Noble horse has illustrious past

LAST month saw the Cheltenham Festival, the election of the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years and the continuing saga of horseflesh sold as beef.

These stories are strangely connected; we can blame the last non-European pope, the one before Francis, for our hang-up about eating horses.

Gregory III, a Syrian, ascended the throne of St Peter in the year 731. The leading religious figure of the day was an English missionary, Boniface the ‘Apostle of the Germans’, whose evangelising methods were somewhat heavy-handed by today’s standards. Determined to stamp out idolatry among the pagan tribes, he destroyed their temples and shrines. A great oak at Geismar in Hesse was sacred to the thunder god.

When Boniface took an axe to it, a miraculous wind blew it down. A church was built from the wood. Such behaviour didn’t endear the holy man to the locals; Boniface would die a martyr’s death.

Horses featured prominently in pagan ceremonies. Chieftains had their favourite steeds buried with them and horseflesh was eaten at festivals. Having it on the menu became an act of defiance, a ‘non serviam’ two-finger gesture towards the papacy and the missionaries. In response, Pope Gregory denounced the eating of horses, anywhere in Christendom, as an abomination.

We don’t know how effective the prohibition was. There was no equivalent to our beef tribunal in those days but the ethics of the meat industry then were probably no better than in our time. There must have been a roaring under- the-counter trade in horse carcasses.

Religions generally prosper when oppressed and banning something can make it irresistible. The ban misfired in other ways; the Icelanders, it’s claimed, shunned Christianity because of it.

But our reluctance to eat the forbidden flesh is not all down to Gregory. The horse has a special place in our affections. Quadrillions of tonnes of soil were turned by horse-drawn ploughs over the centuries.

The total distance covered by these most efficient people-carriers must be astronomical. The noble beast helped build our civilisation, explore vast regions of the world and fight terrible wars.

At times, it was afforded quasi-human status. Caligula appointed his mount to the Roman senate. ‘Underneath lies Crimean Bob, a veteran troop-horse who, after passing unharmed through the memorable Crimean campaign, died at Cahir barracks on November 9, 1862, aged 34 years’ proclaims a plaque in the Co Tipperary town.

The thought of eating Black Beauty or Joey in War Horse seems sacrilegious.

Our bond with the horse goes back a long way. Originally hunted for its meat, this vegetarian was domesticated 5,000 years ago on the steppes of central Asia, probably by the ancestors of Genghis Khan. Around a thousand years later, working animals were brought to the Middle East; a terracotta depiction of one with a rider, found in Mesopotamia, dates from that time.

The ‘Arabian’ developed via selective breeding into one of the great racing breeds. Three Arabian stallions brought to Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries bred with local mares to produce the magnificent creatures we bet on today. Last year, scientists at UCD and Cambridge isolated a ‘speed gene’ mutation, originating in a British mare 300 years ago.

The original wild horse has fared less well than its domesticated cousin.

Hunted and harassed by an ever increasing human population, it was considered, until recently, to be extinct. Then in 1881, the Russian geographer Nikolai Przewalski, following rumours that some had survived, led an expedition to Mongolia. There he observed what he thought was the proto-horse. In 1900, some Przewalski horses were captured and placed in zoos. There were 31 in captivity by 1945. London Zoo and Mongolian scientists organised a reintroduction project, exchanging animals between zoos to maximise the gene pool.

Twelve zoo-bred horses were returned to the steppes in 1992. Following further releases in Mongolia and on the fringes of the Gobi Desert, Przewalski horses have prospered; there are now over 300 in the wild. Their relationship to the domestic horse, however, is much debated.

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