For the most part, when horsemeat (meat from horses) as a viable food source is discussed in America, it is considered disgusting – even un-patriotic. When the horse meat scandal of 2013 hit Europe, a number of the best restaurants in the United States tried to put the global staple onto the menu… with horrific results.
According to an article from earlier this year in The Guardian :
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Philadelphia chef Peter McAndrews, owner of upscale Italian restaurant Monsu, was sent graphic images of horses being slaughtered and even received bomb threats after he announced he would serve horsemeat in his dining room. He publicly declared that the intimidation tactics from horse advocates that had convinced other restaurants not to serve horse would not change his menu. But a visit from the FDA to all five of his restaurants did. The agency’s inspectors advised that he “stay away from it,” he told Eater Philadelphia. “I felt like I had the FBI of the food world on me.” 
If you’re like the majority of US citizens, you would likely balk – maybe even gag – at the thought of eating horsemeat at a restaurant. Horses are considered a delicacy in countries around the world, from Italy to China to Iceland, but Americans just can’t seem to stomach the idea, even though many areas of arable public lands are currently overrun with about 50,000 feral horses – and bringing them to the dinner table might be one of the best possible solutions to the overcrowding.
At present, there are 50,000 wild horses across the country, 22,000 more than the maximum limit set by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which must by law safeguard the species. (The Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971, signed by Richard Nixon, requires the BLM to protect the feral horse population in perpetuity.)
Horses, introduced to North America in the 16th century, have no natural predators, and the 1971 law succeeded in reviving wild horse populations to the point that the BLM is now facing considerable legal and local pressure to keep them from running rampant across western rangeland, destroying habitat and sucking the land dry of water and forage.
In addition to the 50,000 wild equines across 10 states – from Texas to Wyoming – another 50,000 head are currently being kept in holding facilities.
Many of these horses were rounded up by helicopter over the past decade in a frantic attempt to protect rangeland habitats for other wildlife, like the endangered sage grouse. The original act allowed horses to be euthanized in cases of overpopulation, and where adoptive owners could not be found. But in subsequent years, Congress attached riders to the BLM management budget prohibiting the agency from euthanizing any healthy wild horses, even in the case of overpopulation.
“People love horses,” says Robert Garrott of Montana State University, who assisted in a two-year study by the National Research Council that criticized current wild horse management techniques. “They can be sane about the management of other companion animals like dogs and cats. But somehow horses are beyond reason – more than any other animal I can think of.”
Not your grandfather’s American mustang
Garrott says the current scenario is likely not what legislators and horse advocates had in mind when the law was passed in 1971. “In the 70s, scientists thought wild horse populations grew at 1% to 3% annually,” says Garrot, who assisted with research in the 80s that determined that wild horse populations actually grew at about 10 times that rate.
Unable to cull the animals, and with interest in adopting wild horses too low to keep up, the BLM rounds up thousands of horses every year and places them wherever they can. Gus Warr, lead wild horse and burro specialist for Utah, says declining interest in adoption has made housing these horses complicated, expensive and less than ideal for the animals. “Sometimes in these short-term facilities, these animals are being held for years because of the situation we’re in. It’s just a feed lot.”
But even feed lots are expensive. Facing a population that doubles every four years, Congress increased the budget to $80m last year for the wild horse and burro program alone, up from $17m in 1990.
This past summer, the Utah BLM faced the closure of two of its partnerships with wild horse conservation programs. The agency was tasked with moving thousands of horses from private land in a matter of days. The cost of moving those horses ran into the “hundreds of thousands of dollars”, according to Warr.
“The BLM are between a rock and a hard spot,” Garrott says.
The wild horse and burro program bears no resemblance to the way the government handles other charismatic megafauna, some of which people hunt for sport, like wolves, or kill for meat, like bison.
“Not even other species that people are passionate about – wolves in the west – are protected this way,” Garrott says. “Horses are the only species that I know of that society hasn’t embraced the idea that if there are excess and no one wants those animals that they are put down.”
