Horses, Medication and Meat: A Digest of the Indigestible

Horse meat in a Dutch supermarket. By Ziko-C (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Horse meat in a Dutch supermarket. By Ziko-C [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Is horse meat safe to eat? Does “burger-gate” go beyond squeamishness about eating equines and point to larger health concerns?

Dr Duncan Campbell, the chief public analyst for West Yorkshire, has commented in the Guardian on the odds of the infamous “Equine DNA” in the “value burgers” containing common horse medications like bute that are dangerous for the humans who consume them further down the food chain. (See the journal article, The Association of phenylbutazone usage with horses bought for slaughter: A public health risk. Dodman NH, Blondeau N, Marini AM. Food & Chemical Toxicology 2010 Vol. 48: 1270-1274.)

This will come as no surprise to anyone in the horse world, especially the US. I’ve covered it on this blog plenty of times, and managed to squeeze a brief mention into the Telegraph history piece. It’s going to be a key question in book two, The Age of the Horse.

Some of these meds do work their way out of the system. This means that the horses involved have to be kept drug-free for a period of months before slaughter, which of course adds to the expense of the meat. On Twitter, Alliandre told me that this is common practice with retired harness horses in Italy. Given horses’ propensity to injure themselves in the most innocent field, I have to wonder what happens if you have to treat the horses with the same drugs – do you simply start the counter all over again?

In theory Europe has a safety net that ensures that horses that have been treated with these drugs do not end up in burgers: the passport system. Each horse has one, and it must specify whether the horse can be slaughtered or not. In a discussion on the Horse and Hound website, a poster pointed out that she’s been obliged to sign the “do not slaughter” note on her horses’ passports because otherwise her vet would not be able to administer life-saving drugs to the animals without her permission (should she be away on holiday or unreachable). This probably means that most European working or leisure horses should be off the menu.

The thing is, you don’t have to wander far into any UK horse forum before you come across dark mutterings about passports getting “lost” or “reissued” with a clean veterinary slate at dodgy markets. In the US the system is even laxer: there are no passports. Many American horses slaughtered in Canada or Mexico end up being shipped to Europe in cutlet (or filler?) form, and many contain drugs that are banned in food animals by the European Union. The New York Times’ excellent series on the overmedication of racehorses in America goes into detail on this issue here.  In mid-October Canada and Mexico even went so far as to close their borders* to US slaughter-bound horses for a few days, after drug traces were found in meat leaving the abattoirs. The EU will crack down still further on these regulations this year; pro-horse meat advocates say they are working on a solution. Watch this space…

As to the cheap British burgers, the Food Standards Agency told the Guardian that all the samples were dope-free:

“The FSA is stressing that, on the basis of the evidence, there is no food safety risk to consumers from these products. There is nothing about horse meat that makes it any less safe than other meat products. The meat products were supplied to the retailers by approved establishments. The burgers that contained horse DNA were tested by FSAI for the presence of phenylbutazone, a commonly used medicine in horses that is not allowed in the food chain; all of the results were negative.”

The Telegraph is reporting that the “filler” came from a Dutch firm, the horses from Argentina or Brazil. Again, I’m reminded of dark mutterings on a UK horse forum about a large number of Argentinian horses stranded in a flooded field by an English river last month, and the alleged possibility that they were shipped over to Europe for the meat trade… It seems that we have a shortage of groovy, locavore, organic, happy herds to supply those who might just be curious to sample horse.

Meanwhile, I’m going to order a copy of Bee Wilson’s Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee, because I suspect that burgergate is an old, old story indeed.



* Update: the borders weren’t closed, but the slaughterhouses stopped accepting the horses for a few days.

A Brief History of the British and Horsemeat, written for the Telegraph

I’ve written a piece for the Telegraph comment pages on Britain and Ireland’s history with horse meat. You can find it here, along with some subversive food writing from the brilliant Rose Prince. It includes everything from 1400BC horsecare manuals to observations on our current habit of shipping our equine meat overseas for others to consume.

Here’s a paragraph that had to be lopped from the original (I overran my word count!), along with the French mid-nineteenth-century reaction to eating horses: “There were cries of horror, and many suggested that if the French ate horses they would soon eat dogs and then turn to cannibalism.”

