A meaty topic
A stallion that loved lambchops? A pony that preferred seafood to grass? In the days of yore, equine eating habits encompassed a surprising range of foodstuffs.
In my 33 years as an equine nutritionist, I’ve fielded a wide variety of questions about what horses can and should eat. My answers, of course, are grounded in science and research. However, when the editors of EQUUS contacted me to ask about the practice of feeding meat to horses, I drew information not only from those fields of inquiry but another adjacent one: history—specifically, historical research I conducted at a very special place: the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) in Middleburg, Virginia.
Nestled in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the NSLM is dedicated to preserving books, documents and art that chronicle and celebrate traditional “country pursuits.” In addition to activities like shooting and fly-fishing, these pursuits include many equestrian sports, such as steeplechasing, foxhunting and polo. The library itself contains about 20,000 books and periodicals, including thousands on general horsemanship and horse care. These books aren’t lent out, but the visitors can view most of them on site. Then there is a Rare Books Room, where original texts dating between the 1500s and 1800s can be accessed with special permission, mostly by people granted fellowships to conduct research on specific topics.
I’m fortunate that the NSLM is only a half-hour from my home, and I’ve completed three John H. Daniels Fellowships there so far. During each, I went to the library every day for four months, researching the history of horse feeds, supplements and laminitis treatments. In the hundreds of hours that I spent in the Rare Books Room, I unearthed fascinating information and often had to reconcile my modern experiences
with ancient texts.
During my many visits to the Rare Books Room, I took copious notes on the subjects I was investigating or simply found interesting. One topic in the latter group was the forms of protein that were sometimes added to equine feed buckets through the ages. In fact, there is a surprising amount of information on the practice of feeding meat to horses, much of which challenges modern sensibilities about equine health and nutrition.
For starters, a casual reader of books about horse health and care published in England during the 16th through 18th centuries could easily have the mistaken impression that horses of those eras were fed meat daily. For example, in William Gibson’s 1721 The True Method of Dieting, he tells us, “Those horses which are newly come from grass, ought also to be prepared, by letting them stand so long upon hard meat, until their bodies are perfectly accustom’d and familiarized to it.” The truth is that the word “meat” (sometimes spelled “meate”) had a different meaning in those days. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, meat was defined as “food, as nourishment for people and fodder for animals; esp. solid food, as opposed to drink.”
That is not to say that meat or fish were not fed to horses in some countries or under special circumstances. In John Stewart’s
1845 book, Stable Economy: A Treatise on the Management of Horses in Relation to Stabling, Grooming, Feeding, Watering, and Working, the author’s long list of feed stuffs for horses includes “flesh” (possibly using the term “flesh” to distinguish it from “meat”).
Under flesh, Stewart starts by stating the "structure of the horse does not seem adapted to the assimilation of animal food. But some seem to have no dislike to it; and it is well to know that it may, to a certain extent, supply the place of corn.” The author offers a firsthand account, along with stories from others, of horses “greedily” consuming blood, and preferring meat (mutton, beef, veal, poultry and bacon) over grains.
Indeed, Stewart goes on to describe an experiment he conducted with a stallion known to be a flesh-eater. The author placed meat (roast beef and raw bacon) in one manger and oats in another, then led the horse up to them and allowed him to choose. The stallion immediately devoured the meat and only after eating the last morsel turned his attention to the oat-filled manger. Stewart also reports that same horse was able to finish off a leg of mutton in a matter of minutes, and “roasted meat was his favourite dish.”
What’s more, Stewart relates that the "wealthy people of Mejdid frequently give flesh to their horses, raw as well as boiled, together with the offal of the table.”
He knew a man in Hamah, Syria who assured him “that he had often given his horses washed meat after a journey, to make them endure it with greater facility.”
Not surprisingly, the rigors of war also pushed the boundaries of acceptable fare for horses. The historical record shows that during military campaigns when forage and grain were sparse, sustenance for calvary horses could include meat. One such example is found in an officer’s manual from the British War Office written by the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (Anon, 1908). The manual describes how meat was successfully integrated into the diets of warhorses during the siege of Metz
(the battle fought during the Franco-Prussian War from August 19 to October 27,
1870) by cutting it into small pieces and rolling it in bran.
