Since it has come to light that Tescos have been selling beef burgers that contain horse meat there has of course been some debate as to whether it is okay to eat horses. Some folk are saying that eating horse meat is no different to eating beef, pork or chicken and that those of us who are uncomfortable with the idea of eating equines are simply being sentimental and silly because we find ponies cute.
I am happy to admit that I love my horses, I was perched on a pony before I could walk and much of my time has been spent with the horses ever since. As a child I had fun going to competitions, galloping around the countryside and of course looking after my ponies and simply enjoying their company. When I left school, horses became my job and I opened a riding school which I ran for many years so horses have been an interest, a passion and also my living. Although the horses aren't my full time job now I still have some and I guess they are a way of life.
I think that anyone who has been involved with horses will understand the incredible bond and partnership that exists between people and their horses; I remember all of my horses and ponies with fondness and gratitude not only for the fun they gave me but also their loyalty and the fact they enabled me to put food on the table. I therefore have my own personal reasons for not wanting to eat horses but I also believe that there are other less sentimental reasons for not eating horses.
Firstly we have cultural reasons for not eating horses. Both as Romanies and as British people horses are an important part of our culture and in history were very important to our survival, our livelihoods and our happiness. Apart from in rare times of desperation horses were way too valuable to eat; they helped us grow our food, they were our transport and took us into battle.
So times have moved on and so has technology but culture and history do influence people's attitudes to horses and this is one reason why many are uncomfortable with farming horses for meat. One could argue that culture is not relevant yet so often we hear people complaining in the media that British culture is disappearing. Too often immigrants are blamed for destroying our culture yet perhaps the real problem is greed, consumerism and a do as you like attitude. Like it or not horses are revered and loved by British people, we have some excellent equine traditions in this country and our native British ponies should be seen as national treasures.
Secondly farmers have tended to stick with breeding and farming meat animals based on their suitability for the job. Horses are poor converters of grain/grass to meat compared to beef cows for example, the kind of horses we have in the UK take some years to mature to a point where there would be sufficient meat to make the exercise worthwhile by which time the quality of the meat would suffer.
Also our traditional farm animals have been selected for docility and non flight instincts so that they can exist peacefully in commercial farming environments, it is my opinion that the needs of horses are different and such methods of rearing and slaughter are very distressing for them.
Keeping horses in good condition is also expensive and labour intensive, they require more grazing per animal than say sheep or even cows and their feet need regular attention. When raised in large groups and unhandled, horses are much more complicated to deal with than sheep or cows; as per their nature they will under such circumstances be prone to panic and stress. This means it would be difficult to manage comercially farmed horses or to transport them in a calm and humane manner.
I am inclined to think that our ancestors understood which animal suits a particular job, we haven't tended to eat horses for the same reason we don't tend to ride cows or sheep - it's not worthwhile or productive. I can understand the arguement that certain horses have been overbred in the UK and Ireland and that it would be actually more humane to euthanase unwanted, surplus horses and less wasteful to eat them. The issue of overbreeding certainly needs addressing but since equines are not regulated in the same way as other meat animals I am not convinced that it is safe to start bringing them into the food chain as a way of tidying people's mistakes.
It is patronizing to suggest that the only reasons for not eating horse meat are sentimental ones and I think it is unwise to forget that the different species of animals differ in what they can cope with both physically and mentally. I don't want to get into all the vegetarian versus meat arguments but perhaps if one wants to eat meat maybe it would be better to concentrate on the welfare of the meat animals we already have without adding more species and complications.