At Langhams in London in 1860 a French soldier-turned-chef served up two carthorses and a carriage horse as consommé, bouilli, sausage, ragout and a roti in a “hippophagic banquet” to introduce squeamish Anglos to the delights of cheval. Even the potatoes were soused in colourless “horse oil.” “I do not believe,” wrote one diner, “that it could have been distinguished in taste from excellent beef.” Slowly Britain came around.

There’s also a quote from Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in 1856 on the “humane benefits” of hippophagy:

“let [the working horse] rest, put him up somewhere, feed him so that he’s not a loss; and above all, […] heap no more blows on him: because to beat him would be to add to his distress a damage to ourselves: we risk spoiling the merchandise.*”

* I need to check the source for this translation – I think it was Kari Weil. More anon…

Why Is There Horsemeat in Burgers From Ireland and the UK?

The news that horse meat has been found in beef burgers sold in the UK and Ireland is hitting the headlines – more so, even, than the fact that some of these burgers contained pork. There’s reams to be written on the reasons for the taboo on horse meat (and I think most of that material is in my filing cabinets), but let’s chuck in some numbers about the impact of the recession.

  • In 2006 Ireland slaughtered 822 horses for meat. In 2010-2011, over 7,000 died.
  • In 2008 there was one Irish abattoir that dealt with horses. In 2011 that number had increased to five.
  • According to the Irish Independent, in late 2011 some farming groups were lobbying for a lifting of EU restrictions on horse slaughter. This article implied that this would specifically relate to the rules concerning horses that have been treated with drugs that make them unsuitable for human consumption.

The vast majority of this meat is exported from Ireland where there’s little stomach for it. The supermarkets involved in the current scandal say that the rogue batch of meat arrived at the rogue processor in an imported additive from Continental Europe. Given the bizarre nature of the modern industrial food chain, could it be that this is a case of Irish horses “coming home”, or is it a case of taking coals to Newcastle, while Newcastle is busy exporting all its coal…

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links


  • Billionaire Roman Abramovich has purchased Pringle, one of the best showjumping ponies in the UK, for his daughter Irina. (Daily Telegraph)
  • Mustang round-ups in the US are halted after video evidence of abuse of the horses is presented (Salt Lake Tribune)
  • The owner of a pit bull that chased a police horse for a mile-and-a-half through a San Francisco park is fighting a court order to either euthanise the dog or hand it over to a sanctuary. He claims that the police horse should have been trained to deal with dogs, and that he has no idea how the wounds it suffered were inflicted. According to a comment: “The horse was bitten 13 times in a 1.5 mile long attack.  The officer was bitten as well, then thrown and knocked out (very lucky he wasn’t hurt worse) when the horse was bitten in the belly.  The horse ran to the stable but the doors were shut, and the dog attacked it a second time, in the chest, belly, hindquarters and legs.  The dog was originally 200’ away, the owner was present at the start of the attack.” (ABA Journal)
  • Dan Stevens and Dominic Cooper star in a forthcoming film about the life of equestrian artist Alfred Munnings. I wonder if they’ll film in Costessey? (Telegraph, via Fran Jurga)
  • Anti-horse meat advertising campaigns photographed in France. (Market Design)

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

  • IMG_0453This is the most sensible thing written about champion chaser Kauto Star’s controversial retirement to the dressage arena, from Greg Wood (Guardian)
  • In a repeat of Jesse Owens’ sprint against a thoroughbred, bladerunner Oscar Pistorius took on a horse in Qatar, although not without, yes, more controversy. The South African SPCA say that the horse was both held back and whipped. Video here too. (USA Today)
  • A new study on suspensory ligament injuries says they may be caused by too much extended trot. (The Horse)
  • The New York Times continued their excellent reportage on drug use in US racing by asking how it affects the European horse meat market (NYT)
  • George Stubbs took horses apart to study their anatomy and paint them. British equine massage therapist Gillian Higgins just paints them. Literally. (CNN)
  • Epona TV, the Danish website that had the balls to film abuse in collecting rings that were under FEI supervision, have launched their own internet TV station (Epona TV)

    True journalism is about bringing out information which would otherwise have remained obscure. We know that every little part of a horse is interesting and horse owners want to know what makes their equines thrive – even if it involves putting one’s brain to work, learning about neurology, looking into nutrition  or getting to grips with respiration. We want to produce equestrian journalism for the curious, open minded horse owner who perhaps falls between the very conventional end of the spectrum where competition results and profit are all it’s about and the other extreme where it’s felt that we shouldn’t ask anything of horses at all.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

I was away! Things happened! But first – a round up of curious happenings in the horse world!

