the French Church did not interfere in this conscious rejection of a medieval taboo, and the first specialized horsemeat shop opened in Paris in 1866. Shortly thereafter, dire food shortages associated with the siege of Paris gave many of that city’s inhabitants an opportunity to eat horsemeat for the first time.
Two prime factors led to a generalized acceptance of horsemeat in France. First, until the 1920s, horse-meat cost half that of comparable cuts of beef and therefore was within reach of the working class. Second, horsemeat got much publicity as a high-energy food and as ostensibly valuable in physiologically reducing the human temptation to overindulge in alcoholic beverages. In touting horsemeat, the bourgeoisie indicated their conviction that it had an appropriate role to play in the diet of the working class, whose members were the main abusers of alcohol in France.
Two basic kinds of horseflesh later characterized its consumption in France. Red meat, preferred by many for its putative association with high iron content, comes mainly from older horses. A colt (poulain) yields light meat, favored for its tenderness and mild flavor approaching that of veal. Patterns of consumption have maintained a certain profile through the decades, with the typical horsemeat consumer in France tending to be young rather than old, working or middle class rather than rich, and urban rather than rural.
Hippophagy in France is highest in the northern part of the country, with southern Belgium an extension of that consumption pattern. Early in the twentieth century, large workhorses were numerous in this part of Europe where the Percheron and the Belgian breeds evolved. Consequently, Paris has had the most avid hippophagists in France, with a per capita consumption three times higher than that of western France and almost seven times higher than that of eastern France. Horsemeat was first promoted in Paris, and it was there that a specialized horse abattoir was set up from which horsemeat was wholesaled elsewhere. The Paris region has also had France’s largest concentration of poor people, who became the most enthusiastic consumers of equine products. Paris, Lille, and other northern cities were major markets for red meat from aged animals, whereas hippophagists in Lyon and Grenoble preferred viande de poulain.
In spite of considerable commercial activity, horse-meat in France has had a marginal position among meat products. Except during the war years, its consumption has never amounted to more than 5 percent of that of beef. Close to 60 percent of French people do not consume any horsemeat, and of the minority that do, the per capita consumption amounts to only about 5 kilograms per year. One result, but also a cause, of such a pattern is availability. Most French towns have not had a clientele large enough to support a boucherie chevaline, and until the 1980s, butchers selling beef could not also sell horsemeat. This prohibition was in the form of a law that had been promulgated to prevent misrepresentation of one meat for another.
Organoleptic perception also affects consumption. Many people, for example, have stated they dislike the flavor of horsemeat. However, disagreement on whether it has a sweetish taste, some other taste, or is simply tasteless suggests differences in the kinds of slaughtered animals or preconceived notions of the meat’s characteristics. The appeal of horsemeat may be culturally conditioned. For example, an organoleptic evaluation in the United States of several kinds of lean beef, regular beef, lamb, horse, and horse mixed with beef fat ranked the last two lowest in appearance, smell, and taste (Pintauro, Yuann, and Bergan 1984).
Matters of health and price explain at least part of the drop in per capita consumption of horsemeat from the 1960s to the 1990s. For many years, horse-meat was valued as a particularly healthful food due to an iron content higher and a fat content lower than beef. Chevaline reputation suffered, however, in 1967, when a highly publicized salmonella outbreak in a school cafeteria was traced to horsemeat patties. When findings emerged that fresh horsemeat deteriorated more rapidly than beef, the French government banned horsemeat for institutional use. In addition, awareness of chevaline’s possible health risk was paralleled by its rising cost. Horsemeat of the first half of the twentieth century was essentially a by-product of animals slaughtered after a useful life of pulling plows or wagons. For that reason, horsemeat was cheap compared to beef. But by the 1970s most horsemeat in France was imported, which influenced its retail price structure.
Thus in the 1990s, the French consumer paid normally as much, if not more, for horsemeat as for beef. This is because sources of horsemeat supply for the French and Belgian markets changed substantially after 1960, when mechanization of agriculture led to a sharp decline in the horse population. To meet the demand in the face of inadequate domestic sources of chevaline, live animals or chilled meat had to be imported from Spain, Portugal, and Eastern European countries. Between 1910 and 1980, imports of horses or horse products increased almost three times. European horses were supplemented with those from the Americas, and beginning in the 1970s, the United States became a major supplier for the French market, as did Australia and South America—especially Argentina, with its substantial horse population.
