The US House Appropriations Committee has just voted to lift the ban on funding for federal inspections for horse slaughter, thus potentially paving the way for new US equine abattoirs to open up. I wrote extensively about the history of horsemeat in the USA in The Age of the Horse in order to try to explain how the ban came about in the first place. I’ve also written a brief summary for The Atlantic‘s Object Lessons blog (here).
Many are arguing that slaughter is good for the horse population as a whole, but unfortunately their arguments don’t work. The “greater welfare” argument has been part of the pro-hippophagy movement since the nineteenth century, but because of horsemeat’s status in the West and the way in which the meat industry in general has developed, it just doesn’t add up. Here’s why:
“Horse slaughter in the USA is more humane than horse slaughter in Mexico or Canada”
Well, no. The 2006/7 bans and the earlier ban in California came about in part because conditions were so bad in US slaughter plants and in transportation to those plants.
“At least the horses won’t have to travel so far”
Again, no. Before the ban horses were still shipped to Canada and Mexico. Furthermore, there were only three plants in the USA, which in itself involved long drives for many slaughter-bound horses. Why so few plants? Look at the meat industry in general – there’s a trend over a century long to reduce the number of processing locations.
“Horse slaughter increases the value of horses, leading to better conditions”
Nope. One of the reasons the US horsemeat business functioned was that the raw material was so cheap. The expense of breeding and raising the animals was undertaken by owners, not the horsemeat industry, who were able to snap up neglected, injured or sick horses at low prices at public auctions. In recent years, the horses shipped to Canada and Mexico for meat have also included the neglected, injured and sick. At an auction run and frequented by kill buyers in July 2014, I saw a starved horse and one with an open wound with what looked like bone sticking out of it. Not uncommon, according to those who observe auctions regularly.
The UK has legal and pretty highly regulated horse slaughter thanks to EU rules. This has not stopped a) a massive, Europe-wide scandal in which horsemeat was passed off as beef, b) the exposure of false paperwork in slaughter-bound horses, c) horses that have been treated with drugs that should be banned from the food chain still making it into the food chain, d) record numbers of abandoned and neglected horses that have to be taken in by charities or local authorities – it’s often the “meat herds” that are kept in the worst conditions – and e) exposés of abuse in equine abattoirs. Oh, and we still have “worthless” horses and ponies, too.
Maybe farmers who raise horses solely for meat and follow the same sort of strict conditions applied to cattle or sheep get it right. But for horses that are dual purpose, slaughter is touted as a way of cleaning up waste material from a leisure riding industry, and this leads to loop holes and the problems described above.
UNFORTUNATE UPDATE 17/7/2017: Well, another horsemeat scandal in Europe busted wide open. Sixty-six arrested after police across Europe worked together to uncover an operation slaughtering horses that were unfit for human consumption. The horses had been treated with medication unsuitable for meat animals, were elderly or injured. The documentation had been tampered with and it looks like microchips were cut out of horses’ necks.
“Once the industry starts making money, things will improve”
Before the effective ban in the USA, Europe still bought American horsemeat. However, in recent years the EU has banned imports of horsemeat from Mexico due to doubts about its safety and welfare conditions. It has also asked Canadian plants to keep horses for six months prior to slaughter to ensure that they are free of drug residue. If you really are doing horsecare right, that’s six months of good grazing conditions and fodder, hoofcare, dentistry and veterinary treatment – and suddenly your horsemeat is not so cheap. If you sent your horse to slaughter because it was in constant pain, now your horse has to go without painkillers for six months. That, surely, was not the point of sending it to slaughter in the first place…
Maybe other overseas markets are less fussy. But “take our meat, it’s from randomly sourced, potentially diseased and contaminated animals” is really not a lasting selling point.
“It will create jobs”
Most people assume that horse slaughter was banned because Americans were oversensitive about horses being eaten. There were actually two prongs to the cessation – one was the effective federal block caused by suspending the funding for inspections. The other was at state level – Texas and Illinois residents were deeply unhappy about practices and lack of local contributions from the three surviving slaughter houses. They didn’t want them in their towns. When the ban was lifted a few years ago, many new slaughter plants were proposed and all were blocked locally by residents.
The jobs? Again, look at the meat industry in general in America. This is not a money pot that will Make America Great Again. It’s an industry that consumes low-paid, easily disposible migrant workers. And again, according to testimony gathered by Cathleen Doyle in California in the late 1990s, it was very hard for kill buyers to make money even with a legal horse slaughter industry in place.
“But if it’s well regulated, it’ll be OK”
The current US administration is laying waste to its budget. It is proposing stripping funding from things that no one thought would ever be defunded. Do you really think it’s going to splash out adequate cash to regulate a business that’s scattered (via auctions) in small locations across America, that’s part of a wider equine industry that’s so underregulated that we don’t even know how many horses there are in the country, that’s full of loop holes and entry points, and producing goods only for an overseas market? And a massively unpopular industry at that? To a higher standard that the EU? I don’t think so.
