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21 Sep 2008

A Horse is a Bridge Between Land and Sky ~ Seasonal Recipes

“Precious horses are being slaughtered so people in foreign countries can eat them!”
~ from

Om! Blessed be the animal,
With its horns and members.
Om! Tie it to the somber pillar,
That sunders Life from Death
Om! Tie this animal very well,
For it represents the universe.
Markandeya Purana (91:32)

The first thing you notice is the color. Horsemeat is a startling blood red in hue, an effect produced by its myoglobin content. The fat, distributed in a sleeve around the meat, is tinted yellow from corn or pasture flora and is easily sliced off. Succulent equine flesh is sweeter than beef, with a finer grain, most similar to deer in flavor (an inexperienced taster probably could not distinguish between the two), and recommended by dieticians in many countries for its healthfulness. The French CIV (Meat Information Center) offers the following:

Chopped Steak of Chevaline with Béarnaise sauce
Serves 4

Premium-quality coarsely ground horsemeat 150g (i.e., mince of rib, topside or sirloin)
Salt, pepper

Butter 250g,
4 egg yolks,
30g shallots, chopped,
5 sprigs of tarragon
5 sprigs of chervil
2 tsp white wine vinegar
3 Tbsp water
Salt, pepper

To make sauce: Melt butter in a pan. Cook the vinegar down in another pan with the water and shallots. Take off the heat, put on bain-marie. Then add egg yolks, stirring continuously. When the mixture becomes creamy, gradually add the melted butter while stirring gently. Add salt and pepper to taste, then tarragon and chervil. In a frying pan or on a very hot grill, brown the meat 1 to 2 min on each side. Add salt, pepper at the end of the cooking. Serve accompanied by mashed potatoes and the Béarnaise sauce.

So why isn’t McDonald’s selling Dobbinburgers? And why the strange vehemence about “foreign tables”?

Firstly, it is significant that the English language has no special word for “horsemeat,” no linguistic equivalent of beef or pork. It all began with the Indo-Europeans, who managed to tame the creatures between 4,500 to 3,000 B.C. The cultural advantage which accrued as a consequence of this new mobility rocketed them into prominence, and they went on the warpath, accumulating new territory, wealth, and recognition. Although they did consume its flesh, they prized the horse more for its value as a vehicle of war than for its culinary merit. The horse was so important to the Celtic tribes that they even had a horse goddess, Epona, with aspects relating to warfare, life cycles, and fertility, and whose primary seat of worship appears to have been Great Britain. Gerald of Wales described an ancient Irish inauguration ritual (last performed in the 12th century) wherein a new king was obliged to have his wicked way with a white mare, the animal being killed immediately afterwards, cut into chunks and cooked up in a bath. The lucky new ruler would then climb into the bath, sit in it, drink the broth and eat some of the meat, soon to be joined by the onlookers themselves. One wonders what went through the onlookers’ minds, witnessing this. Perhaps they checked it out or shrugged it off like the Presidential Inauguration Speech.

– “Wanna go, dear?”
– “Nah, not this year”

5 kg of horse-flesh
5 kg of suet
350 g of salt
10 g of black ground pepper
50 g of garlic, greens to taste

The prepared meat is rubbed with salt and kept for 1-2 days in a cool place at the temperature of 3-4 deg. C. Guts are washed and kept for some time in salt water. Meat and fat are cut in small pieces and mixed. Garlic, pepper and salt are added and all this is mixed again. Then the guts are stuffed, both ends are tied up with a string and they are hung out for 3-4 hours in a cool place. Shuzhuk is smoked during 12-18 hours over dense smoke at the temperature of 50-60 deg. C, then dried at 12deg. C for 2-3 days.

The white horse was also revered by Eurasian shamans, used symbolically as a psychopomp (a means of transport to the other world) in religious rituals. The tribal shaman would use a drum, which he called a “horse,” to reach altered states of consciousness in which he would contact the souls of the dead, in much the same way as Greek souls crossed the river Styx to Hades via Charon’s ferryboat. In my experience, a horse is also a bridge between land and sky. When astride, your body and the horse’s psychically merge, mutually react as one. Between your legs, the warm flesh knots and ripples. Vibrations travel through you, pulsing messages from the land transmitted through the thud of hooves. Together you glide, head in the clouds, ears flattened in the wind, a feeling of weightlessness. It is easy to imagine that you are flying, yet you cannot forget the insistent Earth. Moving this way, it is easy to understand why the horse symbolized what it did to so many native peoples.