Stewart also relates that
“In the East Indies, meat boiled to rags, to which is added some type of grains and butter, is made into balls and forced down the horse’s throats. Also, sheeps' heads, during a campaign, are boiled for horses in that country”.
Delving further into the literature, feeding animal products to horses appears to be much more common in the Middle East and India. In 1911, Lieutenant-Colonel D. C. Phillott translated an Indian veterinary journal written by Sa’Adat Yar Khan (Rangin) called FarasNama-E Rangin or The Book
of the Horse. He tells us that “Indian country breeds will eat and thrive on food that would probably kill English horses. In the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, locusts, fish, and dates are regarded as legitimate food for cattle and horses; in Thibet, the tinghans are given pig’s blood and raw liver; in the cold regions of Central Asia meat is regarded as a necessity for horses.”
Many fascinating remedies are described throughout this veterinary manual. In addition to frequent mentions of using turmeric, ginger and a little elephant dung, animal parts are included in at least a sampling of the remedies prescribed. From the words of Rangin: “To rejuvenate a horse: To make an old horse young again, get a bullock’s head [a goat head and eyes] and roast it in hot ashes; separate all the flesh from the bone and squash and mix with the brains in a big pot of water (degcha) till of the consistency of thin porridge (harira). Boil, with a good store of water, over a slow fire, and as the fat and grease rises skim it off and put it aside in a pot. Mix the whole of the fat in a mahel [mahel is a term applied to a mash made of boiled moth (bean) but sometimes to one made of gram, and never less than 2 pounds of it] and give after watering. Feed like this for five consecutive days, and the good effects will last a whole year. Feed for longer than this, and the results will delight you.”
For “hard dung … stuck in the twist of the intestines [impaction colic],” the treatment was ten quarts of thick soup made from “the heads and shanks of four goats or so.” While the protocol for a horse that survived tetanus was the following: “Procure a fowl, remove its beak and shanks, and pound the whole carcasse, guts and all, to a soft mass in a mortar; then add 4 pounds of mahel [four pounds of kidney beans, boiled and mashed], 4 ounces of peppercorns, and a quart of sharab [native wine or brandy]. Give this quantity every evening for forty days… Instead of fowl, the flesh of jackals or of palmsquirrels is often substituted; though often beneficial, this is not to be depended upon [The flesh of these two animals is considered stimulating and is usually given in the form of a thick broth].”
Reading this I had many thoughts, one of which was I am glad that I was not a horse in the Indian cavalry!
Not only has meat been fed to horses throughout history, but fish as well. In his 1889 manual The Family
A veterinary journal from 1911 (below) and a book published in 1860 (right) offer clues to bygone horse-care practices.
Horse: its Stabling, Care and Feeding. A practical manual for horse-keepers,“George Martin mentions that horses in Iceland and some of the Shetland Islands were sustained on dried fish in light of sparse other feedstuffs during the winter.
Norwegian horses of all kinds were fed a soup made from boiled fish when mixed with other food. Fish were a good supply of vitamins A and D, both of which can be in short supply during the cold, short days of the northern countries. Martin relates a story in which the author, “once saw a diminutive pony, which had recently arrived from one of the smallest and bleakest of the Shetland Islands. Its food had consisted almost entirely of dried fish, a supply of which was necessarily brought along with the pony to avoid too abrupt a change to other food. It was interesting to observe the puzzled expression of the shaggy little beast, as it watched its new companions nipping the grass.”
A pony that doesn’t know how to graze may be hard to imagine today. Yet horsekeepers of yore probably would be similarly perplexed by the idea that modern equine feed rations that don’t need to incorporate animal proteins, seafood or other foodstuffs.
Perhaps the greatest lesson is that—in any era— people feed horses in the best way they know how and, by and large, horses do just fine.