I once had a pony that ate ham sandwiches whilst we were out on rides. One day when we’d stopped somewhere, she showed a great interest in the ham sandwich I was eating and so I offered it to her. With a thoughtful look she took it and chewed quite rapidly for a while. Then, ptoooey! She spat out the pieces of tomato that were in it, completely untouched. Everything else was swallowed and she asked for more. Hold the tomato, though.
And so, when I came to review Deadly Equines: the Shocking True Story of Meat-Eating and Murderous Horses, I wasn’t shocked by the meat-eating part. When discussing this with other horse keepers over the years, I’ve come across horses and ponies that ate meat pie, or fish with chips (no vinegar, thanks); pork scratchings; meat or salmon sandwiches, and so on and so on. If I detailed the odd things that horses ate it would take up the whole of the review.
Disturbed? You’re not alone
That’s not to say that I approached the book with great enthusiasm at the start. I did feel a curious aversion to finding out more about the murderous horses, which proves beyond doubt that my “comfort zone” was under stress. So, apparently, was that of the researcher and author, CuChullaine O’Reilly of the Long Riders’ Guild: “I had no intention of straying down this road…[during research for another book] I had repeatedly uncovered evidence indicating that horses were capable of eating meat. Running alongside that discovery was associated information proving that throughout history horses had savagely slain humans. As a lifelong horseman, part of my mind did not want to deal with this enigma, so it sat quietly ticking away like an equestrian bomb, while I postponed, procrastinated, and looked the other way.”
The first part of the book is devoted to legendary, semi-legendary and historical examples of “deadly equines”; later, their appearance in literature and film is discussed. The heart of the book is a gripping and incredibly well-researched section based on the real-life experience of travellers with horses, from Mongolia to the Polar regions and elsewhere. It’s packed with detail and full of solid facts relating to the subject, with links to videos and web pages of relevance. I learned masses from this section, about the “blood tsampa” fed to horses in Tibet and the “Maujee rations” fed to Shackleton’s horses and much, much more. This section of the book is a wonderful piece of anthropological and historical research. The whole book took nine years of research time and it shows clearly in the numerous instances given – and there’s a lot to think about, with intriguing new suggestions regarding the expeditions of Scott and Shackleton. There’s also extremely up to date information on the horse’s “family tree” from specialist researchers into ancient equid remains, such as Dr. Bruce MacFadden, the Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. In brief, there’s nothing in the horse’s history or its present day physiology to prevent it being an omnivore.
Reclaiming literary Deadly Equines
There are a couple of points I want to make. Firstly, I want to reclaim Anna Sewell’s famous book Black Beauty, along with My Friend Flicka from their descriptions in Deadly Equines as: “names [that] are linked to a warm and comfortable story which states that the horse is a gentle herbivore from which we have nothing to fear.” In fact, this isn’t true. My Friend Flicka, its follow-up Thunderhead and Black Beauty all contain examples of Deadly Equines.
One of the potentially most deadly equines in literature is to be found in Black Beauty – not the eponymous hero, of course, who is always mild, gentle and accepting, but Ginger, the mare who has been so seriously abused by mankind that she avers: “men are brutes and blockheads.” Ginger completely understands the principle of justice and she knows it has not been applied to her; she responds in the way she considers appropriate: “‘If I did not do exactly what he wanted he would get put out, and make me run round with that long rein in the training field until he had tired me out…he came again for me with a saddle and bridle and a new kind of bit…he chucked me hard with the rein. The new bit was very painful and I reared up suddenly, which angered him still more and he began to flog me. I felt my whole spirit set against him and I began to kick, and plunge, and rear, as I had never done before, and we had a regular fight…my blood was thoroughly up and I cared for nothing he could do if only I could get him off. At last, after a terrible struggle I threw him backward. I heard him fall heavily on the turf, and without looking behind me I galloped off to the other end of the field; there I turned round and saw my persecutor slowly rising from the ground…” Ginger does not care if she kills her tormentor. The fact that she doesn’t kill him in this case is incidental. She absolutely has the potential to be a “Deadly Equine” – and who can blame her?
The second point I want to make relates to certain comments in the book about the widespread parroting of beliefs regarding the “prey/predator” relationship. I think that, somewhere along the way, it’s true that the “fight” aspect of “fight or flight” has been mislaid. It’s very good that CuChullaine O’Reilly has given a timely reminder of this in this book. It’s also worth reading the views of Robert M. Miller D.V.M., author of The Revolution in Horsemanship and What it Means to Mankind, (pp 88 – 91 of The Revolution in Horsemanship.) Miller distinguishes between horse and other equid behaviour, arguing that the horse is a machine for flight and “the blind flightiness of the horse is not typical of ass behaviour.” Asses, mules and zebras have aggression as one of their “options” for dealing with predators. It seemed to me that this opened up scope for more research. Is the “flightiness” of modern horses a tendency that has increased through domestication? After all many modern horses and ponies, used for leisure riding or sport, do not live natural herd-based lives and those herds they do live in are often disrupted (eg livery yards, commercial barns) . Do those horses and ponies living closer to a natural existence (and perhaps, with genuine predators within their environment) exhibit greater aggression in response to predators, real or perceived? It’s also worth reading this well-argued response to the Miller perspective: http://thevoiceofthehorse.com/predatorprey/
During the course of the book, media-savvy horse specialists come in for a bit of a sticking, in particular for promoting the helpless flight-oriented prey animal scenario. This, O’Reilly feels, tends to make us view our horses as victims. I do understand this, but in the interests of balance, to show that there is an awareness of the dangers of this view, I also share this from Parelli Natural Horsemanship, freely available on their web site: “Safety around stallions is one of Pat Parelli’s concerns for good reason. He once saw a woman killed by a stallion. The horse bit her throat and ripped her oesophagus out. He has also seen two fingers snapped off, forearm tendons ripped out, and people lifted off the ground by the teeth of a stallion. He himself has been picked up and dragged…At top horse establishments around the world, breeding barns look like torture chambers, equipped with chains, whips, hobbles, helmets and flak jackets. Yet, every year, every breeding season, people are still hurt, maimed or killed by stallions. What does this tell you about the potential perils of owning a stallion? In a fight, even a grizzly bear is no match for a stallion.”
Don’t be afraid of reading Deadly Equines. Its aim is not to destroy your faith in your horse, or horses in general; its intention is not to demonise them. The most terrifying aspect of the book is its title. And, far from wishing to compromise the horse/human relationship, O’Reilly’s biggest fear will be revealed towards the end: that we are in greater danger now than we’ve ever been, of losing our ancient, noble and complex relationship with horses.
Finally, remember that this book is just about a single facet of horse behaviour. It’s not the whole story. However, just because it’s a difficult aspect of the study of equids/equines doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of examination.
Deadly Equines: the Shocking True Story of Meat-Eating and Murderous Horses, by CuChullaine O’Reilly, F.R.G.S., is published by the Long Riders’ Guild. ISBN 978-1-59048-003-8 Price: £15.00