  • Looks like I got rid of the virtual racing stable I ran in the early 1990s far too early. An unraced imaginary horse from the Digiturf game has just been sold for $5,225. Yes, not only is it nonexistent, it’s also unproven. $5,225. You could get a real racehorse for a lot less. ESPN reports.
  • The Guardian’s dance critic was dispatched to review para-dressage: “With their tightly plaited manes and long ballerina necks, they perform tightly controlled pirouettes and piaffes with impressive finesse; they float across the arena with a silken stride that is like a horsey grand jeté.”
  • An Australian study suggests that Monty Roberts’ methods should be re-assessed. (Horse Talk). UPDATE: Monty responds with a link to an earlier peer-reviewed study of his methods from Anthrozoology.
  • A riding school in Kenya thrives, thanks to its enterprising owner. (BBC).
  • Yahoo has a mighty fine photo gallery of an Icelandic horse round up. Iceland: a nation where horse shoes are sold at garages. MSNBC has sulky racing on the north German coast.
  • The Bloggess brings us the worst example of equine taxidermy I’ve yet seen – and I love bad taxidermy. It’s meant to be a falabella.
  • Kazakhstan is shipping its own horse-meat sausages to London for its Olympic Team. (The Atlantic)
  • As a US Senate hearing calls for stricter rules concerning drug use in horse racing, the New York Times gets hold of Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another’s vet sheet. The colt had been battling tendon problems and osteoarthritis for some time before he even began his Triple Crown bid. That’s an unsound horse, racing on dirt at the highest level. Since the NYT’s report, other racing figures have come forward to say this is no big deal and in fact, common and legitimate. (New York Times).
  • Meanwhile, here’s a less depressing NYT blog post on using dressage to train both competing and retired racehorses. (NYT)
  • Riding school ponies stolen in area of Florida notorious for blackmarket horse-meat slaughters. (CBS Local).
  • And so that we don’t end on a bum note, here’s North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s girlfriend, Hyon Song-Wol, singing her smash hit “Excellent Horse-like Lady” or “A Girl In The Saddle Of A Steed”. Enjoy.

If Wishes Were Horses: Hunters and Amazons

The Ukok Plateau, uploaded by Kobsev at

Here’s the Robin Hood Cave horse carving, safely at the British Museum.

I drew heavily on the work of a husband and wife archaeology team for the section on the early domestication of the horse: you can find out about David W Anthony and Dorcas Brown’s Institute for Ancient Equestrian Studies here. You can find more about the fascinating experiments they’ve done to establish that bits were used on Bronze Age horses.

Here’s a transcript of a PBS documentary about the Pazyryk priestess, and a photograph of her remains. Click through here to see some of the St Petersburg Hermitage’s collection of Pazyryk artifacts, including some incredible tattoos (the ice priestess’s most distinctive tatt is here, along with a modern interpretation. Yes, I’m tempted!). UPDATE: more detailed photos and a reconstruction here.

A year after I finished writing the book, Saudi Arabian archaeologists announced that they had found proof of far earlier horse domestication in the Arabian penninsula. There’s a long article on the subject at HorseTalk. Interestingly, they claim they have the one piece of evidence that the Botai researchers lack: what appear to be artistic representations of humans riding horses. They also claim that the artwork shows a distinctly “Arabian” horse.

The woman mentioned at the very end of the chapter was buried at Wetwang in east Yorkshire, and the British Museum has both some of the objects from her grave (including the hand mirror found behind her knees) and a reconstruction of her chariot here.

This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.