In over a decade of researching the history of horsemeat (I guess we all need hobbies), it’s become clear to me that there are two inherent scandals that recur over centuries of practice in the West:
1) That horsemeat gets passed off as beef, venison, or, in one case, foie gras.
2) That the horses killed for meat make for unwholesome eating either because they’re treated with medications, are sick, are elderly, injured or otherwise less than enticing as a food stuff.
I could find you umpteen historical instances of both of these scandals. Then there’s the recurring welfare issue of the process itself. Europe has been campaigning for over a century to stop the long distance transport of horses for slaughter and progress is minute, even in what must be one of the most animal-friendly legislations in the world and history, and long before the “sausage boats” to Belgium began, there were knackers yards full of starving horses. We’re not learning anything much from history.
A COUNTESS IN THE RING
She Is to Make Her Debut in a Paris Circus
A Countess of ancient lineage, and who for many years has been one of the ornaments of the Austrian court, is about to make her debut as a circus-rider of “Haute Ecole” at the “Nouveau Cirque” at Paris. She is the daughter of the late Count Ugarte, Austrian Envoy to Wurtemberg, and is married to Hector Baltazzi, the uncle of the ill-fated Baroness Marie Vetzera, who perished, together with Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria, at Meyerling [you can read about poor Marie here].
A few months ago Countess Ugarte obtained a legal separation from her husband, whose diminutive stature contrasts ridiculously with her tall, slender and handsome appearance. She is one of the most superb horsewomen with whom I have ever ridden, and at one time owned and managed a famous racing stable.
Knowing that her insane extravagance with regard to horseflesh often led to financial ruin, Renze, the celebrated circus proprietor, repeatedly made her magnificent offers to become the star equestrienne and school-rider of his circus, and now that she is separated from her husband, without sufficient resources, I suppose that she has cast to the winds her scruples concerning the adoption of a professional career.
Hector Baltazzi, her tiny husband, is just as enthusiastic about horses as she is herself. Indeed, I have always been of the opinion that this passion constituted the only bond of sympathy between them. For Hector Baltazzi is a Levantine, from Constantinople, who has merely been tolerated by the sporting section of Austrian society on account of his good riding and perfect knowledge of the turf, but who has never been permitted to penetrate the exclusive circles to which his wife belongs and in which she moves.
Indeed, she was invited everywhere, and used, when I knew her, to go to most places without him, her husband being pointedly ignored by both court and society, and not a day passing without her being made to feel that she has been guilty of a dreadful mesalliance. – N Y Recorder
The Morning Call, 3 August 1891, page 6.
According to this Chicago Tribune piece from 1912, Anna Ugarte always felt dogged by association with the Meyerling scandal. After leaving Austria she alternated between Paris and hunting in Leicestershire. She shot herself through the heart in Melton Mowbray in 1901.
The more I’ve learned about research over the last decade, the more I’ve realised how easy it is to slip up. I’ve seen how one writer’s creative suggestion becomes “fact” in the next book down the line, and I’ve made that mistake myself. I’ve also endeavoured, when possible, to have the issues corrected in reprints. These tiny gaffes are often a matter of elision that results in misreading. Take the discussion surrounding Sir Edwin Landseer’s famous 1861 painting, The Shrew Tamed.
Several authorities claim that the woman in the painting is Skittles, aka Catherine Walters, the beautiful courtesan and queen of the “pretty horsebreakers” as the demi-mondaines who rode and drove in Hyde Park among the cream of society were known. Indeed, the painting is also known as “The Pretty Horsebreaker”. Writers are correct in claiming that Landseer’s painting stirred up contemporary anxieties as to whether these elegant young women were not only leading young men astray, but also respectable young women and even their mothers, eager to make their daughters more marriageable through imitation of these glamorous figures. Indeed, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine wrote at the time: “We hope it will now be felt by Sir Edwin Landseer and his friends that the intrusion of ‘pretty-horse-breakers’ on the walls of the Academy is not less to be regretted than their presence in Rotten Row.”
But Landseer did not paint Skittles. He painted another equestrienne who has appeared again and again in my research concerning the pretty horsebreakers, and who fascinates me although no one has yet written her biography. Her name is Annie Gilbert and it is not clear whether she was a courtesan or not. She was a professional horsewoman, skirting the line of respectability by a) earning her own living, b) doing so riding horses and c) occasionally working as an artist’s model. Here’s the London Daily News‘ review of Landseer’s painting when it was unveiled at the Royal Academy in 1861:
“‘The Shrew Tamed’ (135), by Sir Edwin Landseer, displays perhaps more real power than the large and ambitious work of last year. This picture has been painted, we hear, in compliment to Miss Gilbert, the accomplished horsewoman who has so thoroughly mastered Mr Rarey’s system of horse-taming as to have practised it herself with perfect success. A vicious thoroughbred mare has had, as we see from the strap now thrown aside, its leg bound up, and after a struggle to which the condition of the straw bears witness, lies thrown. The ‘shrew’ is at length so entirely subdued that she now permits her mistress to recline at full length on her shoulder, and even advances her muzzle at the patting of the small fair hand, as if begging for a caress to seal a better understanding for the future. Sir Edwin has indicated the extinction of fire in the mare’s eye too strongly; the result is the poor creature looks wall-eyed. The lady’s self-possession and saucily assumed air of conqueror are highly amusing. A spacial at a safe distance, high up on the trusses of straw, seems to enjoy his mistress’s triumph. The drawing of the mare and the subtle metallic changefulness of her colouring of her sleek hind quarters are most masterly, though the texture of her coat is too satiny. The execution is throughout of the most daring kind: the straw in particular, though extremely sketchy, is so suggestive as to perfectly satisfy the eye.”
