Wednesday, February 13, headlines are all about horsemeat sold as beef in Ireland, Great Britain and Sweden. CNN’s headline read “Sweden brings in police as horsemeat scandal spreads.” English-speaking peoples are generally outraged, we love our horses, and eating them is taboo. We wonder whether horsemeat has made its way into our own food chain, our meat markets, our daily lives, mislabeled as beef!
Our outrage and suspicion has two parts. First is the criminal act of mislabeling horsemeat as beef. As if this isn’t unthinkable, pure outrage comes from people who would never eat horsemeat; and unwittingly some of us did! We who are involved in horse rescue are horrified and angry!
Here’s the back-story: Horses were domesticated as early as 4500 BC in the central steppes stretching from Eastern Europe to Western Asia. In that vast prairie, skilled horsemen flourished. The day came when horse-mounted Mongols under Genghis Khan poured forth from the steppes to conquer most of Europe. Today, in the western steppes the proud Cossack tradition of daring horsemanship continues.
Not until around 1500 BC, domesticated horses found their way west from the steppes across Europe into what is now England and Ireland. In the British Isles, unlike the Eastern European steppes, there were no vast expanses of what we would call prairie. So there it was expensive to feed and care for horses. Only the wealthy could afford them. Horses were prized; as emblems of nobility, wealth, and as symbols of power. Chieftains and monarchs had their portraits done with their favorite horses. Horseracing and hunting were sports for the nobility.
Meantime, in continental Europe and across the steppes into Asia, domesticated horses had been numerous and relatively inexpensive to maintain for nearly 4000 years. Eating horsemeat was common.
But in the English speaking countries, eating horsemeat was taboo. Horses were much too valuable to eat. And unlike cows and pigs, horses developed bonds with their owners that were more in the way of people and their working dogs. Most of us would not eat our dog, and even though horses are large animals, in English-speaking cultures they are more pet-like than livestock-like. We don’t eat them.
So the results of a CNN poll yesterday were surprising and just a little alarming! Pollsters found that in the US, 38% of those questioned either already do or would eat horse meat if given the chance; 20% would only eat horse meat in hard times; and 42% would never/no way ever eat horse meat.
I am happy to report the economic reasons why we have not consumed very much horsemeat in the U.S. Unlike cows, horses’ primary defense against predators is running away really really fast. That same defense mechanism makes them five times less efficient than cows at converting grasses into protein. It’s just more economical to eat cows than it is to eat horses.
I was surprised that 38% of us would eat horsemeat. In hard times like the last few years, that 38% swells to 58%. Horse owners have been forced to sell or even abandon their horses. Kill buyers have prospered.
Thankfully during this same time, new rescue operations have appeared all across the United States. If you know anyone in dire straights, here’s just one of many places to begin: The National Equine Rescue Coalition. Founded in 2006, the Coalition lists over a hundred horse rescue operations. And there are many more. We love our horses! This is just the beginning!