Why do we (in certain countries) not eat horses?

I have a suspicion that this may have been dealt with before, but I couldn’t find it. Apologies if it has, indeed, been done to death.

Anyway, why is there a strong prejudice, e.g in the U.K., and I imagine in a lot of North America, against eating horses, although it’s perfectly all right in many other countries? I recall, for instance, a “Pferdemetzgerei” (horse butcher) shop in Munich that had a carefully arranged window display centred on an extremely cute kiddies’ rocking horse.

Please note, I am not suggesting that one ought or ought not to - it’s just something I have wondered for a while,and when I discussed it with a friend some time ago, we had a long (and eventually fairly drunken!) conversation, but somehow failed to arrive at a sensible answer.

Horses have other uses and are reasonably intelligent and trainable. Cows, on the other hand, are relatively stupid and can’t match the usefulness of horses except as meat.

So anyway, it’s just become part of the way of American life that we eat beef and ride horses.

Anyway, that’s my guess!


Assuming for the moment that horses are in fact good for something besides the steeple chase & elmer’s glue, we (in the USA) don’t eat them because there’s no market. And there’s no market because nobody eats them, and nobody eats them because there’s no market for them and so on. Just as there is no market for dog meat, shark meat or kangaroo meat.

No company would want to risk the bad PR (horse murderers!!) of being the first to offer meat from an animal that is generally though of by the general public as untouchable for such purposes. As to why we never started eating them in the first place, way back when? I would venture to say that horses were valuable commodities for transportation, and probably status symbols as well:

[twang]“get a load of this ma, cliff is a’ eatin his horse!”[/twang]

However, in some countries where sources of animal protien is scarce (or the usual channels are too expensive or unavailable), I’m sure people will eat just about anything to avoid hunger. This can be the only explanation for the people of North Vietnam eating monkeys or the French eating snails.

Thanks, Andyman,and I am grateful that you responded, so I am not trying to be awkward, but the features you suggest (intelligent, trainable, other uses) would similarly apply to Belgium, France et cetera.

Well, actually there was a bit of a 80s fad for shark meat kangaroo meat,ostrich meat, and I imagine shark meat, at least, might still be around. And I can certainly see that no-one is going to risk the bad PR of launching such a product now, but that’s because there is such a strong tradition of not doing so. As Opus says, there is a bit of a circular argument here.

Incidentally, I suspect that we do eat horses in some cheap meat products, but are simply not aware of it. “Blech” indeed, but I’m trying to keep away from judging it a good or bad idea.

Hey, wait a minute - re. the bad P.R., at least it could be said to be free from bovine spongiform whatsit!

What I was trying to get at (unsuccessfully) was that back in the good ole frontier days, your horse was much more valuable as a work animal than as a food animal. I grew up in the country and have been around cows and horses most of my life. Cows are generally much less willful than horses and easy to take care of. I would imagine that horses have been eaten here in the states, but the regular practice of horse eating (what would you call horse meat?) got loss with the mass production of beef.

Are horse butchers very popular overseas? I admit I’ve never travelled much, and have never ever heard of butchers specializing in horses before.

BTW, sorry if I seem a bit disjointed, I’m posting from work, and have got to stop every now and then and look busy! :smiley:

For a very detailed reply to this question, check out this book, which also discusses why cows are sacred in India. It’s been a while since I read it, but my memory is that “pet” animals in America are kept for companionship and even as child substitutes, so we react more emotionally to the idea of killing them. For these purposes, horses fall into the same category as cats and dogs for most people. We tend to be more distant from work or food animals.

Lots of restaurants serve shark, frequently mako. It tastes like swordfish.

Can’t speak for other countries, but Italy has butcher shops that advertise horse meat for sale along with the beef and pork.

The root reason for this (SOWAG) is what andyman touched on; basically, we don’t eat horses in our society because, historically, eating them was really stupid. They were MUCH more valuable as working animals. To eat them was tantamount to using dollar bills as kindling.

In Western society but especially in North America, edible animals - for the most part comprising cattle, swine, sheep, and birds - are plentiful. We could exclude an animal like horses and still have lots to eat.

And when you look at all those animals, the horse is the LAST one you’d want to eat. Pigs, chickens and turkeys have basically no other use to us other than as food. Sheep yeild wool, too, but you can’t ride them or have htem haul things. Cows can pull stuff, I guess, but they’re not nearly as useful as horses, which you can ride and use as a plow animal. Horses serve obviously military purposes, even in modern times. Most German supplies in World War II - II, not I - were hauled by horses. So given a choice between eating the cow or eating the horse, you’ll always eat the cow.

The other factor that makes the horse a poor choice for today’s grocery store is that they just aren’t economical. Horse meat would be way more expensive than its taste could possibly justify. Horses are high-maintenance animals, prone to getting sick and injured, and they eat an enormous amount of food, far more than cows do by body weight. Keeping horses is a very pricey affair. It just would not be worth it in a country where other kinds of food are cheap and plentiful.

I suspect horse meat’s caught on in Europe and not here just because all the advantages of not eating your horse are magnified here, where we have unlimited space for keeping cattle and such, but even then it’s certainly true that horse meat is a rare speciality in Europe.