Annie’s role is confirmed by Royal Academy documents quoted in a 2009 Oxford Art Journal article by Pamela Fletcher called “Narrative Painting and Visual Gossip at the Early-Twentieth-Century Royal Academy”. She also appears in William Powell’s Frith’s “The Derby Day” panorama. The London Look: Fashion from Street to Catwalk by Christopher Breward, Edwina Ehrman and Caroline Evans describes her as “beautiful, witty and consumptive”. She was tough enough to ride for hours with the Queen’s Hounds, whose master approved of few “Dianas” but allowed for her “cheerful spirit and dashing riding” (quoted in The Queen’s Hounds and Stag-Hunting Recollections by Thomas Lister, page 73).
Extracts from some of Landseer’s letters at the time suggest a woman at ease in male company:
“Do tell me talking of neighbours — if you will let me have your carriage one night to take Annie G. to the play (with her sister) and will you give Hills leave to receive them at 1 5 L. P. afterwards? for a glass of soda water? — A. G. has no end of lovers, but seems to patronize me! I suppose she thinks my Picture will be a trump card for her. She has got a little too fat in some places — she says if I finish the Picture and people rave about it she will richly reward me! I am trying to do things soberly.” (December 1858 to Jacob Bell)
“Annie Gilbert has had a fall Hunting — but is not much the worse — I hope soon to finish the group in which she is no. 1 copper bottomed. She had a party the other Eve her Birthday & asked me — the lot were rather too fast for me sober as I have become & I did not go.” (another letter to Bell, both quoted in Sir Edwin Landseer, by Richard Ormond.)
I don’t know what happened to Annie or where she came from – another of those lines of research which will have to wait till I win the lottery – but I hope I’ve marked out a little corner of the internet for her, and possibly inspired other researchers to discover more.
“A HORSEWOMAN WITHOUT HANDS
The spectacle of a young horsewoman riding astride, and with no hands was witnessed in the West End of London on Saturday. The lady, who appeared to be at perfect ease on horseback, despite her physical infirmity, had a pair of dummy hands attached to the stumps of her arms, and by means of these she was able to guide her horse.”
“MOUNTED SUFFRAGETTES RIDE ASTRIDE
In the woman suffrage procession in London, on Saturday, the ‘General’ Mrs. Drummond, was in a trooper’s greatcoat of dark green, belted at the waist, and the round, broad-leaved beaver hat associated with the French cure. Her two mounted aides-de-camp, the Hon. Mrs. Haverfield and Mrs Vera Holme, wore smart riding gowns and tall silk hats. The three ladies discarded the side-saddle, and rode, like men, astride.”
Wells Journal, Thursday 23 June 1910.
The image above shows last year’s July Palio.
I spent a week in Siena last August watching the preparations for the famous Palio horse race and have written an account which I hope to get published soon. The Palio is a stunning civic and historic phenomenon that is brutal on horses. This July, after a week of trial races and being whipped and spurred round the town square twice daily, a horse called Tornasol decided he’d had enough and refused to run. Viva l’anarchia, Tornasol. The equine revolution starts here.
If you want a brief introduction to the Palio and don’t mind it skipping over any issues related to the actual horses, this documentary unravels some of its complexities:
I talked to the lovely Mark Klobas about crazy Maoist luxury horse plants, how horses are better money-makers than tractors and why horses go to war. Click here to listen.
A team at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, has discovered that nearly all today’s horses* trace tail-male back to Arabian and Turkoman stallions brought to Europe over the last seven centuries (yes, pre-thoroughbred). There is so little diversity in domestic horses’ Y chromosomes that it took an advance in research methods to be able to distinguish between the limited lines out there. Researchers will even be able to designate haplotypes for single stallions, which is how they discovered the Turkoman great great great great great great (times a few more) grandsires of today’s thoroughbreds. Here’s a link to their research.
The fact that in modern times we humans chose to use a small number of stallions to improve our horses makes an interesting contrast to a study published in April on the early years of horse domestication (from 3,500BC on). When I was working on The Age of the Horse, I believed the current research, which suggested that very few stallions were involved in the process of turning wild horses into stockier, faster, more colourful and higher milk-yielding domestic horses. The study team revealed that the opposite was true. In fact, we began our working relationship with horses with plenty of stallions and lots of Y chromosome and haplotype diversity. You can see the study here. Then the bottleneck narrowed as we discovered intensive breeding and those fancy Oriental stallions.
*I would be curious to know which modern breeds were used in this study. Would the results be different for Mongolian horses?