The following started out as a short rumination (not a pun, horses aren’t ruminants) and morphed into eight pages and forty-one footnotes, so I have cut it down into two footnote-free parts. The first part introduces the question of hippophagy from historical, culinary and ecological perspectives. The second part looks at current law and legislation and suggests that our approach to the topic is misguided. My title, of course, derives from “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” the 1969 motion picture based upon Horace McCoy’s, 1935 novel of the same name, in which a drifter, who shoots a betrayed marathon dancer at her own request, remembers an event from his youth in which a horse with a broken leg is shot to put it out of its misery. [I thought my title was quite clever, but in my research I discovered, Kari Weil, They Eat Horses, Don’t They? Hippophagy and Frenchness, 7-2 Gastronomica 44-51 (Spring 2007) and Christa Weil, We Eat Horses Don’t We? from a 2007 New York Times article.]
I happened to be in Vienna as a coach in the 2002 Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot competition, when I came upon the oddly named Goulashmuseum restaurant. Whether one thinks of Viennese cuisine in terms of the old staples such as Wiener Schnitzel hanging over the edges of a plate or the nouvelle Viennese cuisine of “East of Paris” and David Bouley, one doesn’t tend to speak of goulash and Vienna in the same breath. But Hungary, the country more commonly associated with goulash, was, of course, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and so, apparently, the Hungarian dish remains a regular in the Austrian culinary repertoire. So Goulashmuseum it was. To my surprise, the special of the day was, in the home of the world-famous Lippanzer Stallions no less, horse goulash. And, no, Mr. Romney, it doesn’t taste like chicken. But let’s start at the beginning with . . .
A Brief History of Hippophagy
As early as the Lower Paleolithic, 2.5 Million to 100,000 years ago, viande chevaline was an important food source. In fact, it appears that pre-Sapiens of the genus Homo, including, for example, Homo Heidelbergensis, ate horse meat. The 32,000-year-old Cro Magnon cave paintings at Lascaux, France depict humans hunting horses, and, in fact, horses outnumber any other species depicted in these famous paintings.
Much later eating horse was associated with the worship of Odin, which is perhaps why the Christian church banned it. Said ban on hippophagy derives from a letter Pope Gregory III sent to Saint Boniface. It stated in part:
"You say, among other things, that some eat wild horses and many eat tame horses. By no means allow this to happen in future, but suppress it in every possible way with the help of Christ and impose a suitable penance upon offenders. It is a filthy and abominable custom ... We pray God that ... you may achieve complete success in turning the heathens from the errors of their ways.The French did not legalize it until more than 1,000 years later, in 1866.
Now fast forward to 2008 to a battle that pits John Stewart Mill against Bo Derek and Mr. Ed – with Judge Richard Posner caught in the middle – where the taboo against viande chevaline takes center stage in a world where nine hundred million people are malnourished.
There are two possible sources of American-bred viande chevaline and four possible consumer groups. The sources are (a) feral mustangs, mostly in the west and (b) horses that have been bred for other purposes but have outlived their usefulness as race horses, riding horses, work horses and the like. (This presumes there is no American market for horses specifically raised as food animals.) The four potential consumer groups are: (a) American gourmands (a group we can probably safely rule out of the picture) (b) foreign consumers, (c) America’s 144 million carnivorous pets, and, oft overlooked in the debate, (d) American zoo animals. Let’s look at each of these groups in turn, starting with the source groups.
Feral horses can be either left to run wild, captured and taken care of, or slaughtered. All feral North American horses are descended from those brought to the Americas by the Spanish, post 1492. Horses that lived in the Western hemisphere from approximately 100,000 years ago became extinct around 10,400 B.C. quite possibly due to hunting (and eating) by the first humans to populate the area.
When left to run wild, they have been described by one author as, “top-of-the-food-chain bullies, invaders whose hooves and teeth disturb the habitats of endangered tortoises and desert birds.” About 33,000 of them are running wild today.
When captured, they must be fed and otherwise cared for. The 30,000 or so that are now kept in pens cost $21 million to feed and care for in 2007 and are expected to cost $26 million this year. And, of course they must be fed with what could be used for cattle feed, fattening an animal that America has no qualms about slaughtering with the same techniques used on horses.
Unwanted horses are a growing problem as feed and petroleum costs make it more and more difficult to quarter older horses humanely in retirement. It takes about $2,400 a year to shelter a retired horse, Thus if the 100,000 or so horses that have been shipped per year to Canada or Mexico for slaughter were to remain in the United States as wards, the costs would increase by $240 Million a year, and horses can live into their thirties.
Turning to the uses of viande chevaline for human consumption, as noted above, I am willing to concede that, with the exception of a few adventurous tourists, Americans will not be interested in partaking. But there is an ample international market, if we are allowed to service it.
In Japan, horse meat (along with whale, which is another story entirely) finds its way to the sushi bar as sakura. (Sakura means “cherry blossom” which is the color of raw horse meat.) The French agree, and appreciate the “brilliant vermillion color” of horsemeat. This coloration is found in animals older than three years; fortunately, horsemeat, unlike beef, does not get tougher with age. There is a market in the Netherlands, where, as reported in The Wall Street Journal former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee ate and enjoyed horse meat. Other countries include the aforementioned Austria, France, and Kazakhstan. See Wikipedia for a comprehensive list of countries where horse is on the menu. And note also that our grass-feed horses are particularly prized internationally for their taste, perhaps paralleling the current demand for range fed beef as a healthier (and more ecologically sound ) substitute for grain-fed CAFO beef.
So foreign buyers, alone would be capable of absorbing all the viande chevaline America currently produces. But we aren’t done yet. Presumably America’s 63 million dogs and 81 million cats, carnivores all, do not blanch at eating taboo horse meat. (See Keith Sealing, Attack of the Balloon People: How America’s Food Culture and Agricultural Policies Threaten the Food Security of the Poor, Farmers, and Indigenous People’s of the World, 40 Vand. J. of Transna’t. L. 1015 at n. 27 (comparing the cost of feeding 144 million dogs and cats with the cost of ending hunger in sub-Saharan Africa). But currently, pet food grade horse comes from “corpses hauled to rendering plants for disposal,” not slaughterhouses. Thus, the former owner has typically paid a euthanasia fee of about $66 plus the costs of disposal according to one source, or about $100 to $600 according to another. But at least the pet food route saves the cost of cremation and burial.
Finally, zoo animals are an interesting problem. Right now, and it can’t get more inefficient than this, we export horses, slaughter them abroad and then import the meat for zoos. As a result of the difficulties caused by the current state of the law regarding horse slaughter, zoo’s imports have gone from zero pounds in 2004 to almost 709,000 pounds at a cost of $502,000 in 2007.