In Scandinavian folk culture, the god Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir is said to symbolize a coffin with four pallbearers, and could thus also be considered a psychopomp. The same holds true for the Valkyries, whose mission it was to fetch the souls of those dead who had fallen in battle and transport them on horseback to Valhalla, the place where the souls of dead heroes were believed to go. Horse heads were also impaled on rune-inscribed poles as a curse for enemies. Readers may remember a modern version of this type of practice in the movie The Godfather. Though no one ended up sleepin’ wit da horse, Guido.

Vedic India had a tradition of horse sacrifice, described in the Mahabharata. Here, too, as in Ireland, there is an association with kings. The sacrifice was performed by a king who wished to expand his rule. A special horse would be chosen, and allowed to run free over the king’s neighbors’ lands. If the creature entered a foreign country, its ruler had to make a choice, to surrender to the king or to fight him. The troops would guard and follow the animal, and at the end of the year the horse would be brought back, killed, cooked and offered in sacrifice over a period of three days. This ritual would be accompanied by the preparation of Soma, a famous Indo-Aryan hallucinogenic brew with great spiritual significance in Vedic culture. Following a successful horse sacrifice, the king could then declare himself “universal monarch.”

It is obvious from these examples that the horse had a sacred status in Europe and India at one time, and was eaten more frequently within a ritual context than as a dinner table entree! When the Christians came barging through the door, though, they lost no time outlawing any number of pagan practices, including the eating of horsemeat, although it was important enough to the Icelandics to obtain a concession to continue ponygobbling while negotiating under pressure to convert to the new religion. So it is the double association with pagan practices in Northwestern European cultures, then, that is mostly responsible for the taboo: the ancient pagan taboo against eating horse outside of a ritual context, and layered on top of that the Christian taboo on eating horse at all, because it was a pagan practice, and they wanted to stomp those suckers flat!

Pferdegulasch [Horse Goulash] (Austro-Hungarian Empire)

750 g horsemeat, top round
3 Tblsp oil
4 onions
2 Tblsp flour
15 g tomato pulp
2 red peppers
1 green pepper
150 ml red wine
1 container natural yogurt
½ tsp thyme
salt to taste
pinch of cayenne
½ tsp paprika


Cut the meat into chunks, sprinkle with pepper and paprika and brown in oil. Remove meat with ladle. Peel the onions, then chop and brown them in the remaining oil. Core the red and green peppers, separate, cut in 5-mm-wide strips, add them to the onions and allow to cook. Sprinkle flour over top. Then add the meat, red wine, tomato pulp, thyme and salt and mix everything well. Lower the heat, cook for about 90 more minutes. Fold in yogurt at the end. Horse goulash is preferably served with salt potatoes or brown rice. A variety from Verona can be found at:

The Indian example points up another symbolic dimension of the horse, however: that of “national vital strength,” such as one’s hair would be, “not to be cut or removed, less power be lost.” Perhaps this can be traced back to the days when the Indo-European tongue was spread by nomadic horsemen through military conquest. It may not be too far-fetched to hypothesize, then, the idea that the loss of one’s horses to foreigners is akin to a fear of being culturally vanquished, the equivalent of having an alien Delilah administer a haircut to the collective folk.

Few people can afford to keep horses these days, and they are no longer of use in transportation or war. There is a handful of sporting events, enjoyed by a handful of people, but mostly here the horses are overgrown pets or hobby objects. Wild horses, though, are romanticized as an intrinsic part of the national identity in a number of Western countries. In France, they have the Camargue ponies. In America, they have the wild mustangs, viewed by many as personifying the Spirit of the West. This spirit has been reproducing diligently, to the point that it has come to be seen as a nuisance in some areas. May I suggest a return to pagan practices? Let’s eat our own horses. And let our hair grow out.

Editor’s Note: About a decade ago, I took the opportunity to try some horsemeat sausage being sold at the Weihnachtsmarkt (Yuletide Market) in a quaint German city square. It was delicious, indeed. It is also noteworthy that the butcher offering it was established in 1918, at the end of World War I when acute food shortages made the slaughter of horses a necessity. ~MW

Author’s Note to Editor: also, the bodies of horses were lying around a lot on the battlefields, as well, and rations/food supplies for the soldiers and people in the surrounding communities being what they were…well it was free meat.

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