The effect of wild horses on their habitat has been compared to that of invasive pythons or feral pigs, both of which state agencies have attempted to control through bounty hunts.
But Garrott thinks it very unlikely that Americans would advocate for similar treatment of horses. “Here in North America, the culture of hunting horses just isn’t there. And certainly no culture of eating them.”
The US Humane Society is highly critical of the BLM’s management strategy, calling the helicopter-aided roundups cruel and dangerous. They advocate for more aggressive attempts at using contraception to control the population, which the BLM and National Research Council says is insufficient, considering that the population is already 50% higher than wildlife agencies consider acceptable.
The Humane Society is also a strong opponent of any type of horse slaughter. It lobbies for Congress’s continued pressure on the BLM to avoid horse euthanasia and slaughter.
“We see them differently because they are an animal on which the West was built and they are an iconic species,” says Stephanie Boyles Griffin, senior director for the Humane Society’s Wildlife Protection Program. “They represent the rugged individualism that is symbolic of the west. People want them to be free.”
Ah, horses – we ate them once
So why not eat them? It’s what we do with other wild ungulates such as deer, elk and bison. Plus, horsemeat is healthier than beef: it’s lower in fat, higher in protein and has a greater proportion of omega-3 fatty acids. Connoisseurs describe it as sweet and pleasantly gamey.
Horse consumption wasn’t always so taboo. It was a Paleolithic staple. Around the second world war, horse cuts briefly came back into fashion, largely due to the meat’s low cost.
After the European horsemeat scandal in 2013, it became somewhat de rigueur in England to deliberately eat horsemeat. Princess Anne suggested that horse owners might take better care of their animals if they thought they could ultimately sell them for meat. (That argument was not well-received.) Some of the most expensive restaurants added horse dishes to their menus.
The movement extended to the US in 2013. With congressional obstacles to horse slaughter lifted, a few plants were on the verge of coming back into operation.
But the backlash from horse conservation groups and government officials was swift. Congress pulled funding for meat inspectors in last year’s budget, effectively reinstating a ban on horse slaughter in the United States. Because of the lack of domestic abattoirs, about 160,000 domestic American horses are shipped to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico for sale in foreign markets every year.
Objections to eating horsemeat that don’t involve the horse’s vaunted position in American iconography often point to the potentially unsavory quality of meat from working horses. Last month, the European Council rejected horsemeat from Mexican slaughterhouses, citing concerns that drugs used in American racehorses might taint the food chain.
If wild horses were the source of horsemeat, might that assuage concerns?
Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food and co-owner of the farm-to-table restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York’s Westchester County and its sister Blue Hill in New York City, says wild horses could have a place on the American menu.
“If you look at it just from an ecological standpoint – and for me, a gastronomic standpoint – I see a real logic in including horsemeat on a menu,” Barber said in an email. “For any animal – or crop, for that matter – we have to ask: what is its value in our environment, and our agriculture, and how can we maximize that value through culinary technique?
“The right culture of eating can actually improve a landscape. And something like wild horsemeat is a good example (as long as you can ensure honest labeling and humane treatment). For me, 35 miles from New York City, it doesn’t really apply. But for someone cooking on or near rangeland? Absolutely.”
But, he admitted that his “heart wasn’t really in it”.
That seems to be the main obstacle for those who would like to see more rigorous mustang management. It would require an appetite (and a market) to change legislation around wild horse populations – and potentially their image in the American mind.
With politicians strongly motivated to do nothing, Garrott says, the American west is in danger of facing the same degree of drought and starvation that has afflicted Australia’s wild horse population in recent years, which has led to orders to shoot over 10,000 animals to save them from suffering . He fears that American wild horses will be allowed to run free until they run up against the reality of limited resources. “It’s totally and completely unsustainable,” says Garrott. “And if society wants to do that, so be it. It will be a very sad day for horses and those who enjoy our western rangelands.”
This article was amended on 4 February 2015. Due to a production error, the story originally included a supporting photograph of wild horses in Sabucedo, Spain. It has been removed.
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