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Is Horse an Acceptable Meat Course?

Putting hippophagy back on the table not only confronts taboos, there's some suggestions it also might improve the welfare of horses.

Eating horse meat hasn't always been a taboo in the United States. During World War II, it was sold as an alternative to meat rations, and, until at least 1954, a dedicated stall at Pike Place Market in Seattle sold horse meat. But any legal U.S. market for horse meat came to close in 2007, when the three last remaining equine slaughterhouses were essentially forced to shut down. That didn't stopped the debate over eating horses.


Over the last four years, horse exports have risen to both Canada and Mexico. Horse meat is still being imported to the United States to feed caged lions and tigers (and maybe even for Sparky and Fluffy's kibbles). In Western states, the way that feral mustangs (aka "wild" horses) are currently managed is costly and unsustainable, according to Joel Berger's scholarly book Wild Horses of the Great Basin. The Bureau of Land Management spends $37 million to hold nearly 40,000 animals. All these factors contributed to a Summit of the Horses this week in Las Vegas, where at least some people made the very controversial suggestion of putting the taboo meat back on the table.

Still, killing Mister Ed or Black Beauty isn't something anyone wants to think about. Slaughter quickly turns to murder when we're so adapt at anthropomorphizing our equine friends. It's taboo to kill, much less, eat your pets. And besides, the seedy-sounding underbelly of horse racing, mustang roundups, and slaughter auctions (that helped pave the way for the 2007 ban) appear both inhumane or unappetizing. As Lisa Couturier reported in "Dark Horse" in Orion:

“There are two things that flourish in the dark—mushrooms and horse slaughter,” said the late John Hettinger, a Thoroughbred racing legend and former member of the board of trustees of the New York Racing Association. “Most people don’t know it’s going on. We must deny them the darkness.”

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It doesn't really help that the man who helped reverse the long-standing taboo against eating horses in the West was a French hygenist named A.J.B. Parent-Duchâtelet, who conducted simultaneous investigations into hippophagy and prostitution in the late 19th century. What he found: both occurred daily and both should be considered a necessity. As Kari Weil writes in "They Eat Horses Don't They" in Gastronomica:

It is not surprising, then, that in the United States eating horse is the sign of both sexual promiscuity and of Frenchness—presumably a deviant and undemocratic culture because it permits hippophagy.

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So whether you intend to eat horse meat and whether you think that not killing horses is an integral to being an American, these decisions reflect a very tangled relationship with "wild" animals, public land, and a long-standing taboo that, like taste, is probably not be worth arguing about. I'd like to leave you with an insight from Terry Whiting, who argues in Canadian Veterinary Journal that the current U.S. ban amounts to a federally sanctioned taboo, one that may very well undermine its good intentions.

The prohibition of horse slaughter is consistent with the myth of the place of the horse in American history; however, this prohibition includes a risk of an overall decrease in the welfare of horses that exist in the real world.

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Photograph: Range Horse Meat Co. at Pike Place Market in Seattle, collected by Lawton Gowey (Thanks Paul Dorpat). Illustration: Albums comiques par Cham, vol. 3, “La Chronique du Jour” (Paris: Arnauld de Vresse, undated 19th c.) from the Research Library at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, via Gastronomica.

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