Horses raised specifically for meat production could, in theory, supply the needed tonnages and at the same time ensure quality. Colt meat in France is now mostly produced that way. Fed a controlled diet, horses grow very quickly, although they cannot compare with ruminants as an efficient converter of herbaceous matter. Breeding of the horse as a meat animal has another value of conserving the genetic patrimony of the famous work breeds of horses that are in danger of eventual extinction. In the long run, such activity might also lead to the emergence of a special kind of high-quality meat animal in the way that Hereford or Aberdeen Angus were developed as cattle with distinguishable phenotypes and genotypes.
Horses as Food in Other Countries
Several other European countries, notably Italy, Spain, Germany, and Switzerland, have achieved a small measure of hippophagic acceptance. Search for protein during the war and for some years after that accustomed Europeans to think of alternative possibilities. As recently as 1951, when meat was still scarce, the British consumed 53,000 horses. However, as other meats became abundant, horsemeat faded as a food for people. Moreover, animal rights activists in the United Kingdom have often shown vigilance about protecting the horse from becoming steak on the table.
In Asia, horsemeat is an important food in Mongolia, where the horse has been deeply integrated into a still traditional rural society. In addition, Mongolians consume mare’s milk, usually in fermented form (kumiss).Though their religion bars it, Islamic people in Inner Asia have also been known to eat horseflesh. In Japan, horsemeat is a favorite meat in the preparation of teriyaki, and in the 1980s Japan imported about one-fourth of the tonnage in the world trade of refrigerated or frozen horsemeat. Australia is a major supplier.
In the Western Hemisphere, no national culture has integrated hippophagy into its dietary possibilities, least of all those with a strong orientation toward carnivory. Argentines and Uruguayans, who are mostly of European origin, have rejected it, although some Indians of the pampas ate the meat of horses descended from those brought by the Spaniards. Some North American Indian groups who acquired the horse from the Europeans also ate horseflesh. In the United States, consumption of horsemeat is low; in fact, throughout North America, it is readily available (though not widely consumed) only in the Canadian province of Québec. French immigrants are reported as a major clientele of the 10 horsemeat shops in the city of Montreal in 1992.
The United States is the leading horsemeat-producing country in the world (FAO Production Yearbook 1990). In 1992, nearly 250,000 horses were slaughtered in the country. Thoroughbred race horses, including champions that once got high stud fees, usually end their days at the slaughterhouse. The $500 to $1,000 sale becomes a way to recover something of the high expense of raising them. Commercialization of this product has been both for shipment abroad as human food and for dog food.
In spite of the abundance of horses, equine flesh has never gained acceptance as a human food in the United States. Harris (1985) has concluded that horse-meat did not catch on because beef and pork could be produced more cheaply. More likely, preconceptions about the suitability of horsemeat have stemmed from an earlier bias brought by Europeans. Moreover, a small but vocal minority of Americans are actively opposed to its use as human food. One emotionally based argument is that it demeans such a noble animal to undergo slaughter as human food. Curiously, much less is said about the appropriateness of horsemeat as dog food, suggesting an ethic that requires humans to deal with horses in narrowly defined ways. Horse abuse in the United States receives much more publicity than mistreatment of cattle, sheep, or pigs.
The lack of horsemeat availability in American meat shops says much about the low demand, but proprietors are also afraid of losing business by making it available in the meat case. Episodes over the years of fraudulent labeling of horseflesh as beef have led to the (erroneous) assumption that the former is, by definition, an inferior meat, perhaps even tainted in some way. A slaughterhouse owner in South Carolina, who has long shipped horsemeat to the European market, has made several attempts to introduce horsemeat in his state with no lasting success. As was the case initially in Europe, a lower price for horse-meat would seem to be the critical mechanism in its acceptance. Yet economics dictate that good-quality horseflesh cannot be sold at a price much below that of beef. An unusually strong American concern for healthful and lowfat foods could possibly give it a niche. But up to now its best-known usage has been at the dining service of the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There it has been maintained as a quirky tradition since World War II, when it was difficult to obtain beef.