Here’s a link to a great book that I read last month:
Fiddes argues that culturally we (American, English,…) have learned that eating certain animals is wrong, be they dogs, cats or horses. In Korea, for instance, there are no taboos against eating dogs.
The bond between domesticated horses and their owners created the taboo that exists today. It is hard to eat a pet.
Although I can’t remember why this did not affect Belgians or Germans.

There actually was an attempt in the 70s to market horse meat in the US. I remember newspaper articles and discussions about it. My mom served it to us once, without telling us what it was until after dinner. (She, however, declined to partake.) IIRC, it was marketed as a less expensive alternative to beef. Of course, it didn’t go over well, and disappeared from the grocery store.

Two words:

Dog Food.

Waaaah! I am beginning to think it was a silly question to start with! Basically, everyone has said very sensible things, but they are things that would apply also to continental Europe, for instance, and I can’t work out what the real difference is. Yes, I agree about the dog food - and I honestly do suspect horsemeat might be in the nastier types of burger or sausage.

It does, of course, seem to come down to a matter of what is or is not traditionally acceptable, but I can’t see quite where the differences in tradition came from. Hell - disconnected again - I get that a lot, and it makes for some rather hurried writing - sorry if I sound abrupt or unappreciative.

ENugent beat me to it. Martin Harris’ “Good to Eat” (aka “The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig”) devotes an entire CHAPTER to the eating of horses. His bottom line is that foodways are based on practical “economic” reasons that are later rationalized by religion and philosophy (rather than vice-versa, as is often claimed). In essence, he says that horses are too valuable to eat. This is different from the reason we don’t eat dogs and cats (basically, because they’re carnivores, so we’d have to feed them meat. But it’s more efficient to eat the meat ourselves). The fact that dogs, cats, and horses are all pets is secondary. Harris is worth reading, even if you don’t agree with him (and a great many anthropologists find his “cultural materialism” theories – well – unpalatable.)

The “Sacred cow and the abominable pig” - Thanks - great title! BTW - in one of the reviews (2nd one, I think) do you suppose the writer meant to refer to the Asiatic people who became “mongrel (sic) hordes”? That could almost set me off on a cannibalism question, but thank goodness, that was dealt with.


Harris devotes an entire chapter to cannibalism, too. It’s controversial, but I find it convincing.

Harris originally titled his book “Good to Eat”, but changed it, he says, because too many people thought it was a cookbook. But I’ve noticed that he changed it back to his original title.

I have heard that it’s all a matter of categorizing things, an example of pattern-making behavior, and that since there is not on the whole any other reason for what to eat and what not to eat, etc., societies will vary. At any rate, animals which are raised for food are seldom kept as pets (except in Disney movies where the little girl secretly raises a cute little lamb that she has made a pet of and then has to talk her folks out of sending it to market), and animals kept as pets aren’t eaten as food. Thus categorization. Many have wondered why much of the world eats pork with no ill effects, Jews and I guess Moslems? do not, and then Jews and Moslems? claim that there is something unclean about pork or that there was in the old days, when people didn’t know to cook the trichina worm out of it, thus supplying a rational reason besides (or the same as?) the reason the Deity condemned pork. But I read in an anthropology book that it was just about making categories, and there are several animals with a certain kind of hoof that goes with something else on the animal and several animals with the other kind of hoof and very few that cross the lines, the pig and camel being examples, and since they fit in no proper category, there must be something wrong with them. A somewhat related phenomenon is how societies that use the blood of cattle for food never drink the milk or make milk products, and societies that use the milk never drink the blood, thus many Orientals and Africans who are blood using peoples often lack the enzyme for digesting cow milk.

Thanks, Cal! I felt like there was something I was forgetting, but I couldn’t remember what. I haven’t read the book for four years, since I broke up with the boyfriend that owned it.

don willard, the same book also has chapters on lactose intolerance and on Jewish/Moslem pork taboos. I had never noticed (nor does Harris address, I think) the dichotomy between blood-using and milk-using peoples. Why would a culture develop one or the other? Would it have to do with the ease of milking the available large animals? The extent to which bleeding makes the animal less useful as a work animal? Other stuff I haven’t thought of? And why would a culture invariably use only one of the two?

I just don’t think humans do things for logical or rational reasons, except sometimes. As a rule, it is just a matter of our and the higher apes’ having excess time and brain activity and a delight in aesthetics (making patterns). The patterns of food behavior and so on vary among cultures because it doesn’t really matter for practical reasons, for the most part, though there are probably exceptions such as the avoidance of poisonous plants from witnessing illness and death in those who haven’t avoided them. A related issue is our cultivation of plants and animals over the aeons, which is probably largely based on conscious, scientific reasoning, even in the ancient past. There is a tribe I heard about that spends all day beating the poison out of taro roots so they can eat the rest, and this is all they eat, while there is a riot of edible plants all over the island. This is a testament to both patterning behavior alone at work and to stupidity. In Western civilization tomatoes didn’t used to be eaten at all and were thought poisonous but ornamental, like gourds. This is another example of sheer patterning behavior, later amended by scientific practice and experimentation.

In the early 70’s, the price of beef skyrocketed. People actually tried to introduce horsemeat as an alternative,(mostly at fairs and other public events). I didn’t see any thing great about it. Tasted like dog to me.:smiley: